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On This Date in Sports December 4, 1956: The Heisman Fiasco

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Paul Hornung of Notre Dame wins the Heisman Trophy, becoming the fifth member of the Fighting Irish to win the award given to the best College Football Player in the nation. The vote may be the most controversial in the history of the Heisman, as Notre Dame had a terrible 2-8 season. Paul Hornung is the only player to win the Heisman from a losing team. Johnny Majors of Tennessee finished second in the vote, while Jim Brown of Syracuse was ignored as few voters at the time considered black players. Brown likely was the most deserving candidate with the most yards per carrying in the NCAA. 

The numbers are staggering and hard to believe, but Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback while throwing three touchdown passes and being picked off 13 times. Notre Dame had a miserable season in 1956, posting a record of 2-8 under coach Terry Brenan, the worst season in the history of the football program in South Bend. Paul Hornung was a good player, perhaps one of the best to ever attend Notre Dame, but the team and the season went sideways, as Hornung rushed for 420 yards while passing for 917 yards. In truth, Paul Hornung was well-liked by the media, earning the nickname "The Golden Boy."

Oklahoma was the top team in the nation in 1956, as they were in the midst of a 47-game winning streak. Running Back Tommy McDonald received the most first-place votes, leading the Sooners with 853 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. However, his vote was split with teammate Terry Tubbs, an offensive lineman who finished fourth in the Heisman vote. Johnny Majors of second-ranked Tennessee finished 72 votes behind Hornung for second in the closest Heisman race in the trophy's first 22 years, a record that would stand until 1985. Majors rushed for 549 yards with seven touchdowns for the Volunteers. 

The best player in the country in 1956 was Jim Brown at Syracuse. Brown rushed for 986 yards in eight games for the Orangemen, setting school records for yards-per-carry. Brown had 13 touchdowns, also kicked field goals and extra points for Syracuse, much like Paul Hornung did for Notre Dame, as Syracuse went 7-1 in the regular season. 

Ultimately, the Heisman vote in 1956 was about bias. Paul Hornung, "The Golden Boy," represented what the voters thought the Heisman winner should look like. He was a star at Notre Dame, the most well-known football program in the NCAA, even if they were 2-8. Johnny Majors would have been a good choice, but the writers were fans of Notre Dame. Tommy McDonald had the first-place vote, with 205 compared to 197 votes for Hornung. However, the quarterback from Notre Dame had considerably more second and third-place votes. Majors had his supporters in the south, but Jim Brown was ignored. Syracuse did not have any games on television, and the writers of the Heisman at the time were not going to give the trophy to an African American, as the civil rights movement was still in its infancy, with many southern schools refusing to play integrated teams.

Jim Brown would go on to a remarkable NFL career, considered to be one of the best ever to play the game. Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times in a nine-year career and retired as the leading rusher in NFL history with 12,312 yards. His 104.3 yards per game is still an NFL record, five yards better than Barry Sanders. Had he not retired to become an actor in 1966, Brown would likely still be the NFL's top rusher. Paul Hornung and Tommy McDonald both had Hall of Fame careers in the NFL, while Johnny Majors later became a top coach in the NCAA, leading Pittsburgh to National Championship in 1976. Jerry Tubbs, meanwhile, played 11 years and was one of the first stars on the Dallas Cowboys when they picked him up in the expansion draft of 1960.