It’s Heisman Trophy season folks. Under most circumstances stances the Heisman Trophy is the culmination of the College Football season. The award nominally goes to the “best” player in the nation and more often than not that means one of two things – either a player who’s sheer overwhelming statistics has captured the collective fascination of the college football world or the QB of that season’s most dominant team. Very rarely does the winner vary from either of those scenarios.
But what if I told you about a Heisman Trophy winner who was the Quarterback back of a middling 2 win 8 loss team? A Quarterback who’s interceptions were 4 times as many as his touchdowns. A Quarterback who’s statistical production was squarely among the most average of college QB’s. How could that player possibly win the most prestigious award in College Football?
The 1956 Notre Dame Fighting Irish entered the season with high hopes. The previous year’s team had gone 8-2 and finished the season ranked #9 in the polls. The Irish were led by Paul Hornung who came in fifth in the 1955 Heisman vote and been fourth in the nation in total yards. Hornung also kicked and played defense as well.
Alas the 1956 Notre Dame football season did not go as planned. The Irish started the season ranked #3 in the polls but preceded to lose their opening game to SMU 13-19 in front of 61,000 screaming Texans. After a bounce back win over Indiana, ND went on a 5 game losing streak, eventually losing 7 of their final 8 games to compile a meager 2-8 record for the season.
And what of the Irish’s returning star, Paul Hornung? Surely he had an impressive statistical year despite the team’s struggles?
Eh not so much.
Playing QB Hornung passed for a paltry 917 yards and 3 touchdowns. While also throwing 13, yes THIRTEEN, interceptions. As a rusher Hornung compiled 420 yards and 6 more touchdowns for a grand total of 1,337 yards and 9 TD’s worth of offensive production. And yes Hornung, the much exalted all-around star also kicked (well punted) and played defensive back where he was second (on his terrible team) in interceptions.
Overall, a fine but not exceptional senior season. A season which would probably get you a few awards at the end of the year team dinner but nothing more, right?
Well as it turns out that middling statistical season on an awful 2-8 team won Paul Hornung the Heisman Trophy!!!!!
Well let’s take a look at the voting breakdown:
Hornung won the trophy by dominating the 2nd and 3rd place votes. In the Heisman voting system a first place vote gets 3 points, second gets 2 and third gets 1. Heisman voters – overwhelmingly media members and writers – cast their ballots by ranking their three top choices. There is no preliminary list, no whittling down of players. Every single college football player in any division, at any level can be voted for.
It’s a system that’s primed, ripe and ready for rigging.
Was the 1956 Heisman vote rigged for Paul Hornung?
Hi-Top Investigations says a resounding YES!
Whoa there, Hi-Top Investigations, that’s a pretty serious accusation. Got any proof?
Let’s start with Mr. Hornung himself. In 1963 Hornung was suspended indefinitely from the NFL for gambling on games and socializing with known “undesirable” individuals. The “indefinite” suspension ended up lasting only 1 year due mostly to the fact that the NFL had to do whatever the hell Vince Lombardi wanted and Lombardi wanted Hornung back on the field.
But facts is facts and the fact is that Paul Hornung was a gambler and a good time Charlie who loved hanging out in Vegas with mobsters. He was a notorious womanizer and booze hound. He was also a horse racing fanatic from Louisville, Kentucky. Connect all those dots and it draws a perfect likeness of Lucky Luciano.
More facts – the mob had their dirty mitts all over college athletics in the 1950s. Point fixing scandals riddled college basketball throughout the decade, so much so that the vaunted Kentucky Wildcats had to suspend their 1952-53 season.
Kentucky. Hmmmm that sounds familiar. Where was Paul Hornung from again? Oh yeah. Kentucky.
So to recap, the mafia and college athletes – unpaid college athletes during a time when even the top players who had a shot at “going pro” would still mean busting your ass selling insurance during the off-season – had a nice cozy relationship at the very time that someone who would later get busted for gambling and cavorting with said mobsters inexplicably won the most prestigious award in College Football.
And remember in the 1950s the NFL was College Football’s little brother. College Football ruled the gridiron landscape back then.
Okay so maybe you’re thinking sure that all lines up nice and neat but hey this is Paul Hornung, the Golden Boy, we’re talking about here. He was a star. Surely there’s a good reason he won. Maybe his stats don’t look great but compared to everyone else he must have been the correct choice.
Well firstly, I’d argue Hornung’s star was shining much brighter in 1955 when he came in fifth. Secondly, let’s take another look at that list of 1956 Heisman Finalists. One name jumps out immediately- Jim Brown. Jim Brown’s vote totals make no sense. He received the fifth most 1st place votes then barely registered in the 2nd and 3rd place tallies. I’ll give you one guess as to what separates Jim Brown from every other finalists. Here’s a hint – he’s the only black player on the list. So let’s chalk that one up to American sports writers being hella racist in 1956.
So that explains why Jim Brown didn’t win. But of all the other white players did Hornung have a season that blew away the rest of the competition?
Not particularly. Hornung’s and second place finisher Johnny Majors had pretty comparable seasons. But the player who really got screwed and should have won (not counting Jim Brown) was Oklahoma Running Back Tommy McDonald who had 1135 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs (far more than Hornung). And oh yeah, Oklahoma won the National Championship in 1956. So we have the best player on the nation’s best team putting up arguably the best stats. Hey wasn’t that the recipe that has won virtually every other Heisman Trophy throughout the years? Yes it certainly was.
And McDonald did win the first place vote. If the voting was straight forward and not weighted McDonald wins. It’s close but he wins. Where McDonald got screwed was again in the second and third place spots.
Second and third place votes were the perfect way to ensure that Hornung would win. Again we are talking about 1956 here when I’m guessing the average sports writer salary was bus fare and a bag of peanuts. Slipping enough guys a hundred bucks to ensure Hornung ends up on everyone’s ballot doesn’t seem like a tough job.
Do we have so-called “irrefutable proof”? Well no but does such a thing even really exist. In this case the circumstantial evidence is more than overwhelming.
The Verdict – The Mafia fixed the 1956 Heisman Trophy for Paul Hornung.