The Heisman: How Paul Hornung won when the Irish couldn’t


Of all the accolades and accomplishments achieved by Hall-of-Famer Paul Hornung at the University of Notre Dame, none was greater than his winning the Heisman Trophy in 1956 … and not because it was the Heisman Trophy.

But because Hornung played on a team that lost a lot more than it won.

True story. The 1956 Fighting Irish were 2-8, beating only Indiana and North Carolina, with Hornung the only Heisman winner to play on a team with a losing record.

But that tells you how talented … and versatile … he was as a football player. In fact, as a senior quarterback he not only led his team in rushing, passing, scoring, punting, kickoff and punt returns but played defense, too — first in passes defensed and second in tackles and interceptions.

“That’s the way I had played football all my life,” Hornung said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast. “I always played on the defensive side of the ball in high school, grade school and all the way back. I don’t ever remember playing the game where I got too much time off on the sidelines. So, by the time I got to Notre Dame, I was well-schooled in all that you had to do playing all those positions.”

Apparently. And he was so good at playing them that, as a junior, he finished fifth in the Heisman voting behind winner Howard Cassady of Ohio State before circling the bases a year later to nose out Johnny Majors and Tommy McDonald.

Majors played for a Tennessee team that was 10-1. McDonald never played in a losing game at Oklahoma. Hornung beat out both, despite starring for a team that barely won.

“It was unusual,” Hornung said. “I had a lot of votes as a junior. I think that helped more than anything. So by the time I got to be a senior I was the favorite. Even though we were 2-8 my senior year I’m kind of proud that nobody else in the history of the Heisman Trophy has won on a record like that.

“I’ve always considered myself a very lucky person as far as winning awards like that with the record we had. So I enjoy it.”

He should. In fact, Hornung said he considers the award his greatest achievement at Notre Dame, where he said his four years were “one of the greatest experiences I ever had.” Hornung is one of seven Heisman Trophy winners from the South Bend school, and the only one anywhere from a 2-8 club.

“If I had not garnered so many votes as a junior I don’t think I would’ve won that trophy,” he said. “But I did, and it was a surprise — a wonderful surprise for me to be on top in the voting as far as the Heisman Trophy was concerned … and off of the worst team as far as record was concerned in the history of the Heisman.

“So that was a very enjoyable trip I had to New York. I took my Mom back to New York, and I think she enjoyed the trip more than I did. I always look back on the Heisman as doing me one great favor in selecting me. It was a tremendous thrill.”

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