It’s time for our new weekly miniseries on major college football history for MNC Wednesdays, as we go back and look at Heisman Trophy winners from the past—and whether or not they truly deserved the award. We start in 1956, as that’s the most distant season where we have something resembling full statistics for offensive players.
Our same criteria will apply for these analyses as we use for other sports: The award itself is defined as “most outstanding”—not most valuable. So be it; however, “outstanding” players generally carry a team to a winning record, so that will matter. Also, the level of competition is important, too: a player from a smaller college playing a weaker schedule probably isn’t the most outstanding.
Beyond that, traditional statistics can measure just how outstanding a player truly is against what level of competition and what heights his team achieved with him at the lead of the charge. Common sense matters, obviously, so without any more noise? Here we go.
(By the way, here is our mythical national championship analysis from this season, too, for context.)
1956 Heisman Trophy winner: Paul Hornung, QB, Notre Dame (original); Tommy McDonald, RB, Oklahoma (revised)
It’s ironic we have to start here, as Notre Dame quarterback Paul Hornung somehow won the Heisman vote while leading a team to a 2-8 record—and throwing 13 interceptions, while throwing just 3 touchdowns and running for just six scores. Has there ever been a worse Heisman selection? Probably not. A quick look at the Top 10 vote getters is revealing, too:
- Johnny Majors, Tennessee (10-1): 1,101 total yards for 12 total TDs and 3 INTs
- Tommy McDonald, Oklahoma (10-0): 1,318 total yards for 19 total TDs and 1 INT
- Jim Brown, Syracuse (7-2): 1,118 total yards for 15 total TDs and 0 INTs
- Ken Ploen, Iowa (9-1): 873 total yards for 11 total TDs and 3 INTs
- Jon Arnett, USC (8-2): 796 total yards for 7 total TDs and 1 INT
Those are five guys right there who deserved the Heisman more than Hornung, and that’s just in the voting ranks. What about other players the voters ignored? Seems like there’s only one, really:
- Jim Swink, TCU (8-3): 1,156 total yards with 7 total TDs and 1 INT
So, of these six players, which one was the “most outstanding”? Clearly, it’s McDonald, with the yardage total and the TD count, followed by Brown and then Majors. What about the Oklahoma SOS? Well, it wasn’t stellar, as it cost the Sooners the MNC in our minds, but it was average, generally. Tennessee played a better schedule, as did Syracuse, but neither the Vols nor the Orangemen played a great slate.
Therefore, we see this trophy as rightfully belonging to McDonald. He did it all for the top-scoring offense in the nation, as Oklahoma rolled to a perfect season. The fact that McDonald finished third in the voting is shocking, in truth, since the Associated Press voters loved his team. Were they blinded by Notre Dame charm? McDonald was flat-out robbed here of his rightful honors in college history.
Congratulations to Tommy McDonald, the real Heisman Trophy winner from 1956.