Debates Down South: Was Johnny Majors robbed of the 1956 Heisman Trophy?
Johnny Majors and Tennessee always have and always will go hand in hand. Few people have ever meant more to a university than Majors, both as a player and as a coach. Tennessee isn’t Tennessee without Majors. Period.
In honor of the late Tennessee great, who died last Wednesday at the age of 85, I decided to dig into something that frustrated plenty of Vols fans over the years.
Was Majors robbed of the 1956 Heisman Trophy?
For those who didn’t simply stop reading because you answered “yes” and moved on to another article on this wonderful website, well, thank you. You might learn something today.
The goal is to break down the reasons Paul Hornung won the award and if Majors was the victim of some sort of wrongdoing. That question, believe it or not, is more complicated than one would think.
Let’s get into it.
Why was/is this a debate?
Um, because Hornung’s numbers were horrendous. That’s why.
The Notre Dame star won the Heisman having completed 53% of his passes with a 3-13 touchdown-interception ratio. That’s not a typo. He had a 3-13 TD-INT ratio and won the top individual honor in the sport.
He ran for 420 yards for 6 scores, as well. Hornung threw an interception once every 8.5 passes (Joe Burrow’s career mark was an interception once every 86 passes).
Oh, and that was for a Notre Dame team that was 2-8. That’s not a typo, either. Two wins, 8 losses. No player before Hornung and no player since Hornung won the Heisman while playing for a losing team. Still, Notre Dame had its 5th Heisman winner in a 14-year stretch. But Hornung drew praise because he did it all. He led the Irish in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff/punt returns and punting. He also played defense and had 14 extra points.
Compare that to Majors, who was a do-it-all tailback in the single-wing formation. He passed for 552 yards, he ran for 549 yards, he scored 12 touchdowns and he completed 61% of his 59 pass attempts, which averaged 9.4 yards. And like Hornung, Majors did more than just carry the ball. He was Tennessee’s return man, he could punt and he even played safety in Tennessee’s 6-2-2-1 defense that allowed 7.5 points per regular-season game.
Oh, and Majors was easily the best player on a 10-0 Tennessee squad.
Still, Hornung beat Majors in the Heisman race, which was decided by just 72 points. At the time, it was the 2nd closest Heisman race. Now, it’s No. 7 on the list.
A Tennessee program that’s still without a Heisman Trophy winner 64 years later is still, understandably so, angered by that decision.
What people said at the time
On Oct. 29, 1956, Sports Illustrated ran a cover that featured Hornung. It was everything you can imagine. That is, a glamour shot of the player they called “Golden Boy.”
One year subscription to Sports Illustrated cost $7.50 when Paul Hornung made cover in 1956. pic.twitter.com/fYnJzmpoIv
— rickbozich (@rickbozich) November 22, 2014
Praised for his All-American looks and unselfish attitude, Hornung was a household name by that time. As a junior in 1955, he finished 5th in the Heisman voting.
The Sports Illustrated cover in 1956 was clearly a decision that was made well before Notre Dame started the year 1-4. Two days before that magazine hit the presses, Notre Dame was throttled 40-0 by Oklahoma. That was the same Oklahoma team with running back Tommy McDonald and offensive lineman Jerry Tubbs, who finished No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, in the Heisman that year.
Still, what mattered more for Heisman voters was not the fact that Notre Dame was in the midst of a 5-game losing streak in which it was outscored 174-48. It was that in the regular-season finale, Hornung scored all 20 of the Irish’s points in a loss AT USC. “At” is capitalized for a reason — Hornung won over the West Coast voters. That was, as you could probably guess, another Notre Dame loss.
Yet when the Heisman Trophy votes came in shortly thereafter, here was the final breakdown of the top 5 (total votes):
- Paul Hornung, Notre Dame (1,066)
- Johnny Majors, Tennessee (994)
- Tommy McDonald, Oklahoma (973)
- Jerry Tubbs, Oklahoma (724)
- Jim Brown, Syracuse (561)
One would think that finishing 2nd to a winner with the credentials of Hornung would have upset Majors. He took a different approach.
Johnny Majors, who finished second to Paul Hornung for the Heisman Trophy in 1956, was often asked who SHOULD have won the award.
Brown finished fifth in the Heisman Voting behind Hornung, Majors, Tommy McDonald, and Jerry Tubbs.
— Tony Barnhart (@MrCFB) June 3, 2020
You don’t need to think very hard about why someone like Majors felt the No. 5 finisher was robbed of a Heisman. Race. At a time when only about 1/3 of the schools we consider to be Power 5 programs today had broken the color barrier, Brown wasn’t going to win a national voting award.
The SEC was still 11 years from Nate Northington breaking the conference’s color barrier at Kentucky. Lester McClain broke Tennessee’s color barrier when he suited up for the Vols’ varsity squad in 1968.
After Brown’s 5th-place finish in 1956, it would be another 5 years before fellow Syracuse running back Ernie Davis became the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy. The irony is that if you compare Brown’s Heisman-worthy season to Davis’, one would be fooled by who broke through and won the Heisman:
And for what it’s worth, Brown’s accomplishments came in 8 games compared to 10 for Davis. One could argue that if not for Brown’s 1956 season, Davis wouldn’t have had enough eyes on him to win the Heisman in 1961, which is still an amazing feat to think about with how regional the sport was.
But as for Brown not winning in 1956, it prompted some passionate reactions. Legendary sports writer Dick Schaap was one of Brown’s 118 first-place votes (McDonald actually beat Hornung and Majors in that category with 205). After seeing the final tally that only had Brown 5th, Schaap boycotted voting for the Heisman.
It’s interesting, though, because the Heisman debate over the years seems mostly about Majors vs. Hornung. Last August, ESPN’s College GameDay crew was asked to rank their best players to never win the Heisman. Here’s what they came up with:
Who are the best college players you ever saw that didn’t win a Heisman? 🤔
Our experts gave their answers: pic.twitter.com/tsq6epc0cz
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) August 1, 2019
You’ll notice that Rece Davis gave Majors love, yet nobody had Brown. I find that interesting considering just a few months later when ESPN put together its list of the top 150 players in college football history, Brown was ranked No. 1. I won’t dig into how ridiculous it was that they decided 75 players in college football history were better than Tim Tebow, but I’ll instead ask the simple question.
Why isn’t this debate more Hornung vs. Majors AND Brown? Today, it will be.
On that same ESPN top 150 ranking, it listed Hornung as the No. 27 player while Majors was left off completely. But Majors did at least make the cut in explaining why Hornung won the 1956 Heisman:
“Hornung won because Syracuse back Jim Brown was ignored by prejudiced voters, because Tennessee back Johnny Majors got injured late in the season, and because Oklahoma end Tommy McDonald and lineman Jerry Tubbs cannibalized each other’s votes.”
Ah, let’s talk about Majors getting hurt. He was actually hurt in Week 2 against Duke. Majors dealt with a banged up shoulder throughout that season, which should make his accomplishments all the more impressive. That’s noteworthy because Majors sat against Chattanooga and his only play against UNC — which was 1 of 2 teams that Hornung’s Irish beat all year — was a punt.
In other words, Majors and Brown were limited to essentially 8 regular-season games while Hornung had 10.
File that one away for later.
The worst take you can have about this debate
“Paul Hornung deserved to win the Heisman because he did everything.”
Um, news flash. So did Majors.
If you’re going to praise a player on a 2-8 team for throwing, running, kicking, punting, returning and tackling, well, it only seems fair to do it for the player who did that for the 10-0 team. It’s worth mentioning again that Majors was the ideal 20th century “triple threat.” He ran, he threw and he punted/kicked. He could also block as the single wing tailback, which is saying a lot about a guy who weighed 165 pounds.
And this is worth repeating. Majors was also a safety for a Tennessee team that allowed just 7.5 points per game compared to a Notre Dame squad that surrendered 28.9 points per contest.
Why else is that a horrendous take? Because like Majors, Brown also did everything for Syracuse.
Besides the fact that he had 10 varsity letters in 4 (!) sports — some say he’s the best lacrosse player to ever live — Brown also played both ways and had 3 interceptions as a senior. On top of that, he was an ace kick returner and he was the team’s placekicker. In Brown’s pre-Heisman game against Colgate, he set an NCAA record with 43 total points. That day, he scored 6 touchdowns and he kicked 7 extra points.
Nobody is denying how valuable Hornung was for Notre Dame. Without him, that’s probably an 0-10 team instead of a 2-8 team. Stunning, I know.
Take Majors off Tennessee’s roster or take Brown off Syracuse’s roster. Do those teams earn top-10 rankings? No chance. When Majors was out against Chattanooga, the Vols had their worst defensive performance of the year and without him as the single wing tailback against UNC, they were held to their 2nd-worst offensive performance of the regular season (it helped that UNC was a 2-win team like Notre Dame).
In the modern sense, it probably helped Hornung’s case as “Mr. Versatility” because the award for the nation’s most versatile player is literally named after him. Anybody can point to that and claim that you had to look beyond Hornung’s poor offensive numbers because he basically never left the field. But if we’re comparing Hornung specifically to Majors and Brown, the argument falls flat on a count of them being every bit as versatile as him.
What I didn’t know/forgot about until researching this debate
Call me ignorant, but I forgot that they gave the Heisman to a guy who played for a 2-8 team. How?
Yeah, I’m mad online about something that happened before both of my parents were born. So what.
It’s interesting that last week in Debates Down South, I looked at the SEC’s most disappointing teams of the 21st century. I decided between 2000 Alabama and 2005 Tennessee, both of which started at No. 3 in the country and missed a bowl game. What did 1956 Notre Dame do? Started at No. 3 and missed a bowl game.
Meanwhile, Tennessee and Syracuse started that year unranked. It didn’t matter that Majors was fresh off his SEC Player of the Year season in 1955, or that Brown earned All-America honors in the previous year. Neither got preseason love like Notre Dame, and they sure as heck didn’t get a midseason Sports Illustrated cover like Hornung (Brown didn’t make the cover until 1960 when he was well established in the NFL).
I assumed before reaching this that Hornung had the court of public opinion on his side. I didn’t realize just how steep of a climb that was for Majors and Brown, though.
Another thing I didn’t forgot? That Majors didn’t even sniff the NFL. Like, 360 players came off the board in the 1957 NFL Draft and Majors wasn’t one of them. The guy who just showed everyone that he could play virtually any non-lineman position at Tennessee couldn’t even get a bite in the NFL because he was only 165 pounds. After a brief stint in the CFL, Majors’ legendary coaching career began.
It’s a good thing that happened because you won’t find many coaching trees as deep as the one Majors developed over his Hall of Fame career. Here are just a few of the 33 (!) people who went on to become head coaches after working on Majors’ staffs:
- Jimmy Johnson
- Jon Gruden
- Jackie Sherrill
- Phillip Fulmer
- David Cutcliffe
- Dom Capers
- Lovie Smith
- Ron Zook
- Kevin Steele
Call that a blessing in disguise that Majors never got to play in the NFL.
Where do I stand on this debate?
Let’s get something out of the way. Hornung wouldn’t have made the top 3 of my ballot that year. Majors, Brown and McDonald were all more worthy, and frankly, I’m not sure that’s really debatable.
Before I tell you who would have topped my ballot, I think it’s important to mention why race dynamics played a part in not just Brown’s case, but also Majors’ case.
Remember that this is at a time when you had schools like Georgia Tech that refused to host black players in their stadium like when the integrated Irish had to play their matchup in South Bend in 1953. Georgia Tech was actually at the center of the Sugar Bowl controversy in 1955 when Pitt’s Bobby Grier became the first black player to play in the bowl game. In the 1956 season, we were still 7 years from Maryland’s Darryl Hill becoming the first black player to play for a program located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. We were also still 11 years from breaking the color barrier in the SEC and 12 years away from breaking the color barrier at Tennessee.
Regionalization was brutal for Brown, and it was brutal for Majors. Notre Dame, on the other hand, played a true national schedule. The Irish had road games at SMU (in Dallas), Navy (in Baltimore), Pitt, Iowa and USC. The Irish had a national brand and could play in any region of the country (they played at Miami and at UNC a year earlier).
Brown’s Syracuse squad didn’t play outside the Northeast in 1956, and Majors’ Tennessee squad never played outside the Southeast. Neither player had a road trip more than 5 hours and 45 minutes (based on current roads).
Now remember that both guys started the year on unranked teams, and they basically had 8 games of box scores to convince the masses that they were deserving of winning a national award. Majors nearly did that. Maybe if he had ended his regular season with a West Coast game against USC instead of Hornung, he would have won the award. It was different from 1942 when Frank Sinkwich won the award for Georgia because none of his competition played a national schedule, either (the Dawgs did travel to Cincinnati that year).
OK, I bring that up because at a time when national TV games were few and far between, exposure was limited. Exposure was even less limited for teams that, for one reason or another, didn’t leave their region of the country.
Having said that, yes, this should have come down to Majors vs. Brown. Like Majors, I would have given the Heisman to Brown. Barely. And I mean barely.
I could point to a few things. There’s the fact that Brown faced twice as many top-25 opponents as Majors (4-2), or the fact that Brown had Majors beat in yards per carry (6.2-5.1), scrimmage yards (1,118 to 1,101) and touchdowns (15-12). And there’s also the fact that tackling Brown seemed like a foolish, unrewarding endeavor:
Try bringing down Syracuse RB Jim Brown…good grief. Had Archbold Stadium rocking.
(🎥 : Pocky Candy Highlights) pic.twitter.com/h96Y0JFb4P
— Matthew Gutierrez (@MatthewGut21) March 25, 2020
Defensively, Browns even had 3 interceptions that year, which was more than Majors had (2) in his college career.
The only thing that Majors was more proven in was passing. Because Majors took the direct snap in the single wing formation, he attempted 59 passes that year compared to the 4 that Brown had (he completed 3 for 76 yards and 1 went for a touchdown). Based on the 8 games he legitimately played in, Majors averaged 7.4 pass attempts and 4.5 completions per game compared to 0.4 completions per game for Brown. Did 4.1 more completions per game show that Majors was decidedly better than Brown in 1956? I don’t think so.
And if we’re going to say that Troy Smith didn’t deserve to win the 2006 Heisman over Darren McFadden because of team success, I certainly don’t think Brown’s 7-1 mark made him unworthy of the Heisman just because Majors’ squad was unbeaten in the regular season.
But here’s the thing. There are 2 things that I believe whole-heartedly as it relates to this discussion.
One is that if Hornung was black, there’s a 0.0% chance that a black player from a 2-8 team would have won the Heisman. He wouldn’t have had the Sports Illustrated cover and there’s no way he would have been nicknamed “Golden Boy.”
And the other thing I believe is really the trump card — Brown would have won the Heisman if he were white. I have zero doubt that he would have been held in a much higher regard. Or rather, like the regard he’s held in today, wherein 64 years after he finished 5th in the Heisman, he was voted No. 1 among every college football player who existed in the 150 years that came before him.
Majors recognized that. He recognized that as someone who was dealt one of the rawest deals ever for a runner-up. Hornung didn’t deserve to beat out Majors, no matter where his games were played. That much we know.
The 1956 Heisman should always be remembered for its great injustice. Just remember what the greatest injustice was.
Photo credit: Tennessee Football