On this day in 1956, Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung became the only player to ever win the Heisman Trophy on a losing team. Johnny Majors, an All-American running back on an undefeated Tennessee team, finished second. Thus began the Vol fans tumultuous relationship with college football’s most prestigious award.
Tennessee has never had a Heisman Trophy winner and only two players, Majors and Peyton Manning, who finished second in the race. The first time, Heisman voters chose to break the mold and select a player from a losing team. The second time, voters decided to make Charles Woodson of Michigan the only defensive player to ever receive the Heisman. Tennessee fans’ reaction to Manning’s loss is the stuff of embarrassing lore, but the behavior stemmed from this original insult in 1956.
Notre Dame started the season ranked third in the preseason AP poll. They laid an egg in their opening game, losing 19-13 to Southern Methodist, on their way to a 2-8 season. Their losses included a 28-14 defeat by Purdue, a 47-14 drubbing by Michigan State, a 40-0 shutout by Oklahoma, a 33-7 whooping by Navy and 48-8 slaughter by Iowa.
Today, any player from a team with that resume would be laughed out of the race, but not in 1956. Times were obviously different and when asked about it, Majors always said the Heisman should have gone to Syracuse’s Jim Brown, who finished fifth in the voting (The Heisman would not be awarded to an African-American player until the Orangemen’s Ernie Davis won it in 1961.).
While Tennessee fans’ behavior following Manning’s loss was trashy by all standards, it is important to understand where their frustration began.