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Syracuse Football & The Case For More Heisman Trophy Winners

Syracuse and Notre Dame has a dubious connection when it comes to Heisman Trophies that they've won...and probably shouldn't have.

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When the Syracuse Orange take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend, it'll only be the seventh time the two schools have met. Still, there's actually a lot of ways in which the programs overlap and intertwine in college football history. One such area is in the world of Heisman Trophies. Not that Syracuse can match Notre Dame in that department, we have one to their seven. However, Orange fans will be the first to tell you that there's a strong case to be made that the count should actually be three to five.

This excerpt from 100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Scott Pitoniak is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information, please visit"


The Heisman Trophy won by Ernie Davis in 1961 is prominently displayed in the Iocolano-Petty Football Complex adjacent to Manley Field House on SU's South Campus. There are those who believe there should be at least two more Heismans residing there -- one bearing the name of Jim Brown and the other the name of Don McPherson.

Not only didn't Brown win the award in 1956, he somehow finished fifth in the balloting. That election remains one of the most controversial in the 80-year history of the Heisman for a number of reasons. Notre Dame's Paul Hornung wound up winning the trophy, despite playing for a 2-8 football team. Johnny Majors, who led Tennessee to a 10-0 record, finished second, followed by Oklahoma's Tommy McDonald and Jerry Tubbs, who finished three and four, respectively.

Hornung was clearly a superb all-around player, but his achievements in the autumn of '56 were dwarfed by Brown's. Hornung played quarterback of offense and in the secondary on defense. He also kicked extra points and returned kickoffs. That season, he rushed for 420 yards and six touchdowns. He completed 53 percent of his passes (59-of-111) for 917 yards and three scores, but he also threw 13 interceptions. He had three receptions for 26 yards and had a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown vs. USC. Defensively, he finished second on the team in tackles and interceptions (3).

Contrast those stats with Brown, who was also a two-way player who handled the kicking chores. Brown rushed for 960 yards, which was third-best in the nation. (It should be noted he played in one less game than the two players who finished ahead of him.) He led the nation with 13 rushing touchdowns. Brown also had five receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown. He completed 3-of-4 passes for 76 yards and one score, and he kicked 31 extra points for a total of 105 points. As a linebacker, he was second on the team in interceptions (3), and although there aren't tackle figures available, he made several key stops, including three at the goal line to preserve a 7-0 victory vs. Army. Additionally, he set an NCAA record that season by scoring 43 points in a single game vs. Colgate.

Theories abound for Brown's poor showing in the balloting. Some say it reflected the low esteem in which Syracuse and Eastern football was held. Some say it was an indictment of SU's schedule, which was weaker than Notre Dame's. "What voters failed to take into account is that Jim Brown single-handedly made Syracuse football relevant again," said Jim Ridlon, a teammate of Brown's in football and lacrosse who went on to play several seasons in the NFL. "Without Jim, we would have been lucky to win two or three games. With him, we became a bowl team back in a time where there were only four or five bowls."

Others believe racial prejudice played a significant role. "Hornung didn't deserve it; not with three touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, and not on a 2-8 team," wrote Steve Delsohn of, who co-wrote Jim Brown's best-selling autobiography, Out of Bounds. "The Heisman should have gone to Jim Brown. But, in 1956, Jim Brown had the wrong skin color."

Dick Schapp agreed with that assessment. He was an assistant sports editor at Newsweek at the time and cast his first-place vote for Brown. "At that time, no black athlete had ever received the Heisman, and I swore that I would never vote again," he wrote. "I waited a quarter of a century -- till I voted for Marcus Allen in 1981. Times had changed. Allen's Heisman was the eighth in a row for a black running back."

Race clearly was not an issue in 1987 because both McPherson and the man who beat him out -- Notre Dame's Tim Brown -- were African-American. In the Hornung election, many criticized the voters' infatuation with Irish football. Similar complaints were lodged 31 years later. Like Hornung, Brown was a superb all-around player, though his primary position was wide receiver. That year, for a Notre Dame team that went 8-4, he caught 39 passes for 846 yards and three touchdowns, rushed 34 times for 144 yards and one score, and returned three punts for touchdowns.

McPherson, meanwhile, played at the most influential position on the field -- quarterback -- and he guided the Orangemen to an 11-0 record, an improvement of six wins from the year before. He also led the nation in passing efficiency, completing 56 percent of his throws for 2,341 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was picked off just 11 times. He also rushed for 230 yards and five touchdowns, and he even caught a seven-yard touchdown pass. His statistics, though excellent, might have been even gaudier had he played more, but he often left games by the end of the third quarter because the Orangemen were usually so far ahead.

"The argument I would make is that if you took Don McPherson and his stats and his won-lost record from that year and put him in a Notre Dame uniform, he would have won by one of the biggest landslides in Heisman Trophy history," said Daryl Johnston, who played fullback on SU's 1987 team and went on to win three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a respected NFL analyst. "Conversely, if you took Tim Brown's stats and his team's record and put him in a Syracuse uniform that year, he probably wouldn't receive many votes. That's by no means a condemnation of Brown -- he was a great player. It's just meant to illustrate the politics involved."

In the history of the Heisman voting, three other Orangemen cracked the top five. Floyd Little finished fifth both in 1965 and 1966, and when you add punt return and kickoff return skills to his running back skills, you could make an argument for him, too. Fullback Larry Csonka finished fourth in 1967, and quarterback Donovan McNabb finished fifth in 1998.


Excerpt from 100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Scott Pitoniak.