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The Heisman Trophy is supposed to go to college football’s best player, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
From the time Yale end Larry Kelley won the second-ever Heisman Trophy in 1936, there has been controversy. The discussions and different opinions on who should have won are part of the fun of college football.
Sometimes, the results have been outright thievery. Other years, there was simply somebody more deserving than the winner.
Disagreement is inevitable again this year in a close race that features Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray and Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
Though Tagovailoa led for a big swath of the season, the other two came on late and put up huge numbers.
Everybody has an opinion, but few get to vote. That leads to much discussion, much as is the case with the College Football Playoff and every other thing we vote on in life. You’re welcome to share your opinions in the comments section.
Let’s take a look at 10 Heisman Trophy winners who shouldn’t have taken home the award.
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Paul Hornung was a brilliant all-around player who could do everything and basically did for Notre Dame throughout his career.
He excelled in all facets of the game in 1956. He thrived at quarterback and also played defense, leading his team in passes broken up and ranking second in interceptions and tackles made. The thing about the “Golden Boy,” though, is that he was good at a lot of things and not great at any.
He played for the 2-8 Fighting Irish, becoming the only player to win a Heisman Trophy on a losing team. Hornung tossed just three touchdowns and 13 interceptions but led the Fighting Irish in rushing, scoring and various kicking categories.
Giving him the award wouldn’t have been such a travesty if not for the seasons Syracuse’s Jim Brown and Tennessee’s Johnny Majors had. Majors outrushed Hornung by 129 yards and threw five touchdowns to just three interceptions for a 10-1 Vols team; he was the runner-up for the trophy.
Then there was the legendary Brown over at Syracuse, who rushed for 986 yards on a 6.2 average and 13 touchdowns. Syracuse was 7-2, but Brown finished fifth in the Heisman voting, and no black player won the award until Ernie Davis in 1961.
As noted by ESPN.com’s Steve Delsohn, who co-wrote Brown’s autobiography (h/t SB Nation): “Hornung didn’t deserve it; not with three touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, and not on a 2-8 team. The Heisman should have gone to Jim Brown. But, in 1956, Jim Brown had the wrong skin color.”
Either Majors or Brown would have been a more worthy candidate.
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BOB DAUGHERTY/Associated Press
Gary Beban is the only UCLA player to ever win the Heisman Trophy, which is hard to believe for such a historic, proud program.
When you consider the decorated history of the crosstown rival USC Trojans, it’s clear UCLA’s deficiency in Heismans isn’t because voters spurn the area.
Ironically, the year Beban won the Heisman in 1967, it probably should have gone to a Trojan: running back O.J. Simpson. Yes, Simpson has become a notorious figure, and yes, Simpson won his own Heisman in 1968, but he should have gone back-to-back.
This one’s more about what Simpson did than what Beban didn’t.
“Beban’s passing statistics that season—1,359 yards and eight touchdowns—might constitute a nice four-game stretch for an elite quarterback today, but his value to the Bruins was immeasurable,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Ben Bolch. “Sports Illustrated described him as a rollout passer who could run like an All-American halfback, and he finished the season with 11 rushing touchdowns.”
UCLA played USC late that year in what many called the de facto national championship. Beban played hurt after the previous week’s win against Washington and threw for 301 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, according to Bolch. But Simpson’s 64-yard touchdown run helped the Trojans to a 21-20 win.
The Bruins lost the next week to Syracuse, and legendary sportswriter Jim Murray opined (h/t Bolch): “If Gary Beban wins the Heisman Trophy, they ought to fill it with aspirin.”
Simpson, meanwhile, played for the national champions and finished with 1,543 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
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Archie Griffin became the first-ever college football player to win consecutive Heisman Trophies in 1974 and ’75, but he shouldn’t have. Though he was deserving as a junior the first season, his numbers were down considerably the next year.
There’s no denying the legendary Ohio State running back’s greatness. He was fifth in the running as a sophomore in 1973, rushing for 1,577 yards and seven scores. When he won in 1974, he had 1,695 yards and 12 scores.
But in 1975, the year in question, he had 1,450 yards and just four touchdowns for the fourth-ranked Buckeyes.
The real winner should have been USC’s Ricky Bell, who shockingly finished third despite churning out 1,957 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns along with another receiving score. The Trojans weren’t as good as OSU, but Bell was by far the nation’s best player.
Bell added 1,433 yards and 14 scores the next year but again failed to win the award, finishing second to Tony Dorsett, who had an amazing season while leading Pittsburgh to the national title.
California’s Chuck Muncie, meanwhile, finished with 1,460 rushing yards in 1975 but scored 13 times on the ground and twice more through the air while adding 392 receiving yards for the 8-3 Bears.
For good measure, Dorsett (the fourth-place finisher in 1975) could have become a back-to-back winner instead. He also had better numbers than Griffin in 1975 before winning the next year. The Panthers runner finished with 1,686 yards and 13 scores and added three receiving touchdowns.
It’s hard to knock Griffin, though. He’s a great man who has been a widely respected character since his days at OSU. His selfless attitude was written up by ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel, who noted Griffin voted for quarterback Cornelius Greene as the Buckeyes’ team MVP in 1975.
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In 1992, Miami ripped through much of the season before getting dominated by Alabama in the national championship game. In that season finale, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Gino Torretta had a forgettable performance.
It was a glimpse of how Torretta was a good, but not elite, player.
That’s why he never should have won the Heisman Trophy that season.
The Hurricanes quarterback position had been a hotbed for talent in recent years with Jim Kelly, Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, Bernie Kosar, Craig Erickson and others. Torretta came off the bench in 1989 to led the ‘Canes in Erickson’s absence due to injury and had a great career afterward.
In ’92, Torretta threw for 3,060 yards but just 19 scoring tosses in leading Miami to yet another undefeated regular season. The Hurricanes were loaded, as evidenced by their 29 consecutive wins, 23 of those with Torretta as the starter.
But he wasn’t college football’s best player.
Torretta should have finished second to San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk, who finished with 1,630 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. It was standard fare for Faulk not to win; he posted three immaculate seasons for the Aztecs but never broke through.
There’s nothing wrong with Torretta’s season or his career, but if you want to give it to the best player, that was Faulk in 1992. History has proved he was a pretty good pro too. Faulk was emotional that day, and many believed he’d been snubbed.
“I think the best college football team won today,” SDSU coach Al Luginbill told the Los Angeles Times‘ Scott Howard-Cooper.
Faulk’s ridiculous numbers came even though he missed two games with a sprained knee. Unfortunately for him, one of those was a showdown against Torretta’s ‘Canes, which could have swayed voters.
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Back in 2001, there was a popular joke going around that Eric Crouch won the Heisman Trophy that Tommie Frazier should have in 1995.
Though Crouch had an excellent dual-threat season for the Cornhuskers, he should not have gone home with the award from the Downtown Athletic Club. Instead, it should have gone to Florida’s Rex Grossman.
Both were system quarterbacks, of course. Crouch was part of the famed Nebraska triple-option, while Grossman was a product of Steve Spurrier‘s Fun ‘N’ Gun. Both had good seasons, but Grossman’s was better.
Crouch threw for 1,510 yards while rushing for a career-high 1,115 yards with 18 touchdowns. Through the air, he completed seven scoring tosses but threw 10 interceptions.
Grossman, meanwhile, completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,896 yards, 34 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a sophomore.
The Gators finished third nationally and looked well on their way to playing for the national championship before an end-of-season loss to Tennessee that had been rescheduled due to the September 11 attacks. Miami went on to win the national title that year, and it would have been a fun matchup to watch that offense against Florida’s.
For that matter, Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey could have won too, but he was a game manager much the way Gino Torretta was, tossing 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Still, Crouch got the nod for the eighth-ranked Cornhuskers, and though it wasn’t a bad pick, Grossman made much more sense.
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The best college football program in the history of the sport didn’t boast a Heisman Trophy winner until 2009.
While Alabama finally broke through with a winner that year in running back Mark Ingram, it should have been somebody else.
Looking back, Ingram was the first of the Nick Saban-coached stars whose numbers suffered because of the sheer volume of talent around him. It’s arguable that in that season, Ingram wasn’t even the best running back on the national champion Crimson Tide. That may have been Trent Richardson.
But Ingram had a strong sophomore year, rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns and catching 32 passes for 334 yards and three scores. Richardson added 751 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman. Ingram even won the Offensive MVP award in the BCS title game.
The only rub is Stanford’s Toby Gerhart played the same position, was two years older and posted much better numbers that year for the Cardinal. In his senior season, he finished with 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns. Yet Ingram edged him out in the closest vote ever.
Perhaps the issue, much like Marshall Faulk at San Diego State, was that even though Gerhart had big numbers, he played for a mediocre team. The Cardinal went 8-5 that year, though it was in the Power Five’s Pac-12.
As well, for the first time in years, an argument could have been made for a defensive player. Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh had 85 tackles, including 20.5 for a loss, 12 sacks and an interception, finishing fourth in the voting.
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Adam Nadel/Associated Press
By the time Peyton Manning reached his senior season at Tennessee, he was already experiencing media saturation.
He was the poster child for everything that was right for college football, posting huge numbers and electing to return to Knoxville for his senior season to soak up one more year of the college experience.
Manning was expected to win the Heisman Trophy in 1997, so the national story became about who could beat him for it.
That wound up being brilliant Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson, who became the first defensive player to win the award, edging out Manning. Woodson had a great NFL career and even had a strong junior season for Michigan in winning the Heisman, but he didn’t deserve college football’s top award.
When Manning didn’t win, ESPN analyst Chris Fowler said it set off a “trailer park frenzy” in Tennessee. It should have.
Woodson did have a punt return for a touchdown, and he had seven interceptions. He also had 43 tackles and caught 11 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns. Those are solid numbers, especially on a team that claimed a share of the national title. But they aren’t Heisman-worthy numbers.
Manning, meanwhile, completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,819 yards, 36 touchdowns and 11 interceptions for the SEC champion Vols, who lost to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl as Manning battled knee bursitis.
Manning wound up going first overall in the 1998 NFL draft and became one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time and a star off the field. Woodson had a great career too, but his Heisman Trophy belongs to Manning.
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John Swart/Associated Press
Notre Dame has no shortage of Heisman Trophy winners, so it’s not a big deal the Fighting Irish have a pair of players on this list. But one who shouldn’t have won the award was receiver Tim Brown in 1987.
Take into consideration that the player who won college football’s most prestigious individual award had just 39 catches for 846 yards and three touchdowns.
The runner-up was Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson, who threw for 2,341 yards, 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also ran for five touchdowns in leading the Orange to their first undefeated season since 1959, but he didn’t have a great numbers year either.
What were the voters thinking that season?
They were thinking about Brown; as a junior, he’d returned a punt to set up the Irish for a go-ahead score to beat USC at the end of the 1986 season. That anointed him the favorite for the award in 1987 despite a so-so season. He did have a pair of punt-return touchdowns against Michigan State.
If you aren’t going to give the quarterback-dominated award to McPherson, who sat at the helm of an undefeated team, there were a trio of running backs who would have been worthy recipients.
Lorenzo White (Michigan State) and Craig Heyward (Pittsburgh) racked up 1,572 and 1,791 rushing yards, respectively, but neither eclipsed five yards per carry. White’s 16 touchdowns should have warranted him more consideration.
But what about Oklahoma State’s Thurman Thomas? He finished seventh in the voting despite running for 1,613 yards and 17 touchdowns on a 6.4 average. That’s the 11th-ranked Cowboys in a strong Big Eight conference. Thomas also did that with Barry Sanders in the same backfield.
How did he not get more love?
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SUE OGROCKI/Associated Press
One of the most puzzling results of voting for the Heisman Trophy came in 2003 when Oklahoma quarterback Jason White won the award because, like Gino Torretta, he was the leader of a great team.
There’s no doubt the Sooners were a quality team. Despite losing the Big 12 Championship Game, they played for the national championship in a 21-14 defeat to LSU. White didn’t fare well in either of those losses, yet he still won the Heisman Trophy after the Big 12 title game.
In those two losses, White threw for 400 total yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions.
It’s clear looking back the award that year should have gone to either Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald or Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning. They finished second and third, respectively, in the voting, had arguably better seasons and wound up having much better pro careers.
White was one of the first Big 12-assisted passers, inflating his numbers against struggling secondaries. He finished with 3,846 yards and 40 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. That is definitely worthy of consideration.
Manning played in the SEC and took Ole Miss to new heights, throwing for 3,600 yards, 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and a No. 13 ranking.
But it was Fitzgerald who truly shined. Take into consideration Tim Brown’s numbers in the previous slide. Fitzgerald didn’t play for a pass-happy program at Pittsburgh, yet he finished with 92 catches for 1,672 yards and an amazing 22 touchdowns.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook voted for White, saying: “He touched the ball on every play, had 40 touchdowns and eight interceptions at the time of the voting and led his team to the national championship game. Fitzgerald touched the ball an average of 7.25 times and played on a four-loss Pitt team that was going to the Continental Bowl.”
But White wasn’t the best player, and he didn’t have the best season. Cook is wrong, and so were the Heisman voters.
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Richard Drew/Associated Press
George Rogers had a terrific season for South Carolina in 1980, rushing for 1,781 yards and 14 touchdowns in winning the Heisman Trophy.
As we’ve mentioned before, while winning the award shouldn’t be about the best player on the best team, when it all comes together the way it should have in ’80, it’s the perfect description of a snub.
Rogers perhaps won the award on an 8-4 team because he’d been consistently good for the Gamecocks. But Herschel Walker was a one-man wrecking crew for a national championship team as a true freshman.
Vince Dooley’s Bulldogs won the national title in ’80 with a spotless 12-0 record, and quarterback Buck Belue completed just 77 passes the entire season. Walker ran for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns, and Dooley consistently rode his first-year phenom in a championship season.
The signature play came when Walker bowled over Tennessee second-team All-SEC defensive back and future Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Bill Bates near the goal line, heading in for a touchdown.
The play prompted legendary Georgia play-by-play announcer Larry Munson to proclaim: “He’s running over people! Oh you, Herschel Walker. My God almighty, he ran right through two men. Herschel ran right over two men. They had him dead-away inside the 9. … He drove right over orange shirts, just driving and running with those big thighs. My God, a freshman.”
Unbelievably that year, Walker didn’t even finish second. That distinction went to Pitt defensive end Hugh Green, who also had a big year. Nothing against a quality season from Rogers, but Walker was the country’s best player who happened to play for the best team too.
He should have won.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.