#9 Paul Hornung, QB 1953-1956
Paul Hornung was a legendary schoolboy athlete at Flaget High in Louisville. Hornung eventually became a member of the High School Hall of Fame.
Hornung’s Recruitment: Frank Leahy vs. Bear Bryant
Frank Leahy was in his twilight when Hornung’s recruitment began. Hornung, along with Flaget High teammate Sherrill Sipes, came up on a recruiting visit for the 1952 USC game. But when the two returned home, the continued aggressive recruiting of the University of Kentucky, just down the road, accelerated. The Wildcats had an aggressive young coach who wanted to “build a fence around Louisville.” He thought he could out-recruit Notre Dame and Leahy. You might have heard of the Kentucky coach, one Paul “Bear” Bryant of Moro Bottom, Arkansas. He and his staff were all over Hornung and Sipes, Yankees, and Catholic Yankees, be damned.
Hornung, with his buddy Sipes, made only one more visit to Notre Dame in the Spring of 1953. Frank Leahy was preparing for what would be his final season coaching his beloved Fighting Irish. They say in sales that a key aspect is “when I believe I am believed.”
Leahy knew a bit about coaching up America’s best players. He calmly looked Hornung in the eye and told young Paul that he thought he could become the best football player in America if he came to Notre Dame. That cinched it for Hornung, and his buddy Sherrill Sipes. The coach at Kentucky, young Bryant, was stung by the recruiting loss. He was astounded that he was outcoached, outclassed and outrecruited by Leahy. Bryant’s first loss to Notre Dame was not recorded in the coaching records, but in the recruiting ranks. Bryant would find time later, after he took the circuitous route from Lexington to College Station to Tuscaloosa, to lose the ONLY four games he ever played against Notre Dame.
Hornung was a frosh in ’53, Leahy’s last year when John Lattner won the Heisman.
The Gathering Storm Under Brennan
Hornung would be coached by Terry Brennan after Leahy’s departure. Hornung was a powerful back who had all the talent that Leahy envisioned. He was 6’2″ 215 lbs.
Hornung was also something that was cherished in that era: “A triple threat” He could run, pass and KICK. As a runner, it was Hornung who would later become the ballcarrier in the terrifying Packer power sweep, the pride and joy of Vince Lombardi, a guy who played for Fordham’s seven blocks of Granite under line coach Frank Leahy. Hornung ran the ball on the power sweep, while the fierce Jim Taylor was another blocker in the devastating phalanx.
Hornung was an accomplished placekicker, whose pro scoring totals were elevated by kicking 66 field goals and 190 PATS with the Packers.
Hornung was a bit of a free spirit, a playboy type whose off field escapades stood out in the sleepy hamlets of South Bend early, and Green Bay later.
An outstanding all-around athlete who played quarterback, left halfback, fullback and safety, Hornung remains the only player from a losing team (Notre Dame finished 2-8 in ’56) ever to win the Heisman Trophy.
Excellent and Versatility
As a sophomore, Hornung served as the backup fullback and also averaged 6.1 points per contest while earning a basketball monogram.
As a junior, he finished fourth nationally in total offense with 1,215 yards and fifth in the Heisman voting behind Ohio State’s Hopalong Cassady. Hornung ran for one score, threw for another and intercepted two passes in a victory over fourth-ranked Navy and then brought the Irish from behind against Iowa with a TD pass and game-winning field goal in the final minutes. In a loss to USC, he threw and ran for 354 yards, an NCAA high that year.
But as Hornung was rising, Notre Dame was falling. Notre Dame’s hubris led it to believe that young Terry Brennan, fresh from the high school ranks in Chicago’s vaunted Catholic League could maintain Leahy’s momentum. Hogwash and Hubris!
Brennan went 9-1 and 8-2 in his first two years, but the Leahy effect was about to wear off as the ’56 season approached.
Hornung was personable, dashing, the “Golden Boy.” He played in the era before face masks, even the primitive one bar styles, and always flashed a winning smile, even in the midst of gridiron battle. The optics were perfect for Hornung.
Hornung did it all in ’56, completing 59 Passes for 917 yards and 3 TDs, running 94 times for 420 yards, intercepting two passes, catching three passes, averaging 15 yards per punt return and 30 yards per kickoff return, all while completing the “triple threat” by handling punting and placekicking duties. As a senior, he ranked second nationally in total offense (1,337 yards), accounted for more than half the Irish scoring-and converted 67 times on either third or fourth down as a junior and senior combined.
But the Irish struggled on the field in 1956. The only two wins were over a couple of basketball schools, Indiana and North Carolina, while the Irish finished 2-8.
Hornung made his closing Heisman argument when he played halfback in the finale at the Coliseum against USC. He was forced to, as he had dislocated both thumbs. The Irish picked up their 8th loss, but Hornung in a show for the West Coast voters and press, scored all 21 of the Irish points.
For the season, Hornung led the team in rushing, passing, scoring, punting, total offense, field-goal kicking, kickoff return average, and minutes played, while coming in second at tackles.
Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy and went on to the College and NFL Football Halls of Fame, matching the High School Hall of Fame selection he achieved at Flaget.
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