Notre Dame football legend Knute Rockne’s coaching tree spread quickly in the South

Magnetic. Versatile. Captivating. Enigmatic. Exhilarating. Clutch.

These are just a few of the adjectives used to describe Paul Hornung, the football legend who died at age 84 on Nov. 13, 2020.

His NFL coach with the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, simply called Hornung “the greatest player I ever coached.”

“The Golden Boy” holds a special place among two iconic fan bases — Notre Dame and Green Bay. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame the following year. Few players in football history have matched what Hornung did on the field of play. And fewer still created such an aura about him that resonated with teammates, fans and the media.

Hornung was a multi-sport star at Flaget High School, the all-boys Catholic school in Louisville, just behind future Hall of Fame coach Howard Schnellenberger. Bear Bryant, then the head coach at Kentucky, made a strong pitch for Hornung to stay and play in his home state, but the allure of Notre Dame, and its string of national championships under Frank Leahy, was too much to ignore.

Partly due to health issues, Leahy retired after the 1953 season, Hornung’s freshman year. Terry Brennan ascended to head coach in 1954, and the Irish went 9-1 with Hornung playing backup fullback behind Don Schaefer.

By the next fall, Hornung was ready to earn his spot as starting quarterback, taking over for graduated Ralph Guglieimi. The Irish started strong, shutting out Southern Methodist, Indiana and Miami in their first three games before losing to nemesis Michigan State 21-7.

Notre Dame then went on a five-game win streak, with Hornung leading the way. On Oct. 29 the Irish faced unbeaten, fourth-ranked Navy, and at halftime honored Knute Rockne, 25 years after his death in a 1931 airplane accident.

“Rockne would have been proud of the team second-year coach Terry Brennan sent into battle against the unbeaten Middies,” The South Bend Tribune noted. “With dazzling Paul Hornung outshining the Middies’ heralded George Welsh at quarterback … the Irish threaded through and around the Navy line for more than 300 yards rushing.”

Hornung showed his trademark versatility — rushing for one touchdown, passing for another and intercepting two Middies’ passes to shut down Navy scoring threats in a 21-7 victory.

It was against Iowa on Nov. 19 that Hornung cemented his place among Irish legends. With Notre Dame trailing 14-7 midway through the fourth quarter, “the spectacular Hornung” engineered a touchdown drive to tie the game, then “with 2:15 remaining, the sparkling signal-caller booted a 28-yard field goal for the winning margin in as bruising a struggle as 59,955 spectators ever witnessed.

“Hornung, a junior meteor on a day when seniors were supposed to sparkle in their final home appearance, was carried off the field by his teammates and a wild student throng who then tore down the stadium goal posts for the first time in history,” The Tribune’s Joe Doyle reported.

The next week at Southern Cal, in what would turn out to be a harbinger of 1956, Hornung’s singular efforts would not be enough to down the Trojans. He accounted for 259 passing yards on just 10 completions and added another 95 yards on the ground for a total of 354 yards, the highest of the season in college football. But “Hornung, however talented, had to share the role of hero and goat. Five of his passes were intercepted, four in the final period.” USC won 42-20 and the Irish season ended at 8-2.

Hopes were high for 1956, even though Hornung and halfback Jim Morse were the only returning starters. Hornung would “do it all” — leading the Irish in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff returns, punt returns, punting and passes broken up, and finishing second in interceptions and tackles made.

Yet the team struggled to a 2-8 record. And it wasn’t a matter of hard-fought, close losses. In a five-game midseason losing streak, the Irish were outscored 174-48 by Purdue, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Navy and Pitt.

Still, with the recent history of the Irish, Heisman Trophy voters’ attention was habitually fixed on South Bend. It seemed time for another Irish winner, to follow Angelo Bertelli (1943), Johnny Lujack (1947), Leon Hart (1949) and Johnny Lattner (1953).

Hornung won one of the closest votes in Heisman history, edging out Tennessee’s multi-talented star Johnny Majors to become the only winner ever from a losing team. Syracuse’s future All-Pro running back Jim Brown finished fifth. It would be five years before Ernie Davis would become the first Black winner of the award.

As a pro for the Packers, Hornung’s relationship with Lombardi mirrored that of George Gipp’s with Rockne. Carefree and fun loving away from the playing field, and the ultimate clutch player once the game started. In 1960, he set an NFL record by scoring 176 points in just 12 games. The next year, he was named league MVP and scored 19 of the Packers’ 37 points as they trounced the New York Giants for the NFL title, 37-0.

“Inside the 20-yard line, he is one of the greatest I have ever seen,” Lombardi said. “He smells that goal line.”

Upon Hornung’s death, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Hornung was “instrumental in growing the popularity of the Packers and the National Football League.”

Jim Lefebvre is an award-winning Notre Dame author and leads the Knute Rockne Memorial Society. He can be reached at:

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