The 20 Best Heisman Trophy Winners Ever
The Heisman Memorial Trophy is awarded to the best player in college football every season that leads his team with performance and integrity. The award is named for former coach John Heisman, and is awarded by the Heisman Trust. The Heisman award has been given 77 times, but 20 awardees stand out about the rest.
There have been down years in the game where no clear-cut winner rose above the competition, while other seasons saw tight races because of the talent found in the finalist’s chairs.
Throughout the years, the face of college football has changed, along with the way that excellence and production are viewed. With or without the changes to the game, these 20 athletes achieved feats that would transcend any era of the college football game.
Frank Sinkwich: Georgia, 1942
Frank Sinkwich was one of the most versatile, dual-threat quarterbacks to have played the college game. As today’s game shifts to the versatile signal caller, looking back to the achievements of Sinkwich could shed light on the possibilities of success.
Sinkwich won the Heisman in 1942 after setting the NCAA-single season total offense record for the time with 2,187-yards.
Sinkwich finished his career with over 4,000 total yards of offense and 60 touchdowns
Doc Blanchard: West Point, 1945
Doc Blanchard was part of one of the most dangerous running back tandems in the history of college football.
Blanchard scored 38 touchdowns and earned 1,908 yards in his three seasons at West Point—earning him the nickname “Mr. Inside” for his power running abilities.
Blanchard was the offensive fullback, linebacker, punter and placekicker for the Army Black Knights during his time at West Point. In 1945, his efforts from both sides of the ball earned him the Heisman Trophy.
Doc Blanchard will always be remembered as one of the best overall athletes to win the award.
Dick Kazmaier: Princeton, 1951
Dick Kazmaier hailed from Princeton, leading the Ivy League school to a national title in 1950. In 1951, he was awarded the Heisman Trophy for his contribution to the team as a kicker, halfback and quarterback.
Kazmaier ended his career at Princeton with over 4,000 yards of offense and 55 touchdowns. Along with his 1951 Heisman, Kazmaier won the Maxwell and was named an All-American for his efforts.
Paul Hornung: Notre Dame, 1956
Paul Hornung was as unique of a Heisman winner as there ever was. Hornung is the only player to have won the trophy from a team with a losing record.
In 1956, Hornung led the Notre Dame offense as the quarterback, throwing for 917 yards and three touchdowns. Hornung also added 26 receptions to his stat line while leading the Irish in passing, rushing, kickoff and punt returns as well as punting.
Hornung was an all-around amazing athlete that is one of the best players to have worn the Irish green and gold.
Billy Cannon: LSU, 1959
Billy Cannon was an all-purpose type player for the LSU Tigers in the late 1950’s. He was a major threat in the return game, returning a punt 89 yards for a touchdown to defeat then No. 3 Ole Miss 7-3. The score put the Tigers on top, but Cannon then stopped Ole Miss’ Charlie Flowers at the goal line to preserve the victory.
Cannon was a two-time All-American for the Tigers, and was the most valuable player on both offense and defense for the Tigers during the 1959 season. Cannon rushed for 598 yards in his Heisman season, and also averaged 40.3 yards-per-punt as the Tigers punting specialist.
Cannon also finished his senior season with four interceptions on defense. Cannon’s 1959 season is one of the best overall performances in college football history.
Ernie Davis: Syracuse, 1961
Ernie Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. What gets him on this list is his amazing ability to take defenses to the woodshed.
Davis was a two-time All-American and earned his Heisman trophy for Syracuse in 1961. He wore the legendary No. 44 in his time there. The number has since been retired in honor of Davis, Jim Brown and Floyd Little.
Davis earned his Heisman when it truly meant to be the most versatile player on the field. He rushed for only 823 yards that season, but he also led the team in receptions with 16. Davis finished the season with 15 total touchdowns—one of which was an interception return.
The film The Express is based off the struggles and triumph of Davis and his Syracuse teammates over segregation during the 1960’s.
Roger Staubach: Navy, 1963
Roger Staubach was one of the distinguished Heisman winners that came from a service academy. He played for the Naval Academy.
Staubach passed for 1,417 yards and seven touchdowns in his Heisman winning season. Along with the Heisman award, Staubach also won the Maxwell award. He led his team to the national title game against Texas in ’63, but the Midshipmen lost the contest.
Staubach finished his career with a school record 4,253 yards of total offense.
O.J. Simpson: USC, 1968
O.J. Simpson is quite the character in the sports culture world. One of the biggest accomplishments by the “Juice” that goes overlooked is his Heisman winning season in 1968.
In 1967, Simpson was a Heisman candidate, finishing the season with 1,451 yards and 11 touchdowns. He went on to win the Walter Camp Award in 1967, but didn’t earn his Heisman until 1968.
In 1968, Simpson rushed for 1,709 yards and 22 touchdowns. He still holds the largest margin of victory in the trophy voting, winning by a whopping 80 percent.
Archie Griffin: Ohio State, 1974-75
Archie Griffin is as rare as they come when talking Heisman winners. Griffin is the only player to have won the honor twice. Griffin brought home the Heisman in 1974 and 1975.
In the ’74 season, Griffin rushed for 1,695 yards, averaging 6.6 yards-per-carry and earning 12 touchdowns. In the ’75 season, Griffin earned 1,450 yards on the ground and four touchdowns.
The biggest accomplishment of both Heisman seasons has to be his 21 consecutive games with 100 yards or more rushing. Griffin finished his career as one of the most lauded backs of the Woody Hayes era.
Billy Simms: Oklahoma, 1978
Billy Simms is one of the best running backs to come through the Oklahoma Sooners program. That is a lofty label, but Simms earned it with his on-field play.
In his Heisman winning season, Simms rushed for 1,762 yards and averaged 7.6 YPC. Simms averaged 10.9 points scored a game during the 1978 season.
Simms also set the record for most yards in a season in 1978 with 1,896 yards. The record was later broken by Adrian Peterson in 2004, when he rushed for 1,925 yards as a freshman.
Herschel Walker: Georgia, 1982
Herschel Walker was the most feared runner on the field when he carried the pigskin. Walker would look for people to hit instead of avoiding contact.
Walker won his Heisman Trophy during the 1982 season for the Georgia Bulldogs. Walker finished the year with 1,752 rushing yards while averaging 5.2 YPC. Walker also added 16 touchdowns and 89 receiving yards to his stat line.
Walker was an extremely physical runner and has two very unique honors that are bestowed upon him. Outside of his Heisman winning season, he is the only player to be a finalist for all three seasons of his career.
He is also only one of three freshmen to earn first-team All-American honors.
Bo Jackson: Auburn, 1985
Bo Jackson was one of the most electric running backs in the mid-80’s in the college football game while playing for Auburn University from 1982-85.
Jackson had an amazing career at Auburn—finishing with 4,303 yards on the ground—but his best season came in 1985 where he had the second-best season from a running back in SEC history.
Jackson rushed for 1,786 yards, averaging 6.4 YPC in the process. Jackson was also able to find the end zone 17 times on the ground. Jackson was awarded All-American honors for his 1985 performance as well.
When Bo Jackson took the handoff for Auburn the crowd gazed in awe as his unique blend of size and speed made him one of the most elite rushers in college football history.
Vinny Testaverde: Miami, 1986
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In 1986, Vinny Testaverde won virtually every award that a quarterback could land in the game of college football. Testaverde led the Miami Hurricanes for two seasons, leading the Canes to a national title appearance in 1986.
Testaverde threw four interceptions in the game against Penn State, but won the Heisman for his superb play during the regular season.
Testaverde finished the year with a 63.4 completion percentage and 2,557 yards passing with 26 touchdowns. Testaverde then went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 1987 NFL Draft.
Barry Sanders: Oklahoma State, 1988
Barry Sanders produced the most explosive single season for any running back in college football history in 1988 for Oklahoma State. Sanders rushed for 2,850 yards, averaging 7.6 YPC and landed in the end zone 42 times.
Sanders still holds the record for most rushing yards in a season and the highest average per rushing attempt in a season.
The 1988 season came as a bit of a surprise, as Sanders was simply a kick return specialist and backup to All-American Thurman Thomas for two seasons prior to 1988.
The record for yards per carry and overall yards in a season will likely never be topped.
Ty Detmer: BYU, 1990
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Ty Detmer has the most successful single season for a college quarterback in history under his belt. Detmer’s junior season saw him throw for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns. He finished that season with 42 NCAA records.
Detmer had his biggest win against the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes by tossing 406 yards and three touchdowns against the defending national champions.
Detmer was a first team All-American selection the same year, and also landed the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien awards for his efforts.
Charles Woodson: Michigan, 1997
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Charles Woodson holds the distinguished honor of being the only primarily defensive player to win the Heisman. Woodson was a dangerous return man and a stingy defender for Michigan during his day.
Woodson was known for his big plays. His punt return for a touchdown against Ohio State during the 1997 season sealed his Heisman campaign.
Michigan went on to play the Washington State Cougars in the 1997 national title game, and an end-zone interception by Woodson helped solidify the win and national title for the Wolverines.
Ricky Williams: Texas, 1998
Ricky Williams was one of the most dynamic runners to ever win the Heisman Trophy. Hailing from the University of Texas, Williams broke the all-time rushing record—which he held for only one season—the year that he was awarded the Heisman Trophy.
Williams was also awarded the Doak Walker, Jim Brown, Walter Camp and Maxwell awards during his Heisman winning season. In 1998, Williams rushed for 2,327 yards, averaging 6 YPC and scoring 29 touchdowns.
On top of the amazing yardage production, Williams averaged 193.9 yards/game his senior season. Williams can argue his 1998 campaign was one of the best in collegiate history—if not for Barry Sanders’ performance a decade before.
Reggie Bush: USC, 2005
Love him or hate him, Reggie Bush was one of the most explosive players to ever carry the football in college. At USC, he was seemingly impossible to stop from the backfield and in the return game.
Bush rushed for 1,740 yards, averaging 8.7 YPC and scored 16 rushing touchdowns. He was also the Trojans third leading receiver with 478 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Not only was Bush a terror from the backfield, but his return abilities were what kept teams extremely nervous during special teams actions. Bush averaged 9.9 yards-per-return on punts and 17.8 yards-per-return on kickoffs.
As an overall athlete, Bush was one of the best to wear a collegiate uniform.
Tim Tebow: Florida, 2007
Tim Tebow was the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy when in 2007 he edged out Arkansas’ Darren McFadden for the award.
Tebow had an amazing sophomore season, passing for 32 touchdowns and rushing for another 23. He was the first player in NCAA history to rush and pass for at least 20 touchdowns in both categories.
Tebow threw for 3,286-yards in his Heisman season, only tossing six interceptions in the process.
Cam Newton: Auburn, 2010
Cam Newton was a one-hit-wonder for the Auburn Tigers during the 2010 season after transferring from Blinn Community College in Texas.
When Newton arrived, there were high expectations, but no one expected the level of performance that Newton provided in his one season in orange and blue. Cam Newton marched to not only a Heisman victory, but also won the Walter Camp, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien and Manning awards.
Newton earned those honors by passing for 2,804 yards with a 66.1 CMP% and 30 passing touchdowns. Newton also added 1,473 yards on the ground and 20 rushing touchdowns.
In 2010, Newton set the record for total offense in a season for the SEC with 4,327 total yards.