All-Time Greatest – No. 25: Les Horvath

BuckeyeSports.com counts down the days until Ohio State's 2008 season opener with its list of the 50 greatest Buckeyes of all-time. Today we reach the midway point in our countdown with No. 25: halfback Les Horvath, the first Buckeye to win the Heisman Trophy.

Les Horvath could be remembered for a lot of things such as being one of the first four-year lettermen in football, playing halfback on Ohio State's first-ever national championship team or earning Big Ten most valuable player and All-America honors as a senior.

But all of those achievements pale in comparison to the fact that Horvath lays claim to something no other Buckeye can – he was the school's first-ever winner of the Heisman Trophy.

Born Oct. 12, 1921, in South Bend, Ind., Leslie Horvath was the son of immigrant parents from Hungary. When he was young, the family moved to the Cleveland area and he attended high school at both Cleveland Rhodes High School and Parma High School in suburban Cleveland.

Horvath played several sports in high school, but when it came to selecting a college, he picked Ohio State – because of its dental school, not its football program. Nevertheless, Horvath went out for the football team in 1940 and made the squad. It was Francis A. Schmidt's final season and the Buckeyes put together a lackluster 4-4 record that ended with a 40-0 thumping at the hands of Michigan.

After that game – the Buckeyes' third loss in a row to their archrivals – the university went shopping for a new coach. It hired a young, imaginative coach from the Ohio high school ranks named Paul Brown.

It didn't take long to turn the OSU fortunes around as the Buckeyes posted a 6-1-1 record in Brown's first season (including a 20-20 tie with Michigan) and then a 9-1 mark in 1942 that earned the team its first outright conference championship in five years and its first-ever national championship.

Horvath was an integral part of both of those seasons. Playing halfback as a sophomore and junior, he ran the ball and also threw it on occasion as Brown employed some of the most innovative play-calling of the era. The Buckeyes, who had averaged just 12.3 points on offense in Schmidt's final season, increased that average to 20.9 in 1941 and a whopping 33.7 during the national title run.

But by the time the 1943 season occurred, the college football landscape at Ohio State and around the nation had changed. Most young men of college age had enlisted in the armed forces and were overseas fighting in World War II, while many football programs barred those who stayed behind from playing due to the U.S. Army's specialized training programs.

Horvath was one who was deprived of his senior season in '43, but he spent the time on campus in the Army training program and continuing his classes in dental school. The following year, he was set to graduate and several professional teams contacted him about his availability.

"I gave playing pro ball some thought," he told Buckeye Sports Bulletin during a 1989 interview. "I was offered a contract by the Rams, who were playing in Cleveland in those days. They offered me something like $7,000, and I'd never seen $700 at that time much less $7,000. It was pretty tempting."

Ohio State head coach Carroll Widdoes, who had taken over the position after Brown had enlisted in the U.S. Navy after the 1943 season, wanted Horvath to come back to the Buckeyes for the '44 campaign but he was balking. Then Widdoes tried a little different approach.

"I don't know if the coaches were using psychology on me or what, but they finally came to me and told me they could understand that the money was important to me and I might not even make the team anyway because I'd been out of football for a year," Horvath remembered. "Well, that was like a challenge. I figured pro football could wait. I accepted that little challenge and was very fortunate."

The smallest regular among the 1944 starters, the 167-pound Horvath sparked the team. From his halfback position, he carried the ball 163 times for 924 yards, an average of 5.7 per carry. Also that year, he led the team in scoring with 72 points and completed 14 passes in 32 attempts for 344 yards.

He had a huge hand in winning the conference title game against Michigan that year. With the Buckeyes trailing 14-12 with eight minutes remaining, he guided the team on a 52-yard scoring march. The drive was capped with a touchdown run by Horvath, his 12th of the season.

OSU finished with a perfect 9-0 record in 1944, the team's first unblemished record since 1916. But even though the Buckeyes were conference champions, the Big Ten voted against sending a representative to the Rose Bowl because of wartime travel restrictions. It was a big disappointment to Horvath and his teammates.

"The school had promised us we would go in spite of the Big Ten," he said. "But when the Big Ten voted against us, our athletic director (Lynn W. St. John) said we had to conform to the vote and we didn't get to go. That was a big disappointment for us."

The disappointment quickly wore off. Horvath was named the team's most valuable player in a vote by his teammates, then earned first-team All-Big Ten and conference player of the year honors. That was followed by being named to the All-American team along with teammates William Hackett, Jack Dugger and Bill Willis.

But the biggest honor of all came in December when Horvath was named the 10th recipient of the Heisman Trophy, becoming the first Ohio State player to win it.

It was an extremely close vote and Horvath won the Heisman despite finishing first in only one geographic region.

Army's two standout sophomores, Glenn Davis and Felix "Doc" Blanchard, who would later go on to win Heismans of their own in 1945 and '46, divided their points. Davis, who was from California, won in the West and the East and Blanchard, who was from Texas, won in the Southwest. Horvath, however, had a huge amount of second- and third-place votes that pushed him above Davis and Blanchard.

"It was a very big thrill back then," he told BSB during that 1989 interview. "But to tell you the truth, it means even more when you look back on it. I owe it all to my teammates. We had a very unusual squad that year. We had four or five freshmen in our starting lineup every game. We didn't really expect that much to begin with, but week after week those freshmen got better. They just didn't realize how good they really were. Then, to go undefeated was a remarkable feat."

Following his senior season, Horvath again put his pro football career on hold. He graduated from dental school in 1945 and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

After a discharge in 1947, he finally became a professional football player, joining the Rams, who had moved to Los Angeles by then, for the 1947 season. Horvath played two seasons in L.A., then reunited with Brown in 1948 for one season with the Cleveland Browns.

He retired after the '48 season and returned to the Glendale, Calif., area when he had settled after getting out of the Navy. That is where he finally went into practice for dentistry and continued to practice for more than four decades.

In 1969, he became only the third Ohio State player selected to the College Football Hall of Fame following Chic Harley and Wes Fesler. Then, in 1977, he was among the former Buckeye stars honored in the inaugural class of the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame.

Horvath continued to return to Columbus attend reunions of his Ohio State teammates about every other year until his death Nov. 14, 1995, of coronary disease. He was 74.

At his passing, fellow Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin told BSB, "Les was just a fantastic person. He was so unassuming despite all of the awards and honors he had earned. He loved this university and he was a great ambassador of this university."

Yesterday: No. 26 Mike Doss

Tomorrow: No. 24


Buckeye Sports Top Stories