Jack looks back | 75th anniversary of Ohio State’s first Heisman winner

Jack Park For The Columbus Dispatch
Les Horvath won the Heisman Trophy for Ohio State in 1944 [File photo]

The 2019 football season marks the 75th anniversary of Les Horvath capturing Ohio State’s first Heisman Trophy.

Horvath led the Buckeyes to a 9-0 record and the 1944 outright Big Ten title. OSU ended the season with a thrilling 18-14 come-from-behind victory over Michigan and placed second behind Army (9-0) in the final Associated Press poll. Finishing second and third to Horvath in the 1944 Heisman voting were fullback Doc Blanchard and halfback Glenn Davis of Army, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1945 and 1946, respectively.

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Horvath was a fine senior wingback on Ohio State’s 1942 national championship squad, coached by Paul Brown. Horvath never anticipated returning to the college gridiron. In the fall of 1943, he enrolled in Ohio State’s dental school as a member of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) that did not allow its members to participate in college sports.

Two events in the summer of 1944 allowed Horvath to have an additional year of eligibility. Ohio State’s ASTP was discharged, and the Big Ten temporarily allowed players to have four years of varsity competition instead of three, because of a shortage of male students enrolled in college during World War II. Horvath returned to the football field for what could be called his “redshirt senior” season.

The 1944 Buckeyes were directed by acting coach Carroll Widdoes, replacing Brown, who had been commissioned as a junior lieutenant at the Great Lakes Naval Training Base. Other than a junior high school position, this was Widdoes’ first experience as a head coach. It was anticipated Brown would return after World War II. In February 1945, however, Brown elected to become the founding coach of professional football’s newly commissioned Cleveland Browns after the war. Widdoes immediately was appointed Ohio State’s permanent coach for the 1945 season.

Ohio State’s 1944 squad of 44 players was made up of five seniors, three juniors, five sophomores and 31 freshmen. To take advantage of Horvath’s all-around ability, Widdoes placed him at quarterback in the T-formation and tailback in the single wing. Horvath became the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player while leading the conference in rushing and total offense. He is the only winner of the Heisman Trophy who did not play the previous season.

Horvath grew up in Cleveland, where he played football at Rhodes High School before enrolling at Ohio State in the fall of 1939. After graduation from Ohio State he entered the Navy and served as a dental officer. He also was an assistant coach to Paul Brown with the Great Lakes Naval Station service team. After World War II he played professional football with the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns.

After professional football, Horvath maintained a successful dental practice in Los Angeles for more than four decades. He remained loyal to Ohio State and frequently returned to campus for celebrations and charity functions. Les Horvath died in 1995. His jersey number 22 was officially retired at halftime of the Ohio State-Northwestern game on Oct. 6, 2001.