RSM Profile: John Heisman

Coach John Heisman (from Wikipedia)

He was born in Ohio, raised and educated in Pennsylvania and buried in Wisconsin. So why would we want to honor him as a Southern man? Because the years that really defined his legend were spent below the Mason-Dixon, shaping that great Southern religion: college football. His name was John Heisman.

A under-sized player, even in the early days of the game, Heisman still managed to play varsity football at both Brown and Penn. He got his first head coaching job straight out of college at Oberlin. After three seasons coaching schools in the north, Heisman moved south to Auburn University. From 1895 through 1903, Heisman honed his skills first at Auburn and then Clemson. His next job would make him a legend in the game.

Taking over the program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1904, Heisman stayed put for 16 seasons, during which he never posted a losing record, won a national championship in 1917 and put together a 33-game win streak at one point. His Georgia Tech teams were scoring powerhouses, as hapless Cumberland College would learn in 1916.

Prior to the season, Cumberland had canceled its football program. However, Heisman insisted the school honor the terms of its scheduling agreement, which called for a $3,000 payment if they failed to field a team against his Engineers. Cumberland’s baseball student manager assembled a team of 14 students and made the fateful trip south from Tennessee to Atlanta. The result lives in infamy to this day.

Much speculation has swirled around why Heisman chose to unleash Hell upon poor Cumberland that day. Two primary factors are typically cited. First is the allegation that Cumberland had run up the score of a baseball game against Tech earlier that year – using mainly professional players as ringers. Second is Heisman’s disdain for the football ranking system at the time, which was based entirely on points scored.

Sending a message to both the Cumberland athletics officials and the powers that be in college football, Heisman’s Engineers rolled up 222 points to Cumberland’s zero – the most lopsided game in football history. As the Atlanta Journal described it…

As a general rule, the only thing necessary for a touchdown was to give a Tech back the ball and holler, ‘Here he comes’ and ‘There he goes.’

Georgia Tech 222 - Cumberland 0 (from Wikipedia)

The game was so bad that Cumberland’s longest play was a completed pass for 10 yards … on 4th and 22. Cumberland had Heisman to thank for that dubious distinction. Among Heisman’s achievements over his distinguished football career was successfully lobbying for the legalization of the forward pass in 1906. He also invented the idea of having the center snap the ball back rather than rolling or kicking it, developed the “hike” or “hut” call to signal the snap and invented the first shift play to utilize pulling guards.

He left Tech following a divorce and returned north for a few seasons. He would finish his coaching career at Texas’ Rice. Following his coaching career, Heisman was named the first director of the new Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan. In his duties there, he created the National Football Coaches Association and established the voting rules for a new award to recognize the best player in football.

Ironically, Heisman initially disliked the very idea of the award that would go on to bear his name … because he felt team was more important that any one individual. Sounds like a Real Southern Man to us.

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