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Football Profile                                      
John Heisman - IV

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When John Heisman, "the most successful coach in the south" (Atlanta Constitution), arrived at Georgia Tech as head coach in 1904, he did what he had done at every other school where he coached - he immediately improved the football program, which had enjoyed only two winning seasons in its 11 years of existence.
  • Using prison inmates, he converted an open space on campus for a practice field that would become the site of Tech's home games in 1905 - the precursor of Grant Field.
  • He insisted that all undergraduates learn to sing their alma mater and fight song. He told them that it was the duty of the student body to attend football games to cheer for their team.
  • As for his players, he forbade them for showering with hot water during the week because it was debilitating. He revamped the diet of is team, removing coffee, hot bread, pastries, and apples. He told the cooks to serve meat that was nearly raw and unseasoned.
  • He wanted his players to get at least eight hours of sleep every night and forbade them to smoke, chew tobacco, drink liquor, stay out late at night, gamble, bet on games, and eat candy.
  • And last but not least, Heisman demanded that his charges attend class regularly and fulfill all their academic requirements.
Heisman immediately produced a winning team in '04.
  • Despite having only thirty players, Tech went 8-1-1 in '04. The loss came to one of John's former teams, Auburn, and the tie was with another of his past schools, Clemson.
  • Most importantly, the Yellow Jackets defeated their archrival Georgia for the first time since 1893 - 23-6 at Piedmont Park in Atlanta. In fact, it was the first time Tech had scored on the Bulldogs in seven games.
    Heisman wrote in his autobiography about an unusual play in the '04 Georgia game: "It was last down and their ball, but they were so close to their own goal line that 'King' Sullivan had to get back nine yards behind the posts to punt. Holding signal drill on that Piedmont Field the day before I had noticed how close the high fence was to the east goal posts and pondered: 'What would happen if the ball were to fly over that fence during a game?' I even warned my men what might happen. It happened. 'King' spanked the ball hard and true and up it flew squarely against one post and bounded right back over the fence. Instantly, my men ran to the fence and leaped for rhe top. The Georgians, at first a bit dazed, now came running also, grabbing the legs of the Tech men and pulling them down from the fence. In turn, they started to climb and were pulled down. Along the fence there took place exactly ten fence climbing duels. My eleventh man, 'Red' Wilson, ran for a high stump in one corner of the field. Man alive! You can't imagine the excitement or the incitements. It was a mad house. At long last, 'Red' and the refereee got over first, and 'Red' found the ball. The referee announced: 'Touchdown for Tech.'"
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt - an avowed football fan - summoned coaches and athletic directions from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House.
  • The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how to improve football "by reducing the element of brutality in play" after a survey found that at least 45 football players died from 1900 to October 1905 from internal injuries, broken necks, concussions, or broken backs.
  • As a result of that meeting, the college football Rules Committee made significant rules changes for the 1906 season. The forward pass was legalized, the dangerous flying wedge formation was abolished, a neutral zone was created between the offense and defense at the line of scrimmage, the first down distance was doubled to 10y, which had to be gained in three downs. The length of the game was reduced from 70 minutes to two halves of 30 minutes each.
  • Heisman had been lobbying for the forward pass since 1903. He later said that his proposal was dismissed by the Rules Committee because "it would make the game too much like basketball." He had written a column for the Constitution in which he criticized the Rules Committee for its inaction and the sport's archaic style of mass play. He had offered two proposals: require the offense to gain at least eight years in three plays and legalize the forward pass.

1905 newspaper cartoon showing the Grim Reaper (Death) sitting on a goal post.
L-R: 1904 Georgia Tech team; 1916 Georgia Tech team
Tech had a winning record every season of Heisman's 16 years at head coach.
  • His 1905 squad went 6-0-1.
  • From the last two games of 1914 through the fifth of the '18, the Yellow Jackets were undefeated in 30 straight games, although there were two ties.
  • The 1917 team finished 9-0, shutting out seven opponents.
  • The Jackets' record was due in some measure to the fact that they rarely played road games since most schools were willing to come to Atlanta - a railroad nexus - for a good paycheck. Tech played only 16 road games during Heisman's tenure. The longest treks were to New Orleans to play LSU in 1915 and to Pittsburgh in 1918 and '19.
During the 1907 season, Heisman was involved in a scandal that centered around the use of players who were not college students.
  • After Tech defeated Georgia 10-6, a young sportswriter named Grantland Rice wrote in the Nashville Tennessean, "Of all the bare-faced and flagrant violations of collegiate sport, the stunt perpetrated by the University of Georgia in her game against Tech sets a new limit. The evidence has been turned over to us from several sources, absolutely reliable, that [Georgia] Coach Whitney used at least four ringers and probably more in the Atlanta conflict."
  • The Constitution reported that "the whole scheme was engineered and planned by a lot of gamblers, who hoped to reach a rich harvest off an unsuspecting Atlanta public by springing on Tech a team a great deal stronger than the one which has been representing Georgia in the games previously played."
  • The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association suspended Georgia's entire football team. Coach Whitney was fired and banned from ever coaching in the SIAA again.
  • The Bulldogs responded with countercharges that Heisman was guilty of arranging cash payments for certain players and inducing another player with illegal benefits in that era when there were no athletic scholarships. The Association held a hearing that lasted for 16 hours and resulted in Tech being cleared of any wrongdoing.

October 7, 1916: Georgia Tech vs Cumberland
The game that is most remembered from Heisman's Georgia Tech stint revealed the dark side of his character.
  • Cumberland College was a one-year law school in Lebanon TN. The Bulldogs had played intercollegiate football since 1894. The 1903 team upset the likes of Vanderbilt, Alabama, LSU, and Tulane and tied Clemson 11-11 in Heisman's final game as Tigers coach. The Bulldogs were awarded the 1903 southern championship.
  • But by 1916, interest in football at Cumberland had waned, and a new president cut funding for the football team.
  • Cumberland scheduled a game against the Bulldogs that year in order to gain revenge for Cumberland defeating his Tech baseball team 22-0 that spring. He was convinced that the opponent had used ringers.
  • John offered Cumberland $500 to come to Atlanta for a football game. When the small college tried to back out of the game a few months later, Heisman threatened to impose a $3,000 penalty for breaking the contract.
  • So manager George Allen scoured the Cumberland campus for volunteers to form a team. They played at least four games that fall, including a 100-0 loss to Sewanee. 15 players arrived in Atlanta for the October 7, 1916, contest.
  • What transpired that Saturday set college football records that still stand today.
    Points scored by one team and margin of victory: Georgia Tech 222 Cumberland 0
    Offensive yards: 978
    Points in a quarter: 63
    Touchdowns: 32
    PATs: 30
    Interestingly, Tech recorded no first downs because they never needed more than two plays on offense to score a touchdown.
  • One of the reasons the score mounted so high was that many times when Tech scored, Cumberland exercised the option afforded them by the rules to kickoff rather than receive the kick.
  • And all this carnage occurred despite the fact that Heisman agreed to shorten the second half by 15 minutes to save the Bulldogs further embarrassment.
    The story is told that, late in the game, Heisman noticed a Cumberland player sitting on the end of the Tech bench.
    "Son, you're on the wrong bench. Yours is across the field."
    "No, sir, Mr. Heisman," replied the youngster. "This is the right bench. If I go over there, they'll put me back in the game!"
    Smiling, Heisman tossed the boy a blanket and let him stay.
  • After the season, Heisman explained why he had run up the score. He was trying to make a point to the sportswriters, who had the habit "of totaling up ... the number of points each team had amassed in its various games, and comparing them one to another. (This) was a useless thing, for it means nothing whatever in the way of determining which is the better of an evenly grouped set of college teams. ... So, finding that folks are determined to take the crazy thing into consideration, we at Tech determined this year, at the start of the season, to show folks that it was no very difficult thing to run up a score in one easy game, from which it might perhaps be seen that it could be done in other easy games as well."

To be continued ...

Reference: Heisman: The Man behind the Trophy, John M. Heisman with Mark Schlabach (2012)

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