Record: 102-29-7 (.779), 16 years
by Jack Wilkinson, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The coach who ran it up 222-0 on poor Cumberland College was also the man who sent out nightly for ice cream for Woo, the family poodle. Yes, John W. Heisman was as complex as he was brilliant, alternately rigid and innovative. And he was the unquestioned father of football's Holy Trinity at Georgia Tech: Heisman, Alexander and Dodd.
John Heisman was a disciplinarian who loathed profanity and fumbling, and loved conformity on the field. Yet he was also an aspiring actor who spent several summers working in summer stock. And while he made his players take cold showers after practice-hot water was reserved for game days-Heisman also helped usher football, if not indoor plumbing, into the modern era.
A legendary football coach, John W. Heisman coached at eight colleges but forged much of his legend on The Flats. He was head coach at Tech from 1904-19 and no one, not William Alexander, not even Bobby Dodd, has ever approached Heisman's success. The Jackets were 102-29-7 under him. Tech won the first of its four national championships in 1917. If Heisman wasn't the most modest of men, he also had ample reason to be proud.
Heisman's father was a German immigrant and son of a man named Baron von Bogart. The Baron disapproved when his son married a peasant girl from Alsace-Lorraine and disinherited him. In turn, the son took his wife's name "Heisman" and moved to America. Well, to Cleveland. And Johann Wilhelm Heisman was born there on October 23, 1869.
Heisman discovered football at Brown University and later Penn, where he transferred and then earned a law degree. He never used it. While playing for Penn in an indoor football game at the old Madison Square Garden, Heisman's eyes were injured by the Garden's galvanic lighting system. The team doctor prescribed a two-year rest for Heisman's eyes. So instead of joining a law firm in 1892, Heisman became the first football coach at Oberlin College in Ohio. Goodbye, jurisprudence. Hello, hidden ball trick.
Heisman temporarily left Oberlin for Buchtel College (later the University of Akron) before returning to Oberlin and eventually moving South in 1895. At Buchtel, he'd conceived the center snap. At that time, the center rolled the ball on the ground to the quarterback. That was cumbersome for Buchtel's 6-4 quarterback, so Heisman had his center snap the ball through his legs and through the air.
At the Alabama Polytechnic Institute-later known as Auburn-Heisman first used the hidden ball trick against Vanderbilt.
He told his quarterback to slip the ball under his jersey and bend down to tie his shoelace while everyone else scattered. Even then, Vandy had problems defensively. The quarterback scored easily.
At Clemson, as at Auburn, Heisman offset his teams' lack of size by stressing speed and quickness. He also razzle-dazzled opponents with lateral passes, backward passes, reverses, onside kicks and even a pulling guard for sweeps.
In 1902, Heisman and Clemson cost Tech fans a bundle of money. The day before the game, Clemson hopped off the train in Atlanta, checked into a hotel and proceeded to party until dawn. Tech fans who saw all this and couldn't wait to bet on the game didn't see another train of Clemson players-the varsity, not the decoy scrubs-arrive Saturday morning. The varsity, well-rested after a quiet night in Lula, Ga., trounced Tech 44-5.
By the time Heisman came to Tech in 1904, his reputation was firmly established, which is why on Thanksgiving, 1903, after he'd agreed to take the job, Tech students joyously unfurled a banner reading, "Tech Gets Heisman for 1904." No Tech player has ever won the Heisman. But in '04, Tech got Heisman.
He was the first paid coach in the country, with a salary of $2,250 plus 30 percent of the gate receipts.
While at Clemson, Heisman had married a widow named Evelyn McCollum Cox, an actress in the summer stock company in which Heisman also acted. (Apparently, Heisman was a slightly better coach than actor; a contemporary writer called him a "terrible Thespian.") In Atlanta, the Heismans lived near Tech on Ponce de Leon Avenue with Evelyn's son, Cox, and Woo, the family poodle whose ice cream urge was indulged nightly by Heisman.
His first Tech team was an immediate success. Just 2-5 in 1903, Tech went 8-1-1 under Heisman. And the Heisman legend at Tech began.
It was enhanced by his language and his formal, stilted, actor-of-the-day speech. Once while walking on North Avenue, Heisman called to one of his players, George Griffin, to cross the street. "Griffin, you are a great disappointment to me," Heisman said. When Griffin asked why, Heisman replied, "Well, I always expect you to get away for a long run, but you never do."
Heisman once tried to recruit Tech students at chapel thusly: "Gentlemen, we are destitute of people. If you weigh 150 pounds or more, please come out for football."
His rituals included an early-season practice speech. Holding up a football, Heisman would ask his players, "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere-in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."
Fumbling was a cardinal sin. Sinners were forced to bounce a football 100 times against the fence that bordered the practice field. Fumbling was also featured prominently in Heisman's two-page list of football bromides. DON'TS included, "Don't fumble the football." NEVERS included "Never drop the ball." There were also ALWAYS ("Always play with your head") and CAN'TS ("You can't win without using these principles").
Heisman was a demanding perfectionist and peerless strategist. His teams used the Heisman shift, or jump shift, the forerunner to the T and I formations. His Tech teams didn't huddle; instead, the quarterback shouted plays, or called a series of plays. Or sometimes, Heisman illegally hand-signaled plays from the sideline. He helped fight to legalize the forward pass, the essence of modern football.
And he masterminded the most lopsided, memorable game in college football history. In the spring of 1916, Tech's baseball team (Heisman also coached baseball and basketball) was humiliated 22-0 by a Nashville pro team masquerading as Cumberland College. That fall, Cumberland decided to drop football, its athletic program in disarray. But Heisman was determined to avenge the baseball loss and embarrass the sportswriters who awarded the national championship to the highest-scoring team.
So Heisman offered Cumberland a $500 guarantee and an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlanta. Cumberland accepted and 19 players (most members of Kappa Sigma fraternity, with scant football knowledge) left Lebanon, Tenn., by train for Atlanta. Only 16 arrived, three getting lost in Nashville.
By the time it was over, Tech had scored 32 touchdowns and 222 points in just 45 minutes of play. And Heisman had proven his point about pointless point totals.
The following year, the Golden Tornado were 9-0 and national champs, the third straight unbeaten team for Heisman. When Tech finally lost 32-0 to Pitt in the next-to-last game of the '18 season, it ended a 33-game unbeaten streak, including two ties. During that stretch, Heisman's teams outscored opponents 1,599-99.
Heisman's last season at Tech was 1919, when the Jackets finished 7-3. After a 14-7 loss to Auburn in the finale, Heisman announced that he was leaving Atlanta. He and his wife were divorcing. "I have agreed that wherever Mrs. Heisman wishes to live, I will live in another place. This will prevent any social embarrassment." When his wife chose to stay in Atlanta, Heisman had no choice but to leave.
He returned to Penn, his alma mater. Heisman would never duplicate his success in the South, though. Not at Penn, nor later at Washington and Jefferson and finally Rice. After resigning from Rice in 1926, Heisman became director of athletics at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York.
In 1935, the first Downtown Athletic Club Trophy was awarded to Jay Berwanger of Chicago, judged the nation's best college football player. On October 3, 1936, John Heisman died after a brief illness. He was 66. Two months later, the second DAC trophy was awarded. It now had a new name: the Heisman Memorial Trophy.
JOHN HEISMAN YEAR BY YEAR