John Heisman – Not a man to piss off

I’ve always been fascinated by truly ruthless individuals.

Some guys are happy just to win, but some people want to make a point in the process. Some people you really shouldn’t piss off if you ever have to encounter them again, they’re that ruthless in the pursuit of revenge.  John Heisman was one of those men.

We live in a time where a 30-point margin of victory is excessive, and people will get extremely hot under the collar over an extra touchdown or two being run up on the scoreboard.

As head coach of Georgia Tech, Heisman once won a game 222-0.

Heisman wasn’t just a guy you didn’t want to piss off, but he was a legitimate innovator, and a great coach in his time. There is a reason his name adorns the trophy now given to college football’s best player each season.  He was the first man to employ a pair of pulling guards to lead an end run, a forerunner of the sweeps that would be used by Paul Brown and perfected into an art form by Vince Lombardi and the Packers.  He was also a big fan of the forward pass in a time when few were, and may have actually invented the modern center-quarterback exchange – before his time the ball had been either rolled or kicked back to the passer – that doesn’t seem like the smoothest exchange to me.

He coached for 32 years in the college game, and his best time came as the coach at Georgia Tech, whom he fashioned into a national power house.  During his 16 seasons at GT Heisman never had a losing record, and posted a 33-game undefeated run at one point, over which span his teams outscored their opponents by 1,599 to 99.  In 33 games he outscored opponents by 1,500 points. That’s an average scoreline of 48-3.  He wasn’t just into winning, he was into total destruction. It was a 73-0 beatdown of Georgia Tech when he was the head coach of Clemson that originally caused the Tech brass to hire him in the first place.

To be fair, there was some method to this ruthless laying waste of all in his path.  At that time southern football was still something of a backwater, and didn’t receive any of the recognition on a national stage. All of the big teams played on the coasts, with programs like Harvard, Army, Cal and Penn leading the way as the football power houses. Heisman was determined to show that his southern team belonged on any stage, and decided that the only way to do this was to launch a crusade against any and all opposition that stood before him. He was running up the score as much as he could deliberately to gain national attention, and at the end of the 1917 season – another undefeated one for GT – they won their first national title.

In the end he got exactly what he wanted, and proved the point he had been trying to make all along, while also making the point that messing with John Heisman is a bad idea as a bonus.

He was also the coach of the baseball team at Georgia Tech, and in the spring of 1915 that team was embarrassed by Cumberland University by a score of 22-0.  It had been rumored that the Cumberland side had used semi-pro ringers, though there was never any proof of it.  That pissed Heisman off in a major way, and he was a man that bore a grudge.

He had scheduled the football game between the two teams for the following year with a contract that would give Cumberland a $500 fee for appearing, but also stipulated a $3,000 forfeiture fee if they didn’t. Cumberland ended up pulling their football program entirely, but found themselves unable to get out of the contract to play Georgia Tech, and John Heisman was in no mood to be accommodating.

To increase the motivation of his Georgia Tech side he would field two complete teams that would alternate every quarter, and he promised that the team which scored the most points would be rewarded with a steak dinner each.  By half time of the game the score was already 126-0, and each of those teams had scored 63 points.

The game was such a train-wreck that the second half was cut short by 15 minutes.  The score of 222-0 was put up in a 45 minute game of football.

Cumberland didn’t achieve a single first down, but what’s even more remarkable is that neither did Georgia Tech – they scored every time they touched the football on offense.

The great sportswriter Grantland Rice, who witnessed the contest, reported somewhat sarcastically that “Cumberland’s greatest individual play of the game occurred when fullback Allen circled right for a 6-yard loss”. That wasn’t far from accurate.  They gained -28 yards on offense, and gained positive yardage just once – a 10-yard completion on 4th and 22!

The two sides held a reunion in 1956 to mark the 40th anniversary of the game.  Somewhat fittingly the 22 graduates of Georgia Tech were joined by just 6 graduates of Cumberland University to echo the original mismatch. The Cumberland QB recalled the level of strategy that the team was reduced to on the day. “On 4th and 25 deep in our own territory I called for a QB sneak. I made it back to the line of scrimmage.  If we had punted as we should have, Tech would have blocked the kick and the score would have been 229-0!”.

There are some ruthless, cold-hearted bastards in the game today, but I’m not sure there’s another John Heisman.  That was a guy you really didn’t want to piss off, and the level of his wrath has survived in memory for almost a century.

One thought on “John Heisman – Not a man to piss off

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