The highest honor that can be bestowed on a college football player today, aside from the assurance that he’ll be taken in an early round in the NFL draft, is the Heisman Trophy. The name is evocative of a misty era in college football, leather helmets, campus bonfires and raccoon coats.
It’s a lovely, if somewhat syrupy, image. So it’s refreshing to know that John W. Heisman, the legendary coach for whom the trophy is named, is not so far removed from today’s win-at-any-cost coaches. His era--Heisman coached at nine colleges over 36 years starting in 1892--is surprisingly similar to the state of college football today: filled with lying, cheating and stealing.
Emblematic of the rough-and-tumble era was a game played 80 years ago today, when Heisman’s Georgia Tech team defeated Cumberland College, 222-0, the most lopsided college football game ever. The story of the game and how it came to be held would require all the NCAA’s investigators’ efforts to sift through.
Begin with Heisman himself. To say his Georgia Tech teams were dominant does not give the full picture: From 1916 to 1918, Heisman’s teams lost only once and outscored opponents 1,378-69, for an average score of 55-3.
The 1918 season contained Heisman’s real offensive push, when Tech ran up scores of 118-0, 123-0 and 128-0.
For such a dour man, Heisman’s teams were exciting and flamboyant. Heisman was an early supporter of the forward pass and a fervent inventor of trick plays. Among his innovations were yard markers and the center snap--previously the ball was rolled to the quarterback.
Georgia Tech had many rivalries, but there was never much of one between the school and Cumberland. Whatever animosity fueled Heisman’s football team can, in part, be traced back to a Cumberland-Georgia Tech baseball game in the spring of 1915.
As one of his first acts at the Lebanon, Tenn., campus, Cumberland’s new president announced his distaste for the frivolous nature of intercollegiate athletics and his intention to disband all of Cumberland’s athletic teams.
It was a time when football was declining in public favor, largely because its increasing violence was not yet tempered by adequate protective equipment.
The style of play lent itself to concussive outcomes. The flying wedge and similar plays left players on both sides of the ball in a heap after each play. Heisman understood that the forward pass, which he had first seen during a game he was scouting in 1895, would open up the game, add excitement for fans and eliminate some of the awful mass collisions that signaled the end of plays.
In such an environment, the seemingly harsh step of abolishing all intercollegiate sports was applauded by many “forward thinking people” in the academic community.
George E. Allen was no forward thinker, he was a law student, Cumberland’s football team manager and an avid sports fan. Allen, then about 18, appealed to the president to change his decision.
“Give us a chance to show you what we can do,” Allen said.
To that end, Allen and members of the baseball team talked a pro team from Nashville into suiting up and playing baseball as Cumberland. The opponent: Georgia Tech. Tech’s coach: Heisman.
The professionally-enriched Cumberland baseball team embarrassed Heisman’s squad, 22-0, humiliating the team and besmirching Heisman’s national reputation. It was a loss he never forgot or forgave.
Meanwhile, Cumberland’s new president was not moved and made good on his pledge to shut down the school’s football program.
Thus, only a few months after his baseball team lost to Cumberland, Heisman received a letter informing him that the Tennessee school had dropped football and, therefore, Cumberland would be unable to field a team for the scheduled Oct. 7 game.
Under other circumstances Heisman might have scheduled a different opponent or taken a bye week. But he was still angry and in no mood to let Cumberland off the hook.
Heisman shot a letter to the now-nonexistent Cumberland athletic department offering a $500 guarantee and an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlanta for the game.
If, however, Cumberland did not field a team on Oct. 7, Heisman wrote, he would demand $3,000 from the school to cover the projected loss of gate receipts. Heisman, who had earned a law degree at Penn, laid the legal language on thick.
The letter leapfrogged from desk to desk until it got to Allen, the defunct football team’s student manager. Allen considered the letter. The possibility that the school would have to pay a $3,000 penalty concerned him. It wasn’t likely to put the president in a more receptive frame of mind toward football.
On the other hand, Allen figured that the lure of splitting $500 and a free Pullman train trip would attract enough players willing to play mighty Georgia Tech.
Allen set about recruiting among his law school colleagues. Many were willing enough but few of them had ever played football.
Other problems were more practical: The team’s football uniforms and training equipment had been sold. There was also the issue of where to conduct practices, since Allen was keen to hide his plan from school officials.
The rag-tag team never obtained equipment but solved the uniform problem the night it left for Atlanta by breaking into nearby Castle Heights High School and stealing its uniforms.
Allen’s solution to the practice site problem dovetailed nicely with his determination to maintain secrecy: He booked time in the school chapel under the name, Cumberland Men’s Choir, shoved the pews to the edges of the church and walked through the plays with his eager but inept group.
Another problem for Allen: It was unlikely his team would be able to learn any sophisticated plays in time for the game.
Allen applied his ingenuity to the puzzle and came up with a workable system that his team understood: Each player was assigned the name of a vegetable. This was the era of a no-huddle offense, so the Cumberland signal-caller would be able to call the play before the snap and literally describe what was supposed to happen.
For example, a Cumberland play might begin like this: “Turnip over cabbage, hut one, hut two. . . .” Or, “Cauliflower to mustard greens, hike! . . .”
It made an easy system for Cumberland players to identify plays, but Allen made no allowance for the possibility that after a few possessions the Georgia Tech players might get on a first-name basis with the Cumberland vegetables. The Tech defense was spared the work of “reading” plays; it had the formations read to it.
Game day approached and Cumberland’s Men’s Choir continued to practice and Heisman eyed the Oct. 7 date with relish. He had more than one score to settle.
At the time, sportswriters selected national champions solely based on the number of points each team scored. Heisman disagreed with this practice, arguing that the relative strength of opponents and schedules should be factored in.
He saw the Cumberland game as a chance to run up the score to prove his point--did it make Georgia Tech a better team because it was able to trounce a weak team?
Allen and his band of law students and fraternity brothers knew nothing of Heisman’s plans when they boarded the train in Lebanon with their stolen uniforms and high hopes.
The train pulled into Nashville with 19 members of Cumberland’s team. As it sat in the station, Allen and others disembarked, hoping to recruit football players from the nearby Vanderbilt campus. Not only did no Vanderbilt players agree to make the trip, the Cumberland team lost three players who failed to show up when the train left the station.
Allen had already, unsuccessfully, recruited the train’s conductor.
There was one addition from the stopover: J.W. “Johnny Dog” Nelson, a sportswriter with the Nashville Tennessean, who would figure into the game’s most famous play.
Cumberland arrived in Atlanta and Allen, unwise in the ways of pregame preparation, took his team to the outskirts of town and ordered his players to run back into Atlanta. For all of the bruising and damage the players received in the next day’s game, most would report their greatest suffering came from that night’s four-mile run.
The game took place on a cool and windy day. Heisman had already decided to platoon his team. He named two squads, one to play each half. He told the players that he would buy the better team a steak dinner.
It took less than one minute before Everett Strupper ran for Tech’s first touchdown. That set off a torrent of scoring that Cumberland could not slow. Georgia Tech scored every time it had the ball. Cumberland had so little success advancing the ball it took to punting on first down.
Even in an era of high-scoring games, it was obvious that this was headed to historic proportions. A sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal called in the improbable halftime score, 126-0, to his office. His editors, thinking he was drunk, hung up on him.
It’s not known whether Heisman’s halftime speech was delivered with a straight face, but, while nursing a 126-0 lead, this is what he told his team: “You’re doing all right. But you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. Be alert, men! Hit ‘em clean, but hit ‘em hard!”
Meanwhile, across the field in the Cumberland locker room, the dazed visitors’ battle cry was, “Hang on, boys! Remember the $500!”
The game was a statistical heaven, or grim record, depending on your allegiance. The most noteworthy Cumberland stat: Leading rusher, Morris Gougher, gained minus two yards in five carries. Leading passer Leon McDonald completed two of 11 passes for 14 yards, but threw four interceptions. Three were returned for touchdowns.
At one point, Georgia Tech decided to try an experiment. On one offensive play near the Cumberland end zone, Tech’s blockers all dropped to the ground when the ball was snapped. Cumberland’s players--thinking this was some maneuver involving arcane rules they didn’t know--likewise fell to the ground. The Tech running back walked, untouched, into the end zone.
Cumberland was running out of ideas, and players. Many, already in some pain, began to exaggerate their injuries. Two were discovered by Heisman on the Georgia Tech bench, hiding under a blanket. Another escaped by climbing over a fence.
Nor was Allen any help. A man of slight build and marginal athletic ability, Allen had never intended to play. Yet, his teammates ordered him into the game late in the fourth quarter. He played two downs. On his first appearance, Allen punted the ball into the neck of his teammate who had snapped it to him.
In his second appearance, the game’s most infamous gaffe occurred. Nelson, the sportswriter, fumbled. The ball rolled toward Allen.
“Pick it up!” Nelson shouted.
Allen looked first at the ball at his feet, then to the onrushing Tech defenders, then shouted back, “You dropped it, you pick it up!”
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How Lopsided Was It?
A look at some of the statistics from Georgia Tech’s 222-0 victory over Cumberland in 1916:
Scored its first touchdown in less than one minute. Never threw a pass. Never punted. Was never penalized. Scored every time it got the ball. Averaged 3.8 points per minute. Led, 126-0, at halftime.
Never got past the 50-yard line. Never gained a first down. Fumbled 10 times--lost possession on all 10 fumbles. Six were returned for touchdowns. Had a total offense of minus 42 yards.
RECORDS THAT COULD HAVE BEEN
The following game statistics are not listed as NCAA records. The NCAA was not yet established at the time of this game and intercollegiate athletic record-keeping was spotty:
* Most touchdowns: 32
* Most extra points: 30
* Most different players to score a touchdown: 11
* Most points scored in one quarter: 63
* Most touchdowns in one quarter: 9
* Most kickoffs returned: 28
* Most points scored in one half: 126