I think the second most important man in the history of American football was a dictatorial opera-loving control freak, who began each training camp by warning his players that it was “Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.” He described his ideal coach as “...severe, arbitrary and little short of a czar” and proceeded to live up to that image. His teams' diets were heavy on raw meat, and devoid of apples. John Heisman (above) found American football a brutal, violent helmetless ground game that killed 44 players in 1904, and was filled with arcane idiosyncratic rules, such as a team just scored against could chose to either kick or receive. It was John Heisman who invented the forward pass, the hidden ball play and divided each half into quarters. And it was John Heisman who led the Georgia Technology Institute “Engineers” to the most decisive victory in the history of the game. Of course, he had a little help.
Twenty miles east of the metropolis of Nashville, in the picturesque village of Lebanon, is tiny Cumberland University. In the decades around the dawn of the twentieth century its prestigious School of Law graduated more future Congressmen than any other school in the South – impressive, with a student body of less than 1,000. In the more significant aspects of college life, the 1903 Cumberland football team had a championship 7-1 season, and a post season Thanksgiving day 11-11 tie against a Clemson team coached by John Heisman.
In March of 1916 Cumberland signed a contract to play a fall game against Georgia Tech in exchange for at least $500 from the ticket sales. Then, over the howls of disappointed students and alumni, hard economic times forced acting President Dr. Homer Hill to choose academics over football. New student manager George Allen was told to cancel all football contracts.
Except John Heisman (above), now in his second year coaching at Georgia Tech, and who depended on ticket proceeds for a portion of his salary, refused to cancel their game. Also, there had been a “misunderstanding” the previous summer over some alleged “professional ringers” in a baseball game between the two schools, and Heisman, who was also the Georgia Tech baseball coach, had insisted on adding a $3,000 penalty to their football contract, which Cumberland had unwisely agreed to. So, if a Cumberland football team did not suit up on Saturday, 7 November, 1916 , the small school would have to pay Georgia Tech today's equivalent of $60,000.
The burden for preventing the bankruptcy of Cumberland University fell to acting coach and law student Ernest “Butch” McQueen. Promised half of the $500 guarantee, he recruited a squad of 20 volunteers (mostly from his Kappa Sigma fraternity) and put them through some tough scrimmages. Gentry Dugat, who had played football once in high school, agreed to join the team only because the overnight trip to Atlanta would be his first ride in a Pullman sleeping car. There had been hopes of recruiting more “ringers” from the Vanderbilt team while changing trains in Nashville, but none could be obtained. In fact, three of the Cumberland volunteers missed the train to Atlanta, cutting the roster available for the game to just 17.
Waiting for the Cumberland Bulldogs on Georgia Tech's three year old Grant Field was a squad of 40 highly motivated dedicated players, who, a week earlier, in their season opener, had demolished Mercer College 61 to zero.
Also waiting was Coach John Heisman, who had found a new enemy to motivate himself; sportswriters, whose habit of “totaling up the number of points each team has amassed...and comparing them with one another” annoyed him To prove their reasoning was specious, Heisman had decided “...to show folks it was no difficult thing to run up a score in one easy game.” And the Cumberland Bulldog stand-ins were going to be the his stand-ins, too .
The festivities began when Jim Preas kicked off for Georgia Tech. “Morris” Grouger caught the ball at the Cumberland 25 yard line and got no closer to Georgia's goal line. On their first play Cumberland quarterback Leon McDonald handed the ball off to Grouger again, and he made three yards against Georgia's left tackle. On second and seven, McDonald was stopped at the line of scrimmage. The Bulldogs also failed to advance the ball on third down. On fourth down McDonald punted – sort of. His kick covered less than 20 yards and was caught by Georgia quarterback Jim Preas. Cumberland finally tackled Preas on their own 20 yard line.
On Georgia's first play Junior halfback Evertt “Strupp” Strupper went around the left end for the score. Jim Preas kicked the extra point , and that quickly the score was Georgia 7 and Cumberland zero.
This time Heisman picked Tommy Spence to kick off. Again it was “Morris” Grouger who caught the ball, this time at the Cumberland's five yard line. And this time he made five yards before he was tackled. With the ball on Cumberland's ten yard line, McDonald handed off to running back George Murphy who went to the right side, where he was hit and coughed up the ball. It was picked up by "Engineer" Marshall Guill, who ran the ten yards for Georgia's second touchdown. Preas again kicked the extra point; Tech, 14. Cumberland, 0.
What followed was either depressingly predictable or delightfully surprising – depending on which team you were rooting for. Preas kicks off, Grouger received at the 20 and returned ten yards to the Cumberland 30 yard line. On first down quarterback McDonald fumbled behind the line, and it was recovered by “Hip” West for Georgia at the Cumberland 20. Strupper made fifteen yards on the first down, and Jim Preas went the last five for the score. He then kicked the extra point; Georgia Tech, 21, Cumberland, zero.
Preas kicked off, and it was received by McDonald at the ten, who made it to the 20 yard line before being tackled. Morris Gouger tried the left side and was thrown for a 5 yard loss. McDonald tried a pass, but it was incomplete. Out of frustration, McDonald punted on third down, putting it out of bounds on the Cumberland 35. On the first down for Georgia, Buzz Shaver hit the left side of the Cumberland line for twenty five yards. Halfback “Strup” Strupper went the remaining ten yards for the score. Preas kicked the extra point; Georgia, 28, Cumberland, zero.
Desperate to try anything, Cumberland decided to use the obscure rule that allowed them to kick off. How this was supposed to help the Bulldogs is unclear, in part because it did not. McDonald got a good foot on the ball, and it was received at the Georgia 20 by Buzz Shaver, who ran it back 70 yards to the Cumberland 10 yard line. Strupper could have scored on the next play but he grounded the ball on the one yard line. The Georgia Tech team had decided that guard J.S. "Canty" Alexander should be allowed to score the next touchdown. But “Canty”was worried that his teammates might be setting him up. He admitted 70 years later that on the hand off, “I was so busy watching to make sure they blocked, that the ball hit me in the chest and I fumbled. But I picked it up on the five and pranced across like a debutante.” Preas hit the extra point. The score was now Georgia Tech, 35, Cumberland zero.
Again Cumberland chose to kick off. Walter “Six” Carpenter caught the ball on the Georgia 35 and was stopped after just a five yard return. Things were actually looking up for Cumberland for a moment, and then on the next snap, “Strup” ran it for sixty yards and the score – after Preas conversion, it was now Georgia, 42, Cumberland zero. Again McDonald kicked off . Again Carpenter caught the ball. This time he made a ten yard return to the Georgia thirty-five. Then “Buzz” Shaver got twenty-five yards over the right side, Ralph Puckett made five up the middle, and Spence went thirty-five for the score. Preas hit the extra point; Georgia, 49, Cumberland, zero.
Cumberland gave up the idea of kicking off, and McDonald received at the Cumberland ten. He then tried three passes, before punting. “Strup” Strupper returned the kick thirty-five yards for another touchdown, and Preas kicked the extra point; Georgia 56, Cumberland, zero. Cumberland decided to try kicking off one more time. Tommy Spence returned it ninety yards for a trouch down, and Preas kicked his ninth extra point – Georgia, 63, Cumberland, zero. Georgia let Tommy Spence kick off, and Morris Gouger caught it at the fifteen and returned it to Cumberland twenty-five, before losing five yards on the first play from scrimmage. McDonald then lost more five yards, before trying two passes in a row. Then, mercifully the whistle blew, signifying the end of the first quarter – just three more to go. And Everett “Strupp” Stupper had already scored four touchdowns.
Cumberland started the Second quarter with a very respectable fifty yard punt by McDonald, but Charlie Turner for Georgia returned it forty-five of those yards, back to the Cumberland twenty. On the very next play Jim Senter scored. Preas kicked the extra point; Georgia, 70, Cumberland, zero.
Cumberland actually made nine yards on the next series of downs, but that triumph was overshadowed when McDonald's weary foot could punt the ball just eleven yards. Two plays later Preas ran the ball in from the fifteen. Preas kicked the extra point; Georgia, 77, Cumberland, zero. Preas kicked off, Grouger returned to the Cumberland twenty, McDonald threw an interception to Marsall Guill who scored. Preas kicked the extra point; Georgia 84, Cumberland, zero. Preas kicked off, George Murphy received for Cumberland and was nailed at the ten yard line. Charles “Eddie” Edwards then fumbled for Cumberland and one play later George Griffen scored. Preas kicked the extra point; Georgia, 91, Cumberland, zero.
At some point during the endless horror of that second quarter, members of the Cumberland team contend that they made a major football innovation. Between plays, in an attempt to find a way to survive the overpowering Georgia line, they gathered together, and thus invented the huddle. Maybe – but the half did finally, mercifully end; Georgia Tech, 126, Cumberland, zero.
John Heisman found a way to give a half time pep talk to his Georgia team. “You're doing all right, team,. We're ahead. But you just can't tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. They may spring a surprise. Be alert, men! Hit 'em clean, but hit 'em. Hard!” He also agreed to reduce the torture to just 12 minutes each for the two remaining quarters.
But even the shortened third quarter was no better for Cumberland than the previous two. According to Grantland Rice, who was covering the game for the Atlanta Journal, “Cumberland's greatest individual play of the game occurred when fullback (George) Allen circled right for a six-yard loss.” It was only a slight exaggeration. Cumberland did complete one six yard forward pass, but they never got the ball into Georgia territory. So crushing was the Georgia Tech line, that when yet another Cumberland fumble rolled toward Cumberland Bulldog B.F. “Bird” Paty, he froze. Shouted the man who had lost the ball, “Pick it up!” Paty shouted back, “Pick it up yourself, you dropped it.” Wrote Rice, “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'”.
The other Atlanta Journal writer in attendance, Morgan Blake, noticed that the Cumberland team “... couldn't run with the ball, they couldn't block and they couldn't tackle. At spasmodic intervals they were able to down a runner, but they were decidedly too light and green to be effective at any stage of the game.” In his opinion, "there are from eight to ten prep schools in Tennessee that could beat this Cumberland university anywhere from forty to sixty points. " Near the end of the shortened Third Quarter, Georgian quarterback George Gariffin discovered two Cumberland Bulldogs sitting on the Georgia bench. Heisman yelled at them to get back on their own side of the field. One of the interlopers pleaded, “Don't make us go back. We'll have to go into the game.' “
Morris Grough later claimed he had saved the Bulldogs from even more grief. "I called for a quarterback sneak on fourth down late in the final period. We needed 25 yards and were deep in our (own) territory. I made it back to the line of scrimmage and saved us from really ignominious defeat. If we had punted, as we should have, Tech would have blocked the kick, made another touchdown and the score would have been 229-0.” On the last play of the game, Cumberland lost 5 yards. The final result was awe inspiring; Georgia Teach, 222, Cumberland, zero. Georgia's wooden scoreboard barely had enough room for the numbers
The Georgia Tech Engineers gained 1,620 yards, 978 of it during their own 28 offensive plays, the other 642 by their defense on turnovers. They scored a record 32 touchdowns – 10 on first downs and 14 by their defence and specialty teams. They threw not a single forward pass. They gained 220 yards on punt returns – scoring five TD's - and another 220 yards returning kicks – producing 1 TD. The only issue of concern, if you could call it that, was the two “points after” that they missed. Of course that was 2 out of 32 attempts. They also set records for the most points kicked after touchdown by one player -18 by Jim Preas - most points scored in one quarter – 63 - and most individual players scoring touchdowns - 13 . All of those records still stand.
Meanwhile, Cumberland's offense total was a minus 42 yards. They threw 18 times, gaining a total of 14 yards through the air. Their receivers held onto only two of those passes. They were intercepted six times, and gave up 9 fumbles. Their longest play of the game was a ten yard completed pass. It would have been a first down except it came on fourth and 22. In the entire game neither team scored a first down from scrimmage. Cumberland couldn't, Georgia Tech didn't need to. At the end of the game, Coach Heisman handed over the $500 check to Butch McQueen, adding, “Maybe we can get together again next baseball season.”
Cumberland did not field another football team until 1920. Shortly thereafter they built a new football field, Kirk Field, to ensure the teams continued existence. And except for a short disappearance during the Great Depression, it worked. In 1929 Georgia Tech made their first appearance at the Rose Bowl, and about the same time they ceased to be the “Engineers” and became the “Yellowjackets”.
Coach John Heisman stayed at Georgia Tech for three more years, leaving with 102 wins, 29 losses and 7 ties, a 77% winning percentage, and a national championship in 1917. Heisman and his wife divorced in 1919, and he left Atlanta. He coached at Pennsylvania University, and then Washington and Jefferson College, and ended his coaching career at the Rice Institute. In his later years he was hired as a trainer for the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan. After his death in 1936 the club created a yearly award to the top college football player – The Heisman Trophy. John Heisman is also remembered for an American football adage, a piece of advice which has guided American business leaders and politicians for the last century; “When in doubt, punt”
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