The Revenge Of John Heisman
Wednesday - November 29, 2006
In college football, what was the greatest game ever played? Greatest is a subjective word, so consider which game is the most enduring?
Was it Michigan State-Notre Dame, USC-Texas, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Ohio State-Michigan, Cal-Stanford? Or locally, how about Hawaii-BYU?
Sure, they were all great, but did the final scores of those games get seared into your memory forever? Heck, I can hardly remember last week’s score.
Tiny Cumberland College knows the answer to the question. And they know the numbers, too. We all do.
Ninety years ago, in October 1916, Cumberland got whipped by Georgia Tech - is that word even strong enough? - by the improbable score of 222-0.
We’ve all seen the score. It’s a breathtaking number. But do you know the story behind it?
It actually started a year earlier - in 1915 - when Cumberland of Tennessee faced Georgia Tech in baseball. John Heisman - yep, the guy the Heisman Trophy is named after - was Georgia Tech’s football, basketball and baseball coach. But Cumberland brought in ringers, or so people say, and their “baseball professionals” ripped Heisman’s amateur team. In fact, Cumberland ended up running up the score to a final of 22-0. (Shades of scores to come!)
Heisman was infuriated by the baseball result. And he set in motion a chain of events to make sure his school could gain its revenge.
Heisman was a football innovator. He’s credited with helping establish the forward pass as a staple in the offense - June Jones and Colt Brennan, say “Thank you very much!”
Heisman is also the man who developed the center hike - previously, the ball was “rolled” to the quarterback. And he also pushed for the current four quarters. Prior to his politicking, college football was a game of two halves.
Heisman was building a dynasty at Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, tiny Cumberland - located across the state line in nearby Lebanon, Tenn. - had dropped football more than once.
Heisman wanted the game badly. He made a huge cash guarantee - $500 plus traveling expenses was big money in those days - to make sure Cumberland came to Atlanta to play the game.
The Georgia Tech head coach had a point to make. Revenge was one thing. But he also wanted to embarrass the national sportswriters who consistently awarded the national championship to the highest scoring team. He’d give them a score they’d never forget!
The problem was that Cumberland really didn’t have a football team any longer - they had dropped the sport after the previous season.
But Heisman and an enterprising Cumberland student manager wanted the deal to go through. The student manager’s problem was finding able-bodied young men willing to fight for their school.
He looked no further than fraternity row - 19 Kappa Sigmas were “recruited” to make the train ride from Tennessee to Atlanta. Ironically, only 16 of them made it; the other three reportedly got lost in Nashville! (Lucky them!)
The game was a mismatch from the very beginning.
Georgia Tech, known for precision offenses that were way ahead of their time, scored on its first play from scrimmage. They were so efficient at scoring, they didn’t even make one first down - not one the entire game! They didn’t need to.
Not surprisingly, Cumberland didn’t make a first down either.
According to a play-by-play account (published years later) in the Atlanta Constitution,Tech scored nine touchdowns in both the first and second quarters (that’s 18 TD’s in the half!) and led 126-0 at halftime.
The second half was mercifully shortened - to just 15 minutes total - but Tech continued to pile it on and scored 14 more touchdowns to make the final score 222-0. That’s 222 points in just 45 minutes!
Afterward, Heisman reportedly took every player in the game - on both sides - for a steak dinner.
A worthy reward for playing in “the greatest game ever played.”
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