Everybody knows the Heisman Trophy.
Everybody knows the classic Heisman pose, knee lifted up and arm extended, depicted on the trophy. Everybody knows the football legends, past and present, who have won the coveted award. What not many people know, however, is the legacy of the man for whom the trophy is named: the great John Heisman.
Heisman began his football career as an offensive lineman, first playing for Brown from 1887-89 and then for Penn in 1890 and 1891 following a transfer. Due to his small size, weighing only 158 pounds, his playing career was not very notable. His real football notoriety came from an impressive post-playing career as a coach and as an early football innovator.
Passionate about acting, Heisman worked as a Shakespearean actor during the off-season, bringing a flair for the dramatic to his commanding coaching style. He was known for giving the following speech to his team before each season: “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.”
Heisman began his coaching career immediately after his time at Penn, when he took over as coach of Oberlin College for a year, before moving to Buchtel (now University of Akron) to coach there for the 1893 season. It was at Buchtel where Heisman made his first great innovation: the snap from the center to the quarterback to begin an offensive play.
This came about because the starting quarterback for Buchtel in 1893, Harry Clark, was 6-foot-4. Due to his tall stature, Clark was unable to begin plays the way quarterbacks normally did at the time, by grabbing the ball directly off of the ground. Instead, Heisman had the center throw Clark the ball in order to start the play, starting the now-ubiquitous practice of snapping the ball to the quarterback.
Over the course of the next 10 years, Heisman coached at Oberlin, Auburn, and Clemson, where he finally found some success, winning three conference titles in four years while leading the Tigers to a 19-3-2 record. In addition to coaching football, Heisman was the Tigers’ baseball coach, guiding the team to a 28-6-1 between 1901 and 1903.
While at Clemson, Heisman began to show what a brilliant strategist he was. One such demonstration occurred when the Tigers went to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech. Clemson’s players were spotted out all night partying, so the Yellow Jackets prepared for an easy win over a tired opponent.
What happened, in actuality, was that Heisman had directed Clemson’s junior varsity players to go out and party all night to make it seem as though Clemson’s players would show up to the next day’s game hungover. When the game started, the Tigers rushed out to an early lead over the surprised Yellow Jackets and never looked back, winning the game by a score of 44-5.
Heisman’s strategies were also present on the football field, as he is credited with being the first person to utilize an early version of the hidden ball trick, having his players hide the ball under their jerseys to confuse opponents in a now-illegal move.
Heisman’s most brilliant and impactful strategy was his “Heisman shift,” which he popularized during his tenure at Georgia Tech. A precursor to the I formation, Heisman would set up four players directly under center and have them shift right before the snap to set up blocks for the running back, who would catch the direct snap and follow his shifted backfield mates.
Following his time at Clemson, Heisman was hired by Georgia Tech as both a football and baseball coach. After coaching the football team to a 65-23-5 record between 1904 and 1914, Heisman found great success over the next four years, winning four straight conference titles, including the national championship in 1917.
During this time, Heisman participated in one of the most famous games in college football history.
On Oct. 7, 1916, the Yellow Jackets hosted the Cumberland Bulldogs for an early-season matchup between the two schools. Despite the fact that Cumberland had disbanded its football program the year before, Georgia Tech insisted that they play, or else they would have to pay Georgia Tech $3,000 to make up for the expected ticket revenue that would be lost if the game wasn’t played.
Cumberland decided to put together a team instead of paying the fine and came to Atlanta with a 14-man team made up mostly of fraternity brothers. The game ended in the most lopsided result in football history, with the Yellow Jackets running the score up all the way to 222-0.
There are a few theories as to why Heisman decided to run up the score the way he did. One is that he was getting revenge for a baseball game that had happened the previous season when Georgia Tech, under his coaching, lost to Cumberland 22-0.
This was followed by allegations that Cumberland had hired semi-professional “ringers” to play and ended up crushing Georgia Tech. Another theory is that Heisman was trying to show the sportswriters that their method of choosing the national champion, basing it heavily on points scored, was not an effective way to decide who the best team was.
Regardless of the reason, Georgia Tech’s lopsided victory still stands (and likely will continue to stand) as the record for the largest margin of victory in an organized football game, over 100 years later.
Following his great success at Georgia Tech, Heisman coached at Penn for three years, as well as at Washington & Jefferson and at Rice, before retiring in 1927 with a career coaching record of 186-70-18, including seven conference championships and a national title.
After his coaching career, Heisman took over as director of the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City in 1935. That year, the club awarded a trophy to the best college football player in the country, University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger.
After Heisman died in 1936, the club decided to honor him by naming the trophy in his honor and giving it to the best college football player in the nation each year. The practice continues to this day, despite the club shutting down in 2001. Since then, the Heisman Trophy Trust has given out the prestigious award.
Although Penn has had three players finish in the top three in Heisman voting, the alma mater of the award's namesake has yet to produce a winner. Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame are tied for the record for most Heisman winners, with seven awards each. Many college football legends have won the award, but Ohio State running back Archie Griffin is the only player to have won it twice, collecting the honors in both 1974 and 1975 on his way to a seven-year NFL career.
Heisman’s legacy lives on through the famous award in his name, but he was also a great coach and innovator who developed many key elements of the modern game. In addition to snapping the ball, Heisman is the one responsible for football being played in quarters, as opposed to two halves, as it was played before him. It's fitting that the award for college football’s best player is named after such a critical figure to the development of the game.
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