Heisman led Jackets to victory

By Pat Edwards
Ramblin' Reck Club

Tech's first football coach was a volunteer, Professor Earnest West, who was a graduate of Annapolis. Our first team, fielded in 1892, played Mercer at Piedmont Park and lost 12-0. Later that same year, Tech also lost to Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Alabama Polytechnic. Tech won her first football game in 1893 when we defeated UGA (sic), 28-6.

John Heisman, Tech's first full-time football coach, is arguably the most recognized name in college football. His image stands proudly in bronze on the Callaway Plaza adjacent to Grant Field on Bobby Dodd Way.

John Heisman was born Johann Wilhelm Heisman on October 23, 1869 in Cleveland, Ohio to Johann M. and Sarah Lehr Heisman, who had recently emigrated from Germany. John's father was the disinherited son of a German noble family, the Barons Von Bogart, who ostracized John's father for marrying an untitled girl. Sarah's grandfather, the Mater of Knauge, had been an aide-de-campe to Napoleon. The young couple took the name Heisman, which had been Sarah's maiden name, and moved promptly to America.

The elder Heisman was a cooper, or barrel maker, by trade and soon relocated the family to Titusville, Pennsylvania, where he made barrels for oil companies.

It was at Titusville High School that John received his first exposure to playing football. His father, who called the sport 'beastly,' refused to watch any of his games.

Heisman entered the world of college football in 1887. He played three years at Brown University before transferring in 1889 to Penn to study law. He played there for another two years.

In 1892, Heisman received an eye injury from the galvanic lighting system at an indoor game played at Madison Square Garden. He was advised by Penn team doctor Edward Jackson to rest his eyes for two years. This forced John to delay the start of his law practice.

The twenty-three year old Heisman turned his focused attention to football by becoming the first full-time football coach of Oberlin College in Ohio. He would stay at Oberlin, except for a brief sojourn to Buchtel, until 1895.

With John's career change to coaching, John's father made up for missing his son's high school and college games by attending the game between Oberlin and Western in 1892. At that game the elder Heisman, coming first to see what his son would give up a law practice for, and later to support a team he saw as an underdog, began to pace up and down the Western sidelines offering $100 bills as bets in favor of Oberlin.

The elder Heisman made money that day; Oberlin beat Western 38-8.

It was in these early years of coaching that Heisman devised important maneuvers and concepts that today are taken for granted as essentials of the game of football.

Up to that time, the center on an offensive line would roll the ball on the ground to the quarterback to start the down. This interfered with Heisman's team because their quarterback, Harry Clark, was 6 foot 4 inches tall. The stoop to grab the wobbling ball was too difficult for the giant. Heisman's solution started the practice of the center passing the ball up in the air through his legs to the quarterback. This is known today as the center snap.

Heisman would also employ to great advantage the forward pass, as well as the 'Hike!' call that would signal the start of play.

Heisman moved to the South in 1895, first to the Alabama Polytechnic Institute and in 1900 to Clemson, before finally agreeing to coach at Tech in 1904.

While at Clemson in 1903 he wed a widow, Evelyn McCollum Cox, who belonged to an acting company that John also belonged to. (Heisman had always held a love for drama, and he had often performed in various acting companies.)

Carlisle (the Eternal Scrub) Cox, John's stepson, would eventually attend Tech. Although he weighed only 139 pounds, he played three years of varsity football under his stepfather before enjoying an illustrious military career.

The stern and miserly President Lyman Hall of Georgia Tech, who had once expelled an entire senior class for returning from Christmas break a day late, brought Tech's first coach on board almost reluctantly.

Hall offered the salary of $2,250 and 1/3 of the gate receipts for athletic events to Heisman in a letter whose tone could be called tepid, at best. This did not diminish Heisman's enthusiasm, and he accepted the offer, one day before it expired on November 26, 1903. He was hired to coach not only in football, but also baseball and basketball.

John moved early in 1904 with his family to a home a mile from Tech campus on Ponce de Leon Avenue. His household included an overly indulged poodle named "Woo." Woo would often come to practices and pose with Heisman for team photographs. There is even an account that Woo enjoyed a nightly ritual of ice cream that was indulged by the rigid football disciplinarian.

Coach Heisman's draconian discipline for his teams were legendary. One transgression that he considered anathema was the fumble. "Better to have died a small boy," would be his admonition to those who failed to hold the ball once they captured it.)

Heisman also strictly prohibited other "vices" in his players, including no fried foods, pork, smoking, alcohol, or sex, although he would relax these rules in celebration of a victory. Tech men were permitted a single victory beer and cigar after a win.

Heisman would often rely upon his acting experience for the necessary dramatics to make a point or inspire a team. Once, when the ranks of players for his teams were thin, John mounted the pulpit in the campus's required chapel service and appealed to students to try out for football.

No coach in Tech history has ever equaled Heisman's record of 102 wins, 7 ties, and 27 losses. His record also includes a national championship in the 9-0 "Golden Tornado" team of 1917. The team was Heisman's third consecutive undefeated squad, and had a thirty-three game winning streak for the Jackets.

The success of Heisman's coaching career was sadly not mirrored in his family life. In 1919, he and Mrs. Heisman divorced. John offered to live in a place other than his ex-wife in order to avoid any social embarrassment for her, and she chose Atlanta.

Heisman moved to coach at Penn from 1920-1922, Washington and Jefferson in 1923, and finally Rice from 1924-1927, but his career never would carry the same luster it had in the past.

It was during his return to the North that he married an old college sweetheart, Edith Maora Cole, who would remain his wife until he died. In 1927, Heisman accepted the position as the first director of the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, where he served until his death on October 3, 1936. He died at 66 years of age, after a short bout of bronchopneumonia.

In 1935, the Downtown Athletic Club offered a new award to the finest college football player in the country. After John's death, the award was renamed in his honor, and today the award for the highest excellence in college football is called the Heisman Trophy.

Heisman had composed, over his years in football, a set of axioms he would distribute to players on his philosophy of football. This collection of dos, don'ts, cans, cant's, alwayses and nevers includes one that should stand as an epitaph to one of the Greats of college football: "Never forget a football player may be a gentleman."

Questions or comments about this page? Feedback
Copyright © 1997 by Gregory S. Scherrer, Editor
and by the Student Publications Board