While they got the lights installed in the overly cramped, but brand-new Electrical Engineering department, Tech was busy back on the gridiron, still getting clobbered by all comers. Still essentially coach-less and entirely aimless, the program was moribund but a necessary extracurricular outlet for students in the rigid regime of Captain Lyman Hall. Whether or not it was successful was another matter entirely.
The first time I visited the campus of Clemson University, October, 22nd, 2016, in fact, was a gorgeously sunny morning. In search of the pool, we not-yet-national-champions pulled timidly onto Williamson Road headed towards Memorial Stadium. The building we sought was on the left, so we made another left accordingly, this time onto Heisman Drive. Not yet your trusty history column writer, I was confused. What was a lasting tribute to Tech’s most influential coach doing at Clemson, one of our biggest rivals? Turns out, the answer to that is filled with a lot more intrigue than anyone, except maybe the brilliant Heisman, could have foreseen.
After years of ineptitude on the gridiron, 1899 graduate and mechanical drawing instructor Frank Turner was fed up. In the waning days of the 1902 season, a season in which Tech lost all of its games yet again, he decided it was time for some change. The committee he organized was dedicated to a singular goal: find a real football coach. In the six years since 1896, the Jackets had gone a spectacular 4-20-2, good for a .167 winning percentage. In that time, they lost to the school in Athens five times, as well as three times each to Clemson and Auburn. Things were going rather poorly for the Jackets. In fact, the one season with a winning record, and, in fact, the season which they won all four of those games, they were blacklisted under suspicions of professionalism, which were probably deserved. A team that hasn’t won a single game in half a decade with a nobody coach suddenly went 4-0-1. That’s not suspicious at all. And, to boot, that year, they ducked all three of Clemson, Auburn, and the Athenians. Things were not going well.
1901 Football Schedule
It took another season before Turner achieved the change he so desperately craved. And after the worst demolition of yet another awful season in 1903, Turner and the committee had found the man they would anoint to lead the Georgia School of Technology from the laughingstock of the southeast to one of the greatest football teams that will ever exist, period. That man was none other than John Heisman himself, the brilliant actor behind Clemson’s 73-0 destruction of Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Tech got stormed out of their own home field, which was, at the time, a modest setup over in Piedmont Park. One might add that, of course it was in Atlanta, as Tech didn’t face Clemson in Memorial Stadium for another 80 years, when Bill Curry marched the Yellow Jackets into Death Valley in their inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, 1983, in a game Tech would go on to lose 41-14. However, those dark years are a story for another time.
1903 Football Schedule
One fine day after that 1903 season, Turner gathered everyone at the school in Tech Tower’s old chapel and spelled out to the entire faculty, staff, and student body why they needed a true head football coach. The result was beyond anything they had hoped for. Facing the ever pleasant and agreeable Lyman Hall was always a fun job, but asking the cash strapped school for money to increase spending in a discretionary area was another matter entirely. Yet somehow, the committee raised $1,300 from the administration, while the ecstatic student body, which is putting it lightly, added $2,200 of their own to the bait money.
As it turns out, Hall had already sent a letter at the behest of the fans to Heisman, informing him about the coaching opportunities in the rapidly-growing Atlanta area. Lyman Hall was actively, though apparently unconvincingly, stumping for a football team it didn’t really seem like he wanted to, you know, continue existing. Heisman was more excited by the money and the fervor the students had for the possibility of his arrival. Turner, for his part, visited Heisman several times to sell him on the steaming pile of garbage of a program he would take on.
At the time, Tech, as mentioned, played off campus in a public park, not even a stadium (Ponce de Leon Park, which would host Tech from 1908 to 1911, was not yet completed). The president’s letters, far from the lurid, flowing language of Heisman’s beautiful prose, were frankly uninviting and unconvincing, going as far as to misspell the man’s name multiple times. In inviting him to become the coach of all of Tech’s athletic teams in 1904, Hall writes,
“It is the sense of the Board, that we, considering all of the existing circumstances, leave our proposition open for your consideration, it being distinctly understood that we reserve the right to withdraw our offer at any time, first however, notifying you of our attention to do so, and allowing you twenty four hours after receipt of our registered letter or telegram, to accept or acknowledge our formal withdrawal...we make our offer on an accompanying sheet in form of a contract, which if not signed by you and forwarded to us by Nov. 25, ‘03 we will expect you to return.”
Riveting stuff. So many ways for Hall and the board to back out of the deal, too. The accompanying sheet, the contract, however, was extremely lucrative. The board offered him $2,250 and 30% of the gate receipts from varsity baseball and football, a $50 raise over his Clemson salary. The students were ecstatic when the contract returned signed, and the announcement was made at Tech’s final game against South Carolina on November 26th, which Tech would go on to lose 16-0, an ignominious end to the pre-legendary era at Georgia Tech.
Tech finished the 1903 season 2-5-0, good for a .286 winning percentage. They lost to Clemson, Auburn, and the school in Athens again. Even Tennessee got their digs in, too. But the future, for the first time ever, was bright on the Flats. Heisman was a mover and a shaker, and, like we saw in Auburn, very aggressive about getting teams to come visit him in Atlanta. Maybe, okay, certainly, the immense chunk of revenue he netted from tickets sold motivated him, but he liked to play home games just as much when he coached Auburn and Clemson, when he could manage to get teams to come to him out in those rural Southern towns. At the nexus of the Southern transportation system, the lynchpin of regional rail travel, Heisman wouldn’t ever leave Atlanta to play Clemson, Auburn, Alabama, or the school in Athens. Heisman, ever the crafty innovator on the field, was effective in taking advantage of the extremely mutually beneficial contract that got him to Atlanta in the first place.
For his part, Frank Turner was made the first graduate director of athletics, which, based on his rabble-rousing to get a professional football coach, one suspects he was aiming for all along. The mechanical drawing position was simply a waiting game. And Turner wasn’t wrong, either, in the end. Hiring a true coach was the single most important decision in the history of Tech athletics, one that rocketed it from the basement of the league, a team that couldn’t well survive on the meager one win per year they were averaging, even playing schools that are today small, insignificant backwaters in the world of big-time college athletics. For one national championship, we can thank Turner directly, but, without him, we would probably not have any of the four. Just look at the Georgia Tech of the North, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Great school, no football. How someone could live like that, I do not know.
Heisman kept innovating while he was on the Flats, as we will see as history continues to unfold, on a level unrivaled by anyone, save for Yale’s Walter Camp, Pittsburgh’s Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg of the University of Chicago. He was, in the truest sense of the idea, a man who created the next. Who forged everyday champions. He is the Stansburian ideal, a man who embraced and created positive change and brought championships to the Flats. The next challenge was to, you know, actually obtain what we now know as “the Flats.” And that’s a story for next time.
A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Cracking the Solid South, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to delve into it when I am back in Atlanta, as my selection of resources here at Georgia Tech-Lorraine is a little bit thinner than what I have on my shelves in Atlanta. I am open to all ideas!