Sure, the Captain and Frank Turner found their man, but turning him to work was another matter entirely. Hired to be the coach of Tech’s fledgling baseball and football teams, Heisman brought his innate football genius to the tiny campus on North Avenue. The football team was, to not mince words, otherworldly terrible in the decade or so it had existed prior to his arrival, so turning around the motley band of scrubs he inherited was a tall order. The coach, guaranteed 30% of the gate receipts, wanted a product that not only would demonstrate his genius and win games, but also fill the stands. Tech’s nomadic, rag-tag assembly of pushovers could do neither, for the time being.
If you love diving into random topics and learning about a bunch of practical, but mostly useless information, the Georgia Tech Facilities Management website is a pretty good place to start digging. From the real and true Landscape Master Plan to other, regular old master plans, there’s a bunch of different PDFs to learn random stuff about Tech’s future. Interestingly, it’s a nice way to look at Tech’s past. Since un-burying the streams of Tech is basically cause number one in guiding Tech’s future physical geography, it’s not a giant leap to wonder why they’re underground in the first place.
Standing on the Hill, one looks directly into downtown Atlanta, or, more accurately, over downtown Atlanta. The pinnacle of Tech Tower was one of the tallest structures in town when it was completed 130 years ago, and, even today, there’s a loose understanding that no modern construction should overwhelm the Administration Building’s height, though notable past exceptions do exist. When one crosses the gentle dip behind the southern end zone of Bobby Dodd Stadium along North Avenue, they quickly ascend several staircases to get to the small patch of high ground the Institute was built on. This path even follows the one the original students took as they marched to class from their off-campus boarding houses. Except, at the time, the North Avenue trestle was the only route across a deep ravine that physically isolated the Hill from Peachtree as much as the Downtown Connector seals the modern Institute off from Midtown.
With just a few acres of precious land to build on, presidents Isaac Hopkins and especially the construction whiz Lyman Hall were painfully aware of the necessity of space management. This left absolutely no room for green space on the original Institute once it started to grow, not that there was enough room to support a football field in the first place. Since the Tech team in those days was a listless band of coach-less nomads, no one really cared much, either. That is, until John Heisman rolled into town - then they were just regular nomads, of course, with a tactical genius at the reigns. A permanent home would suit the prominent coaching guru’s desire to display his team, of course, but also line his own pockets. Heisman’s hidden incentive, both to build his team a permanent home, and later to strong-arm teams like the school in Athens, Clemson, Alabama, and Auburn, not to mention the smaller teams of the region, into overwhelmingly facing his team at home was the generous 30% of gate receipts stipulated in his contract. Heisman really wanted to get the ball rolling, but a couple things stood in the way.
In early days, before Heisman, the Georgia School of Technology Blacksmiths played their home games at Piedmont Park, Brisbane Park, and Athletic Park, in that order. In the decade-plus spanning 1892-1903, the Jackets usually played more than a fair share of road games as well. As a young, struggling program, this was partially to be expected. Lacking a coach with a loud voice and a home stadium to call their own, this wasn’t that unexpected. Things got a little more complicated with Heisman in town.
The coach and his gate royalties led the charge to get Tech its own home field. In early 1904, Tech leased most of the ravine behind the Knowles Dormitory, ceding more ticket revenue for the privilege. Heisman’s first team to play on the Flats was the 1904 baseball team, as baseball and football playing fields were both laid out on the newly acquired property. In that first season, the valley was still so rough that there wasn’t even a right field, but Tech played there nonetheless.
“We had to chop a path down to the rough diamond we had laid our ourselves. The lack of level ground had temporarily eliminated a right field, so all of the fielders just practiced in left field. Practice was interrupted frequently by a scared rabbit or a snake searching for the warm sun. We chased the rabbits but seldom caught one as the bushes and other hiding places were too numerous and thick. And, we exterminated most of the snakes by the simple device of using our bats as clubs.”
Baseball may not be the biggest game on the Flats nowadays, but in those days, it was first priority, bar none. It’s a testament to baseball Tech even has an athletic program at all, or so the story goes.
Since Tech failed to win a game from 1896 into the new century, the athletic association was out of funds. First, Guy Cole, president of the GTAA for thirty years, went to Captain Lyman Hall to ask for some assistance. He suggested a mere $1 per student come out of dues to fund athletics. Because academics were not subservient to sports back then just as they are now, Hall denied that request. The Georgia Tech Athletic Association is, today, financially autonomous from the school. The precedent was set very early on. Anyways, basically, with the Flats still a gully with a marsh and Ponce de Leon Park not built yet, Tech baseball also played in Brisbane Park, and, for two days in late April, they managed to build on their early season success and pack the place against Mercer. This allowed them to pay off their debts. Without that, there would be money, so no Heisman and no Flats. So baseball was the big draw in 1904. Getting it on campus into its own stadium would help Tech revenues. Football, though, would end up seeing the biggest benefit.
Heisman’s Nomadic Years
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After the 1904 season, where Tech finished 8-1-1 after playing their home slate at Piedmont Park, Heisman managed to sweet-talk the city of Atlanta to send him 300 convicts to level the marsh Tech had leased into a remotely level playing field. The stream was buried and so was the main trunk sewer line, which is “still giving Tech trouble with its building efforts,” a quote as apt in 1963 when Dress Her in White and Gold was written as it is today with the current campus construction. Digging under the stadium today is sure to yield water in some form, with the old Heisman Gym pool under the north end zone, not to mention a major drainage basin and a critical trunk sewer line running up the central axis of the field. All that remained aboveground was a manhole cover in center field, which was later removed because of peculiar incidents where freshmen that ignored the RAT rules were hung by their ankles into the bowels of the Atlanta municipal sewer system. As far as we know, they were just investigating flow and fluid mechanics, of course.
Once the field was properly flat, a swarm of students built wooden grandstands around the baseball diamond, preserving some oak trees, which provided natural shade on hot spring days. Understandably, those trees are now quite gone. To quote the 1908 Blueprint, “All felt a personal ownership in the park.”
Tech football played two full seasons in that baseball park before it became inadequate for their needs. Once Ponce de Leon Park, home of the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association, which is roughly equivalent to today’s AA level, was finished in 1907, Tech played their first two games on the Flats before moving out to the bigger stadium, though the Flats was still used for baseball. Curiously, the school in Athens also used Ponce de Leon Park for some of their home games in those days, but, from 1907, it was Tech’s primary field. This was again a drag on the students, who had to leave campus in order to attend games, though coming and going became easier after the passing of Captain Hall, anyways. It was likely Heisman that spurred this move, seeing Poncey as a bigger venue to showcase his rapidly improving Engineers, as they were called back then, as well as increase his potential earnings from his cut of the gate receipts.
In 1908, the schedule was largely the same. Tech played a vast majority of its games at home, though the first two were not in the minor league baseball stadium nor the Flats, but rather in their old haunts in Piedmont Park. Given that this happened in 1909, 1910, and 1911 as well, one can presume that the Atlanta baseball team had first dibs on their home field, and seeing that the season usually extends through the month of September, that likely precluded Georgia Tech from using the stadium then. By 1912, Tech was back on the Flats. Since the school had managed to acquire the rest of the parcel abutting what is now Bobby Dodd Way, there was finally enough room for the baseball diamond and the football gridiron to coexist. There still wasn’t a permanent football grandstand in 1912, but the school finally received the funding from John Grant to build them in the offseason. This was a critical reason why Heisman’s early teams couldn’t play on the Flats. There was nowhere decent for fans to watch the game. Interestingly, the Yellow Jackets also played the University of Florida that season in Jacksonville, Florida, becoming the first major school from the state of Georgia to do so.
In the offseason, once again the student body constructed the new grandstand. The remains of the first seating are actually still present under the modern West Stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium. When the venue was complete, it sat 7,000 fans and was named Grant Field in honor of the benefactor’s son, Hugh Inman Grant. Thus, the oldest continuously used on-campus site in the South and FBS was finally complete, nearly a decade after the Peters Land Company signed over the lease. Only Penn’s Franklin Field and Harvard’s Harvard Stadium predate football on the Flats in all of Division One football. By 1919, Heisman’s final year, the stadium had been steadily expanded thanks to healthy attendance and could hold 25,000 fans. Football took the mantle as Tech’s most popular sport and never looked back.
Toe meets leather on the Flats: the oldest gameday tradition in all of FBS.
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!