Matheson may have been distracted by his library, but, meanwhile, the school he now led had a demigod-like legend at the helm of a football team with exactly two winning records to its name before he took control. Sure, he had a compelling contract and the backing of a rabid student body eager to support someone - anyone - who could lead the Blacksmiths to victory, but the school’s last winning campaign of 1901 was marred by an amateurism scandal. He wasn’t exactly working with top-flight talent from the get-go.
We join Heisman at the nadir of his Tech career, a 54-0 shellacking at the hands of eventual Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion Vanderbilt on November 16th, 1907. The loss moved the Jackets to 4-3 on the year, aided by two early blowouts of cupcake schools. Since then, Tech had notched wins again Tennessee and the school in Athens, always a nice touch, but losses to the University of the South, Auburn, and the especially brutal one at the hands of the Commodores had led to a middling season. So how did Tech get here?
So far on the Flats, which you’ll remember is a tenuous term in and of itself at the time, Heisman hadn’t been that bad. His entirely unexpected 8-1-1 record in 1904, his first season at Tech, was a marked improvement from 2-5-0 the year before. In just one recruiting class, Heisman had managed to top Tennessee, Florida, Florida State, and the school out East. Sure, four wins came against Tennessee Medical School, Cumberland in the much-less-famous first matchup between the two teams, the Mooney School, and a squad from Fort McPherson, not to mention that Florida State was most definitely not the program we know today, but eight wins were eight wins. Heisman tied his former employer and lost to Auburn, another spurned school spurned by Heisman. It would take two more years before Tech finally notched its first-ever win against the Tigers of the west.
He followed up with a 6-0-1 record the next year, with wins against Alabama, Clemson, Tennessee, and the Athenians. While this schedule would be an absolute gauntlet in many years nowadays, back then the South was a backwater of the sport, and no one was getting national title consideration. Though they hadn’t lost a game this season, Heisman’s teams still weren’t that great, in the bigger picture.
1905 Football Schedule
|10/7||North Georgia||W 54-0|
The critical step towards eventual greatness came in 1906. Sure, the team was worse, finishing 6-2-1 with the tie coming at the hands of Maryville College in Tennessee, but one of the great innovations of the age, the Heisman jump shift, was born during the loss to Sewanee. The jump shift started with only the center on the line of scrimmage. The offensive line was slightly behind and off-center. Meanwhile, the backfield lined up in a vertical line, the I-formation, featuring an extra halfback. The offense would quickly shift and immediately thereafter the ball was snapped. A common shift saw the line put the center between guard and tackle. The three backs between the line of scrimmage and the tailback would shift to one side, and the center snapped it to the tailback. This obviously failed in the first game against Sewanee, but it laid the groundwork for a lot of future success on the Flats. Sure, Heisman was busy innovating for the football team, but that year was also his best at the helm of the baseball team, which went 23-3. It was a nice change from the coaching tenure of a man known to history only as “Irving,” who led the team to a 9-9 finish the year before Heisman showed up.
But, distractions aside, that brings us back to 1907. It wasn’t a great year for the Yellow Jackets, but John “Twenty Percent” Davis was named All-Southern, and the jump shift was slowly being refined. The next year, led again by “Twenty Percent” Davis as well as Chip Roberts, the Jackets went 6-3-0 in their all-home slate, with wins over Alabama and Clemson. The squad was improving, even though the tenth game of the season wasn’t played when the school in Athens accused Tech of recruiting violations and the game was cancelled. Perhaps this is what was on Heisman’s mind as his stint at the helm of Tech’s first basketball team led to just a 1-6 record while playing at the elegantly-styled Crystal Palace near where today’s D. M. Smith Building stands.
Tech took another step forward in 1909, finishing 7-2-0 and again defeating Clemson, as well as the Athenians and Tennessee. The Jackets were foiled again by Auburn and Sewanee, but in the three years of “Twenty Percent” Davis, Heisman had found a way to draw more out of less, taking his mediocre 4-4-0 team to a half-dozen bad drives from an undefeated season.
1909 Football Schedule
|10/16||South Carolina||W 59–0|
|10/30||@ Tennessee||W 29–0|
|11/13||@ Mercer||W 35–0|
Heisman would remain stuck in the five to seven win range for the next few seasons, as his recruits didn’t quite pan out and his teams kept finding ways to lose two or three games a year. Such was the nature of the competitive, though not yet elite, world of Southern collegiate football. In the four seasons between 1910 and 1913, the Jackets lost ten times. Four of those came to Auburn. Four more came to the Athenians. It was a rough time for rivalry games. Though a loss to the SIAA champion Vanderbilt team in 1910 was a reasonable result, the 1912 team, with its loss to Sewanee, a waning power, and a tie at the hands of the 11th Cavalry was just strange. Tech had defeated them 57-0 the season prior. The regression to a 0-0 draw was nothing short of dumbfounding. Because in those days, college football teams squared off against active military units, not just the military academies. Helpfully, Wikipedia lets us know it was a non-conference game. No kidding.
The fluctuating years weren’t a total wash for the Jackets, though. Heisman’s teams, yet to achieve their final “Golden Tornado” form, featured William Alexander as the backup quarterback. He appeared in only the win against Clemson, enough to earn a varsity letter after being “captain of the scrubs” for the previous three years. The backup quarterback would go on to do the perfect thing with his civil engineering degree, one of the newest degrees at Tech at the time, by becoming an assistant coach after he graduated as valedictorian of the 1912 class.
Heisman’s 1913 team, despite the losses to Auburn and the school in Athens, was the closest he had come to perfection since 1905. The hardest fought win came against Florida in Jacksonville, a 13-3 neutral site victory, but Tech was shoutout in each of its losses. The ultimate reliance on the jump shift, obviously thoroughly solved by two of Tech’s annual rivals, proved to be Tech’s biggest obstacle to ultimate success.
1913 Football Schedule
|9/27||Fort McPherson||W 19–0|
|10/4||@ The Citadel||W 47–0|
|10/12||@ Chattanooga||W 71–6|
|10/25||vs. Florida||W 13–3|
1914 was the first year the Yellow Jackets were referred to as the Golden Tornado, thanks to the blistering running game. However, they still didn’t quite get to the next level, despite the loftier expectations behind team captain Kendall “Wooch” Fielder, who would go on to become a decorated brigadier general in the Second World War. Interestingly, Fielder was involved in the creation of Japanese-American army engineering divisions, and, more importantly, he is regarded as the father of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, composed almost entirely of second generation Japanese-Americans and the most decorated division in American military history. Anyways, though Tech finally broke through against the Athenians, Tech fell again to Auburn and was also upset by Alabama in Birmingham. Heisman’s basketball team, after several season of hiatus and a few more of mediocrity, did snap their funk of ineptitude, however, posting a 6-2 record, identical to the football team. That same year, a young man by the name of George C. Griffin joined the football after being accepted to Tech’s pre-freshman Apprentice class. He didn’t play much, but it is said he would go on to become a great disappointment to Heisman. More on that later.
Presumably for scheduling reasons, the 1914 team broke away from the SIAA to go independent. Though the Jackets and their legendary coach were now well regarded in Southern football, they got next to no attention on the national stage. Increasingly, as his recruiting and innovation leapt ahead of the curve once more, Heisman began to look for ways to increase Tech’s profile outside of the South. Since the powers of the time were predominantly Ivy League schools, as well as Pittsburgh, Michigan, and the University of Chicago, that required increased scheduling flexibility. However, independence would prove to make filling a full schedule difficult, and they started to realign with the SIAA once more in 1915, when, despite being technically still independent, they won the Southern title.
1915 Football Schedule
|10/22||@ Louisiana State||W 36–7|
|10/30||North Carolina||W 23–3|
Of course, no team just magically wins a title, no matter how small. The arrival of Everett Strupper was probably the most significant personnel addition since Heisman stepped off his train from Clemson. The partially deaf halfback may not have been able to hear anything below a pure shout, but he was a master lip reader, and his ability to read the defense and shred their weaknesses was exactly what propelled Tech to their 7-0-1 record. Heisman’s recruits, like Strupper and quarterback Douglas “Froggie” Morrison, brilliant minds for the game, were finally able to execute the offense at the highest level. Heisman, tweaking the offense slightly, had the center snap the ball directly to Strupper at halfback, who was calling the plays. Small evolutions of the playing style put Tech in the annual conversation for Southern champion. But this was no national title.
This isn’t to say that Tech students were any less rabid than they were a decade earlier when Heisman first showed up on the Flats. The legendary coach, actor, and wordsmith, addressed the fanbase in the Technique before the 1911 edition of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate, saying:
It’s a queer thing, too, this college spirit: it acts on the student body, and then it reacts on the team, and then it rebounds from the team and reacts with quadrupled effect on the student body. That’s what it has done over and over again with us all this fall. First one organization would get an acute attack of it, and then when it seemed to be passing away from the one it took an even greater grip on the other organization. And now it’s come to the point where, when we go out to Ponce de Leon Park to see our team play ball, we witness an exhibition of such playing spirit on the field and, simultaneously, of such student fidelity and loyalty in the stands as fairly sets the blood of every beholder to tingling and evokes the unchallenged admiration of even the most disinterested be- holder.
Tech defeated seven teams in 1915, including Louisiana State, North Carolina, Alabama, and Auburn. The lone blemish was a scoreless tie at home against the school in Athens, a brutal slog through a field covered in inches of mud. Tech, southern champion, remained firmly outside of the conversation for the national title, despite Fielder, Strupper, Morrison, Bob Lang, and Jim Senter all receiving All-Southern consideration. Though they were technically independent, and no matter what Vanderbilt says, the 45 foot by 17 foot Southern champions pennant went to Tech. And this juggernaut wasn’t even at their peak yet.
1916 saw Tech fully back in the SIAA, though that was at least 223rd on the list significant things that happened that year. But that’s a story for another time.
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!