It’s late afternoon on the Flats. Georgia Tech played a full football game earlier in the day, but you wouldn’t have guessed it with how coach John Heisman is running his players around the field long after the final whistle blew. It’s not like it was a badly played game for the Jackets, either. In fact, they won. Not only that, but on this afternoon, the Golden Tornado, in the midst of a legendary streak of thirty three games between defeats, beat Cumberland in the most lopsided game in the history of the sport. But here they were, back in the early autumn sun, grinding away for the game the next week against Davidson.
First off, my apologies on the tardiness of this column. Having wracked up 10,000 miles from Metz to Paris to Charlotte to Chicago, then to San Francisco and back, I haven’t exactly been in tip-top shape this past week, but I can’t resist one of the best stories on the Flats. A story so absurd the score has never been equalled and will never be topped. It’s one of the all time games in all of sports. It’s the pitting of a titan of the game near his all-time peak against probably the most out-manned, underprepared team of all team. It’s the story of how the Georgia Institute of Technology gave Cumberland College an unearthly 222-0 beat down, the likes of which will never be seen ever again.
The season started ignominiously for opposing Mercer the week before, falling to Heisman’s team 61-0 in the opener on the Flats. Everything was humming along nicely for the Engineers, led by quarterback Douglas “Froggie” Morrison, fullback Tommy Spence, and otherworldly halfback Everett Strupper as they headed into the game against Cumberland. On the opponents’ side of the ball, however, things weren’t going so great.
The biggest problem facing Cumberland was its lack of a football team. This might be an important problem to overcome for a team that was, well, supposed to play football in just a few weeks against arguably one of the greatest teams ever to play the game. Though they tried to get Heisman to cancel the game, Heisman refused. Citing the contract they had previously signed, the coach wanted compensation for the lost revenue from gate receipts. He generously offered to pay the expenses for Cumberland to travel to Atlanta to play his team. As Jon Bois puts it later, in different context, in his excellent “Pretty Good” episode, “Sometimes a week expression of pity is the deepest act of cruelty.”
See, Heisman had very important reasons to want to play this game. Sure, its well-known now that he was a proud man, one that did not take losing lightly. Even though his legacy as a baseball coach was merely a good coach instead of a legend of the sport like in football, he was more than a little angry when his team lost to Cumberland on the diamond the previous spring, by a rather substantial score of 22-0. The old man suspected Cumberland of employing ringers to beat Tech, which they definitely did, in order to drum up enough attention in their season opener to keep the lights on in the athletic department. So Heisman was out for revenge with Cumberland on the schedule for his football team in the fall. Concidentally, that team that was about to make its leap into the stratosphere. But there was another not-insignificant motivation behind Heisman’s desire to open the gates at Grant Field as many times per season as possible: money.
Sure, the coach wanted his athletic department to do well, but, if you’ll remember back to the contract that lured Heisman from Clemson in the first place, the coach received a healthy slice of the gate receipts, too. It was doubly in his interest to keep the Cumberland game on the schedule. So there it stayed. Cumberland was directly in the line of fire of one of best to ever coach, and a man who was angry and full of vengeance at that.
To be clear, Cumberland was in no position to play this game, let alone win it. Cumberland used to be half-decent, but for the past few years, they had been on a downward slope. In fact, Tech and Cumberland had met twice before, in 1904 and 1905, with both games resulting in thorough drubbings, but relatively normal wins for Georgia Tech. By 1916, the Cumberland squad was a vastly different one. With no returning players from the year before, thanks to some unconventional coaching by a local reverend who did not approve of the violence, George Allen, the man who arranged for the minor league baseball team to play Tech the previous spring, was tasked with finding a team for the season. It wasn’t going great. But, rather than forfeit the game, and pay the $3,000 price Heisman was demanding for backing out of the game, the Cumberland team of misfits, and the one ringer they could find, made their way down to Atlanta - on the old man’s dime, of course.
The opening kickoff did not bode well for Cumberland. They lost their starting quarterback from a tough block and gained no yards on the play. After a pair of unsuccessful plays, they punted on third down, and that wouldn’t be the only time they punted on fourth down that day, either. Tech scored, forced a few fumbles, scored a few more times, and found themselves ahead 28-0 after fewer than two dozen plays from scrimmage - for both teams combined. Tech needed to average a touchdown every 1:52 of game time of a standard game in order to score the 32 times necessary to reach their gaudy numbers. They were well on their way early in the game.
One of the more strange events of the early part of the game was when Strupper downed the ball on the one yard line, after not even so much as being grazed by a Cumberland defender. The idea was to get J. Cantey Alexander, one of Tech’s usual backups - deemed “scrubs” back in the day - his first touchdown. As recounted by a Georgia Tech player after the fact, “Strupper swapped positions with Alexander...The team didn’t want to make it too easy for Cantey, though. The other boys wouldn’t block for him or help in any way. As soon as the ball was snapped, they ran away from the line and out of the play completely, leaving poor Cantey to go it alone. Finally, on fourth down, a bruised and weary Alexander managed to get the ball across while his teammates howled with laughter.” It took a few tries, but Alexander finally got his touchdown. In fact, the Atlanta Journal noted that, “As a general rule, the only thing necessary for a touchdown was to give a Tech back the ball and holler, ‘Here he comes’ and ‘There he goes.’” Scoring came easy for the Yellow Jackets on October 7th, 1916.
After that touchdown, Tech received the kickoff, because that’s how football worked in those days. If they so chose, the team that was just scored on could opt to kick instead of receive, which they also did multiple times during this beatdown. Of course, with Tech leading 70-0 in second quarter and Cumberland having the ball on third and one, they decided to punt. Because that’s how this game was going for the visiting squad. Now, they didn’t set out to punt, even though Allen, the aforementioned manager-turned-football coach had ordered them to, yet found themselves in a panicked pickle and elected to punt anyways.
For the second time, the quarterback was taken off the field after being knocked out yet again, this time by an errant snap.
At halftime, Allen, down 126-0 to the Yellow Jackets, begs Heisman to give up the game. He agrees to at least shorten it, by only five minutes. That 1:52 clip per touchdown? Yeah, about that. That’s for a regular season game. Actually, due to the shortened game span, Tech was scoring at an unimaginable 1:43 pace. That’s hardly the quarter of the length of a patented coach Paul Johnson “Death March” drive. Most of Tech’s drives started inside of Cumberland’s red zone. Tech’s offense was a relentlessly efficient scoring machine. Sure, the Bois quote about pity and cruelty applies, but I like this one better in reference to the ruthless Tech offense: “No matter where you dropped Georgia Tech on the field, they were highly likely to score immediately, on that play.”
Heisman took little pity on Cumberland at the half, and the scoring hardly relented in the second half. Trailing 140-0, with the ball, the Cumberland quarterback is back in the game for the third time. He pitches it to the only ringer on the team, who pitches it back. Neither wanted the ball. Because that’s how the game went for the poor guy, he was knocked out a third time.
Several of his teammates, in the meantime, have run away in sheer terror. Some are injured. It’s a miracle this team was even able to carry on for 55 minutes healthy and present. With injuries and vanishing players, though, it was nothing short of astonishing.
The wildest injury had to be on the only blocked extra point of the day. Attempting to run the “climb the ladder play,” since banned, the man from Cumberland who climbed the ladder succeeded in blocking the point. With his face. Watch the video. It’s gruesome. And ultimately ironic that the blocked point ultimately led to the symmetry of Heisman’s revenge. Without it, it would have been a 223-0 win. Not all was lost that day for the kicker, Jim Preas. He still made 18 extra points that day, surely an unbreakable record. He even scored a touchdown by attempting to put a kickoff through the uprights, which bounced off the goalposts, off of the defender, and into Preas’ waiting arms. Touchdown.
All in all, Tech mustered just 471 offensive yards on the day. Heisman, inventor of the forward pass, didn’t even attempt one on the day. Sure, he ran up the score to prove a point that the quality of the team is not primarily derived by the scoring margin. Perhaps, however, it ultimately did his team a disservice. Though they went undefeated, they didn’t win every game and weren’t selected as national champions by the majority of sources. They were perhaps the best team to play the game that year, coached by its brightest mind, yet Heisman’s only national championship claimed at Tech comes the following season. Could Tech claim 1916? Tenuously, based on national selections, but not entirely unprecedented. It was a tough time for non-Northern teams to get attention. The Yellow Jackets ran up the score. They were a great team, perhaps the best in the world. Yet they were not named national champions. Perhaps sportswriters learned the point Heisman was attempting to prove a little too well.
Though this quote falls at the beginning of his excellent video, which you really should watch because he explains it even better than I ever could, Jon Bois sums up the game well.
“Vast superiority alone explains Secretariat, who won the Belmont by 31 lengths. It explains the 1941 Chicago Bears, who won the NFL Championship 73-0. It explains the time UCONN women’s basketball took a 74-9 lead on SMU. Those are routs, yeah, they’re blowouts. This was an irrational, malicious act of cruelty that also just happened to technically barely be a sporting event.”
Georgia Tech will probably forever hold the biggest blowout in the history of American sports. It’s greater significance - launching Tech into national prominence, proving Heisman’s point, and whatnot - is surely important. But, as for the game itself? Whole books have been written about the Cumberland game. It was bizarre. It was too wild to be invented or imagined. It was the epitome of everything coach John “better to have died a small boy than fumble this football” Heisman ever attempted to be.
It was the greatest game in
the history of the Flats.
A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives and especially Jon Bois’ magnificent “Pretty Good” episode on this game 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 home is thinner than what I’ve got back at Tech.