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Rearview Mirror: The Golden Tornado

“The greatest football team the South...ever produced.”

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The 1917 National Champions.
Georgia Tech Archives/George C. Griffin Photograph Collection

As the country plunged into the worst war the world had yet known, the clouds were somehow finally parting over John Heisman’s head. His team had gone undefeated the previous year. That’s with “Indian” Joe Guyon, a former Pop Warner star, as in the legendary football coach, not the league full of small children, sitting on the bench as an incoming transfer from the Carlisle Indian Academy. Golden Tornado was as fitting of an epithet as any could have been to describe the whirling cyclone of destruction that Peak Heisman had finally acheived.

“Griffin, I would like to see you a minute,” legendary Tech football demigod John Heisman once shouted from the south side of North Avenue, at a man who would become similarly immortalized in bronze one day. When questioned by a young George Griffin as to why he was in need of him after crossing the street, as the young man expected some praise for his fine performance the week before. It should be noted that Griffin ran for 56 of Tech’s 471 yards against Cumberland College in 1916 on just four carries, winding up in the end zone twice on the afternoon - he was no slouch on the gridiron.

“Griffin, you are a great disappointment to me,” Heisman stated, “I always expect you to get away for a long run, but you never do,” emphasis original. Never impressed, satisfied, or particularly nice, this was vintage Heisman.

Dean and Coach George C. Griffin, many years later.
Georgie Tech Archives/George C. Griffin Photograph Collection

Dean-to-be George Griffin was be no means bad at football. Even though he wasn’t Joe Guyon, Everett Strupper, Bill Fincher, Pup Phillips, Judy Harlan, Al Hill, the stars of that 1917 team, his interaction with the greatest coach of all time was indicative of the man himself. Heisman had twelve years on the Flats before 1916. He only truly came into his own the last two years of that run. Coming into 1917, his team hadn’t lost in more than a calendar year. He finally had the jump shift running like clockwork. He found enough players that could be enticed to be engineering, architecture, and chemistry majors, and even had a burgeoning commerce department to work with, that the structure of the school itself wasn’t working against his football ambitions. If there was ever a time to make a run at the championship, the time was 1917.

If one heads up the road to Athens, not that one ever should, and took a look around their athletic department’s records, one would notice curiously that there are none for 1917. Rearview Mirror looked at Tech during the Great War a few weeks ago - it was probably the greatest boon ever to happen to the school on the Hill. Long estranged from its own main source of funding, the state legislature, and lacking the fundraising prowess of a private school and the monstrous alumni base of a large state school, the influx of cash and significant programming expansion from the federal government was tremendously useful. Enrollment was skyrocketing.

Athens, in comparison, was a ghost town. They were so starved for able-bodied men in the schools deemed less vital to the national interest that many shut down their programs for the duration of the soldiers. While Tech trained officers, and even some enlisted men, the flagship of the state was quiet and deserted. Not that Heisman needed that, anyways. He had spent the past few years quietly amassing the greatest set of players ever to play on the Flats at once. In the one-platoon years, every player had to be proficient at offense and defense to see the field at all. To win a national championship took skill deemed exceptional and legendary from one single UCLA player a few years back, but at every position on the field.

After proving his point about winning margin and skill of a team the previous year, likely hurting his chance to make that season his first championship on the Flats, even though his team was perhaps the greatest team yet to play the game, Heisman and his Golden Tornado was back. They lost almost no one off a squad that didn’t lose and stormed away with the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association football title. To boot, Guyon was no longer stuck on the bench. Whereas Strupper’s elite vision made him adept at weaving through the impending blockers every step of the way, Guyon simply plowed straight through the other team. To make matters worse for defenders, he was also a better passer than their quarterback, Hill. Tech was unbelievably stacked. But few outside the South had even heard Heisman was standing watch over a stockpile of immense wealth like the one that has to be buried under the money printing gold mine that is the Chick-fil-A in Tech’s Student Center.

Everett “Strup” Strupper was perhaps the most impressive of Tech’s many running backs in its storied history. Overcoming almost total deafness and chronic childhood illness, Strupper matured into a deft runner, evading almost everything in his path on the way to several years’ worth of postseason awards in his time on the Flats. When interviewed years later about his star back, Heisman stated, “He couldn’t hear anything but a regular shout. But he could read your lips like a flash. No lad that ever stepped on a football field had keener eyes than Everett had. The enemy found this out the minute he began looking for openings through which to run the ball,” (Atlanta Constitution). Though Guyon and his “war whoops” and physical play style were perfect for the burly, smash-mouth football common on teams that featured a single, transcendent star like Guyon, when paired with Strupper and Hill, the quarterback who was also the team’s leader in carries, the ground assault was unstoppable. It took three weeks and four games for another team to even score on Tech.

1917 Football Schedule

Date Opponent Site Result
Date Opponent Site Result
9/29 Furman Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 25–0
9/29 Wake Forest Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 33–0
10/6 Penn Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 41–0
10/13 Davidson Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 32–10
10/20 Washington & Lee Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 63–0
11/3 Vanderbilt Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 83–0
11/10 Tulane Tulane Stadium, New Orleans, LA W 48–0
11/17 Carlisle Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 98–0
11/29 Auburn Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 68–7
Another undefeated season for the Yellow Jackets.

The season, as noted in the table, started particularly late in September. However, Heisman, never one to schedule lightly, or many away games, for that matter, doubled-up on the first weekend, hosting both Furman and Wake Forest back to back in a rare football doubleheader. Due to war travel constraints, his lucrative gate receipts, and general intimidating-legend-status, he was able to play eight of the nine games that season at Grant Field. On opening weekend, the Golden Tornado topped Furman 25-0 with its substitutes before knocking off Wake Forest 33-0 with Strupper, Guyon, and the rest back on the field. Perhaps their most impressive and important win came the next week when perennial power Penn came to town. The South had long been relegated to second-tier football status behind the Northeast, as counterintuitive as that is to the modern system. A win would not only cement Heisman and his team’s legitimacy as contenders in the present-day, but show that the South should be taken seriously by the national news media in the long-since-changing football landscape. Tech won 41 to zero. The frustrations over having been passed over the year before notwithstanding, the landscape of the game would never be the same. Three teams from the heart of the South, all within 350 miles of each other in a four team playoff for the national champion? The long and winding road that lead to that in January 2018 started when Tech whipped Penn on the Flats just over one hundred years earlier.

Georgia Tech hosts Pennsylvania, 1917.
Georgia Tech Archives/George C. Griffin Photograph Collection

Tech then yielded its first points of the year to Davidson, ten of them, to be exact. Luckily for the Golden Tornado, they whipped up 32 of their own to take the win, and followed that up with what was then Washington & Lee’s worst-ever defeat, 63-0. No team scored on them until the last game of the season as Tech pummeled through former powerhouse and nominal rival Vanderbilt 83-0, still the most lopsided defeat in that school’s history, torched Tulane in their only road game of the season to the tune of six more touchdowns, and Guyon’s former school Carlisle 98-0. At one point in that last game, four Carlisle players converged on Strupper. The nimble back managed ten more yards before being brought down.

In the final week of the season, Tech faced Auburn in what was their most heated game of the season. Auburn, who tied Big Ten champion Ohio State the previous week, a game Heisman and the Tornado attended, put points on the board, at least. It was seven, to be exact, but Tech topped that number by 61 on their way to another easy win in front of the 20,000 fans that had squeezed onto the Flats for the game. The Atlanta Journal summed up one Strupper run excellently, stating,

“It was not the length of the run that featured it was the brilliance of it. After getting through the first line, Stroop was tackled squarely by two secondary men, and yet he squirmed and jerked loosed from them, only to face the safety man and another Tiger, coming at him from different angles. Without checking his speed Everett knifed the two men completely, running between them and dashing on to a touchdown.”

Tech’s starters amassed many accolades following the season, with Strupper, Guyon, and Walker Carpenter being named All-Americans. Strupper and Carpenter were the first two players from the Deep South named to the first team. Five more were named to the All-South team. Though Tech was invited to play a 4-3 Oregon State team in the Rose Bowl, the loss of nine players from Tech, along with countless from around the country, to the war effort soon after the season ended quashed that trip. “I consider the 1917 Tech team the best football I have ever coached”, Heisman reflected. “It’s the best team I have seen in my long career as a coach. I was lucky in having under me a team whose members possessed much natural ability and who played the game intelligently. I have never seen a team that, as a whole, was so fast in the composite.”

They were named Tech’s first national championship football team and remain perhaps the single greatest Tech team of all time in any sport.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, 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. It’s good to be back in Atlanta. Until next time, go Jackets.