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Rearview Mirror: A Flair for the Dramatic

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The greatest coach in the history of the sport was an eloquent piece of work to the bitter end.

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The 1918 football team. Heisman stands to the far right in the image.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/7234)

1917 National Champions. The greatest team the South had ever seen - one that was pretty obviously slighted the year before, too - had finally made it to the summit of the college football world. All this accomplishment, at long last proving Frank Turner and the fanatics who demanded the Iron Captain Lyman Hall hire Heisman - remember, the man took his job so seriously that he worked himself to death - were right all along. Yet all their hard-won accomplishments backslid quickly as the war took more and more able bodied men - and as the whims of polite society took the greatest toll of all.


Tech’s national championship 1917 season ended without the challenge of Pop Warner’s undefeated Pitt team coach John Heisman so desperately tried to make happen. Before the BCS, before the Playoff, Heisman tried to convince Warner, each a legend of the sport then as they are now, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Nevertheless, they were still one of the greatest teams to ever play the game. Come the fall, Tech’s star running back, coming off a great year, primed to rip every defense on the schedule to shreds, is disappointingly departing before the year even starts. A tale as old as time. In 1918, the story first unfolded following the team’s captain elections. The legendary back Everett Strupper was elected captain, only to be shipped off in support of the war effort, like so many of Tech’s best and brightest on and off of the gridiron. It was all a part of the greater American war effort, which Tech was tripping over itself to support - in the long run, it did turn out to probably be the greatest thing to ever happen to the Institute, to be fair.

Strupper wasn’t the only one gone in support of his country, and Heisman’s 1918 team was strongly reliant on the incoming freshman class. Bill Fincher, a kicker and tackle hybrid in his third year on the Flats, was left with captain-ly duties in Strupper’s stead. The addition of Buck Flowers from Davidson, the third College Football Hall of Fame player in this paragraph alone, provided some relief in the gaping void Strupper’s departure had left.

1918 Football Schedule

Date Opponent Site Result
Date Opponent Site Result
10/5 Clemson Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 28–0
10/12 Furman Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 118–0
10/19 11th Cavalry Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 123–0
10/26 Camp Gordon Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 28–0
11/10 North Carolina State Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 128–0
11/23 @ Pittsburgh Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, PA L 32–0
11/28 Auburn Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 41–0
It was a short one.

In the first game of the season, traditional rival Clemson came to town and was promptly shown the door, with “Indian” Joe Guyon tacking on the final touchdown in a clean four score victory. Another motley bunch of South Carolinians came in from Furman for the second game of the season, and let up 118 points. That number is pretty abysmal until one notices that the Jackets turned around and one-upped themselves the next week, tacking on 123 points to their season total against the 11th Cavalry. Back in the days when seemingly the entire country was mobilizing for war, college football teams played bands of similarly-aged men from nearby camps, forts, detachments and divisions. It was a truly fascinating time for the sport, but one which would take more ink to fully do justice to than can this humble history column. Another military team visited the next week, this time from Camp Gordon, falling to Tech by a score of 28-0. It was not yet the days of weekly polling, but later, during World War II, some of these military teams even spent time ranked in the top 25. Clearly, the teams Tech were playing weren’t quite that good, but the Army and Navy agglomerated lots of prime physical talent into small divisions, and some were bound to be good.

The next opponent the Jackets faced also failed to score on them, and in fact was Tech’s biggest margin of victory of the season, against the North Carolina State Wolfpack. The 128 points were contributed in part by Frank Ferst’s four touchdowns, of the team’s nineteen. As an aside, if anyone knows who Ferst Drive on campus is named after, a quick scouring of my resources does not reveal a solid answer and would be much appreciated.

Anyways, back in the realm of football, Tech traveled to its only road game of the season up in Pittsburgh, against the team that wouldn’t square off against them to decide who truly was the best team in the country the year before. Lacking Strupper and other crucial veterans, though, proved to be Tech’s undoing, and the Jackets were themselves shut out 32-0, ending their unbeaten streak at 33 games at the hands of the eventual national champions. Francis Powers, a historian of Pop Warner, writes,

“At Forbes Field, the dressing rooms of the two teams were separated only by a thin wall. As the Panthers were sitting around, awaiting Warner’s pre-game talk, Heisman began to orate in the adjoining room. In his charge to the Tech squad, Heisman became flowery and fiery. He brought the heroes of ancient Greece and the soldier dead in his armor among the ruins of Pompeii. It was terrific and the Panthers sat, spellbound. When Heisman had finished, Warner chortled and quietly said to his players: ‘Okay, boys. There’s the speech. Now go out and knock them off,” (Powers, 1969).

This was vintage Heisman. He bookended the season with another shutout of one of his former employers, beating Auburn 41-0 at home. Though they lost to Pittsburgh by a significant margin, they were still Southern champions, and only allowed points to a single team, the best in the country.

Heisman’s fifteenth year on the Flats showed the start of a decline for the Yellow Jackets. Though each victory was a shoutout, they again lost to Pittsburgh on the road, though managed to narrow their defeat to a 16-6 margin, while also losing a strange 3-0 game to Washington & Lee and the annual Auburn Thanksgiving game 14-7. This represented their first loss to a Southern school and a conference opponent, respectfully, in a half decade.

1919 Football Schedule

Date Opponent Site Result
Date Opponent Site Result
9/20 Camp Logan Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 48–0
9/27 Furman Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 74–0
10/4 Wake Forest Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 14–0
10/11 Clemson Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 28–0
10/18 Vanderbilt Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 20–0
10/25 @ Pittsburgh Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, PA L 16–6
11/1 Davidson Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 33–0
11/8 Washington & Lee Grant Field, Atlanta, GA L 3–0
11/15 Georgetown Grant Field, Atlanta, GA W 27–0
11/27 Auburn Grant Field, Atlanta, GA L 14–7
The highest of highs are always followed by a decline.

If the earlier reference to his pregame speeches wasn’t enough, Heisman, a Renaissance man by almost every definition, was know to be a loquacious man who enjoyed drama. In the offseason, just as he had back in Auburn, he put on Shakespeare plays in Atlanta. Of course known for quotes romanticizing the sport, the other shoe always dropped when he reminded his teams that it was, “better to have died as a small boy than to fumble it,” which was surely a morale booster. Jokes aside, the legendary coach did believe in motivation, plastering quotes everywhere, usually of himself, and sometimes downright boring, like reminding players to block properly. He even deigned himself to write long, languid essays in both the Technique and the Blueprint, though the latter are surely better known than the former. In describing how his critically acclaimed football team astounded sportswriters and were probably the best team in the country, he even manages to turn that into a tirade against the writers. Rather than accepting the praise and building up his team’s masterful work, including the greatest margin of victory in the history of the sport, his responds,

“Now, we don’t take any particular credit in doing that. If that were all we were after we could have followed exactly the same line of action and, while not compiling as many points as against Cumberland, we could have nevertheless have so heaped ‘em up as to have been able, I dare say, to add at least another 100 to our season’s grand total of 421. But even this 421 was a record for the entire country for the season, and here we find a lot of people and papers all over the country once more making much of it and printing our name in big type at the top fo columns of flub-dub. My, My! But it’s easy to fool some folks!” (Wallace, 58-59).

Similarly to a khaki-donning coach from a school in a town called Ann Arbor, Heisman was more than a little ‘stitious. Showering was somewhat frowned upon, like pastries, pork, nuts, coffee, and apples. Meat was hardly cooked. Practice was brutal. But Heisman got results, and he did it with a style and class that helped define team and school culture back in the day - like the excellent men in the President’s office - and that sense of upright behavior lasted long after he was gone, even to the present day. Heisman did things right, and so do his Tech men (and later women as well). Oh, and he was an innovative and bright football coach who did much to define the game. That, too.

The holidays hadn’t even passed by when Heisman surprisingly called the athletic board to his home. When they arrived, he presented them with some financial documents and asked that they help divide them equally between himself and his wife. They were getting a divorce, and Heisman had declared it in the most understated, Heisman-like way possible. Since he wished to spare her social embarrassment, he would leave Atlanta if she chose to stay. Evelyn remained. John departed in short order, taking up a new head coaching job at Penn, the school he had destroyed, blowing the doors of opportunity wide open for Southern schools of all stripes. His alma mater. And, just like that, Heisman, a gentleman and a scholar, innovator and creator of the next, national champion and leader of men, and destroyer of Cumberland, was gone.

Of course, Tech hired a scrub to replace the greatest coach in its history, and arguably in that of college sports, no matter what his more pedestrian 199-108-7 baseball and downright abysmal 9-14 basketball records say about the football demigod. This replacement, though, was not just any old scrub - nay, he was, as they said, the “Captain of the Scrubs.”

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. Until next time, go Jackets.