His 1917 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have been recognized as a national champion. Heisman was also the head basketball coach at Georgia Tech (1908–1909, 1912–1914), tallying a mark of 9–14, and the head baseball coach at Buchtel (1894), Clemson (1899–1904), and Georgia Tech (1904–1917), amassing a career college baseball record of 219–119–7.
Heisman coached at Oberlin College in 1892 and later moved to Buchtel College. There he helped make the first of his many permanent alterations to the sport. It was then customary for the center to begin a play by rolling the ball backwards, but this was troublesome for Buchtel's unusually tall quarterback, Harry Clark. Under Heisman, the center began tossing the ball to Clark, a practice that evolved into the snap that today begins every play.:64–65
Heisman returned to Oberlin in 1894. The following year, he became the fifth head football coach at Auburn University. His team once executed a "hidden ball trick" in the 1895 game against Vanderbilt as Auburn seemed to run a revolving wedge. Vanderbilt won nevertheless, 9 to 6; the first time in the history of southern football that a field goal decided a game. "Billy" Williams recalled:
I was playing left half for Auburn and Tichenor was quarterback. We were on Vandy's 15-yard line and had the ball in our possession. Tich passed the ball to me; I raised his jersey and hid the ball under it, at the same time dashing toward our right end, protected by several members of the Auburn team...Vandy thought I had the ball. Tich journeyed around his own left and went over the Vanderbilt's goal line. The first time the Vandy players knew Tich had the ball and had made a touchdown was when they saw him pulling the ball from under his jersey.
Quarterback Reynolds Tichenor described the nature of the play as follows:
"The play was simply this. When the ball was snapped it went to a halfback. The play was closely massed and well screened. The halfback then thrust the ball under the back of my jersey. Then he would crash into the line. After the play I simply trotted away to a touchdown.
In 1900, Heisman went to Clemson University, where he coached four winning seasons and three SIAA titles. 1903's 73–0 victory over Georgia Tech led Clemson to name a street on the campus for him and to Georgia Tech's hiring him. The week before Clemson beat Georgia 29 to 0. Georgia offered a bushel of apples for every point Clemson could score over its rival Tech. Clemson rushed for 615 yards. Star players for Clemson under Heisman included Vedder Sitton, Hope Sadler, John Maxwell, and Jock Hanvey.
Heisman moved from Clemson to Georgia Tech in 1904, where he coached for the longest tenure of his career (16 years). He won 77% of his football games, and had his finest success, winning a national championship in 1917. At Georgia Tech, Heisman also coached basketball and baseball in addition to football. He was paid $2,250 and 30 percent of attendance fees; later in his time at Tech, his salary went up and the percentage of receipts went down. Heisman eventually also coached basketball and track and became the head of the Atlanta Baseball Association and the athletic director of the Atlanta Athletic Club. He cut back on these expanded duties in 1918, when he only coached football between September 1 and December 15.
In a game played in Atlanta in 1916, Heisman's Georgia Tech squad defeated the Cumberland College Bulldogs, 222–0, in the most one-sided college football game ever played. Heisman's running up the score against his out-manned opponent was supposedly motivated by revenge against Cumberland's baseball team for running up the score against Tech, 22–0, the previous year with a team primarily composed of semi-pro players, and against sportswriters he felt were too focused on numbers. From 1915 to 1918 Georgia Tech went 30–1–2 and outscored opponents 1611 to 93. In 1917 he coached the first southern team ever to win a national championship, which produced the first two players from the Deep South ever selected All-American in Everett Strupper and Walker Carpenter. In 1918 center Bum Day became the first player from the south selected for Walter Camp's first team.
After a divorce in 1919, Heisman left Atlanta to prevent any social embarrassment to his former wife, who chose to remain in the city. He went back to Penn for one season in 1920, then to Washington and Jefferson College, before ending his career with four seasons at Rice.
Heisman was also a Shakespearean actor off the field and was known for his use of polysyllabic language in coaching. This is exemplified in his speeches, one of which is given here. He was known to repeat this annually, at the start of each season, in order to encourage his team.
What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.
Heisman took over the job as Rice University’s first full time head football coach and athletic director after Philip H. Arbuckle in 1924; he was selected by The Committee on Outdoor Sports. His teams saw little success and there was an uproar as he was earning a higher salary than any other Rice faculty member. Rice University would be his last coaching job before he would retire in 1926 to lead the New York Downtown Athletic Club.
Heisman died of pneumonia on October 3, 1936 in New York City. Three days later he was taken by train to his wife's hometown of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where he was buried in Grave D, Lot 11, Block 3 of the city-owned Forest Home Cemetery.
He was an innovator and developed one of the first shifts, had both guards pull to lead an end run, and had his center toss the ball back, instead of rolling or kicking it. He was a proponent of the legalization of the forward pass in 1906 and he originated the "hike" or "hep" shouted by the quarterback to start each play. He suggested that the game be divided into quarters instead of halves.
Heisman subsequently became the athletics director of the former Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan, New York. In 1935 the club began awarding a Downtown Athletic Club trophy for the best football player east of the Mississippi River. On December 10, 1936, just two months after Heisman's death on October 3, the trophy was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy, and is now given to the player voted as the season's most outstanding collegiate football player. Voters for this award consist primarily of media representatives, who are allocated by regions across the country in order to filter out possible regional bias, and former recipients. Following the bankruptcy of the Downtown Athletic Club in 2002, the award is now given out by the Heisman Trust.
Heisman Street on Clemson's campus is named in his honor. Heisman Drive, located directly south of Jordan–Hare Stadium on the Auburn University campus, is named in his honor as well.