John Heisman

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John Heisman
John Heisman.jpg
Sport(s) Football, basketball, baseball
Biographical details
Born (1869-10-23)October 23, 1869
Cleveland, Ohio
Died October 3, 1936(1936-10-03) (aged 66)
New York, New York
Playing career
1887–1889 Brown
1890–1891 Penn
Position(s) Center, tackle
Coaching career (HC unless noted)
1892 Oberlin
1893–1894 Buchtel
1894 Oberlin
1895–1899 Auburn
1900–1903 Clemson
1904–1919 Georgia Tech
1920–1922 Penn
1923 Washington & Jefferson
1924–1927 Rice
1908–1909 Georgia Tech
1912–1914 Georgia Tech
1894 Buchtel
1899–1904 Clemson
1904–1917 Georgia Tech
Administrative career (AD unless noted)
1904–1919 Georgia Tech[1]
1924–1927 Rice
Head coaching record
Overall 186–70–18 (football)
9–14 (basketball)
219–119–7 (baseball)
Accomplishments and honors
1 National (1917)
1 Southern (1915)
6 SIAA (1900, 1902–1903, 1916–1918)
College Football Hall of Fame
Inducted in 1954 (profile)

John William Heisman (October 23, 1869 – October 3, 1936) was an American player and coach of football, basketball, and baseball. He served as the head football coach at Oberlin College (1892, 1894), Buchtel College—now known as the University of Akron (1893–1894), Auburn University (1895–1899), Clemson University (1900–1903), Georgia Tech (1904–1919), the University of Pennsylvania (1920–1922), Washington & Jefferson College (1923), and Rice University (1924–1927), compiling a career college football record of 186–70–18.

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.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1954. The Heisman Trophy, awarded annually to the season's most outstanding college football player, is named after him.[2]

Early life and playing career[edit]

Heisman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Sara (née Lehr) and Johann Michael Heisman.[3]:3–6 He grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania near Titusville, where he played varsity football for Titusville High School in 1884, 1885, and 1886, and was salutatorian of his graduating class.[4] He went on to play football at Brown University (1887–1889)[2] and at the University of Pennsylvania (1890–1891).[5] He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1892.[5]

Coaching career[edit]

Early coaching career[edit]

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.[6][3]: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.[7] Vanderbilt won nevertheless, 9 to 6; the first time in the history of southern football that a field goal decided a game.[8] "Billy" Williams recalled:[9]

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:[8]

"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.[10] Star players for Clemson under Heisman included Vedder Sitton, Hope Sadler, John Maxwell, and Jock Hanvey.[11][12]

Georgia Tech[edit]

Heisman at Tech.

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.[13] 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.[13] He cut back on these expanded duties in 1918, when he only coached football between September 1 and December 15.[13]

In football at Tech, Heisman put together 16 consecutive non-losing seasons, including three undefeated campaigns and a 32-game undefeated streak. In his first year, his team posted victories over Georgia, Tennessee, University of Florida at Lake City, and Cumberland, and a tie with his last employer, Clemson. He suffered just one loss, to another first year coach, Mike Donahue of Auburn. Stars of this early period for Tech include Lob Brown.

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.[14] 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.

Leaving Atlanta[edit]

After a divorce in 1919, Heisman left Atlanta to prevent any social embarrassment to his former wife, who chose to remain in the city.[15] 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[2] 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.[16]

Rice University[edit]

Heisman took over the job as Rice University’s first full time head football coach and athletic director after Philip H. Arbuckle in 1924;[17] he was selected by The Committee on Outdoor Sports.[18] 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.[19]

Coaching tree[edit]

  • Bill Alexander: played for Georgia Tech (1911–1912), head coach for Georgia Tech (1920–1944)
  • Bill Fincher: played for Georgia Tech (1916–1920), head coach for William & Mary (1921), assistant for Georgia Tech (1927–1928).
  • Jack Forsythe: played for Clemson (1900–1903), head coach for Florida State College (1904), Florida (1906).
  • Charles "Wahoo" Guyon: assistant for Georgia Tech (1917).
  • Jock Hanvey: played for Clemson (1900–1903), assistant for Florida State College (1904).
  • Everett Strupper: played for Georgia Tech (1915–;1917), assistant for Mercer (1922)
  • Reynolds Tichenor: played for Auburn (1893–1896), assistant for Auburn (1911–1919)

Death and burial[edit]

Heisman died of pneumonia on October 3, 1936 in New York City.[2] 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.[20][21]


He was an innovator and developed one of the first shifts,[22] 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.[23]

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,[2] 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.[citation needed]

Head coaching record[edit]


Year Team Overall Conference Standing
Oberlin Yeomen (Independent) (1892)
1892 Oberlin 7–0
Buchtel (Independent) (1893–1894)
1893 Buchtel 5–2
1894 Buchtel 1–0
Buchtel: 6–2
Oberlin Yeomen (Independent) (1894)
1894 Oberlin 4–3–1
Oberlin: 11–3–1
Auburn Tigers (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association) (1895–1899)
1895 Auburn 2–1 2–1 3rd
1896 Auburn 3–1 3–1 4th
1897 Auburn 2–0–1 2–0–1 3rd
1898 Auburn 2–1 2–1 4th
1899 Auburn 3–1–1 2–1–1 6th
Auburn: 12–4–2 11–4–2
Clemson Tigers (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association) (1900–1903)
1900 Clemson 6–0 3–0 T–1st
1901 Clemson 3–1–1 2–0–1 2nd
1902 Clemson 6–1 6–0 T–1st
1903 Clemson 4–1–1 4–0–1 T–1st
Clemson: 19–3–2 15–0–2
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association) (1904–1913)
1904 Georgia Tech 8–1–1 2–1–1 6th
1905 Georgia Tech 6–0–1 4–0–1 2nd
1906 Georgia Tech 5–3–1 3–3 8th
1907 Georgia Tech 4–4 2–4 10th
1908 Georgia Tech 6–3 5–3 6th
1909 Georgia Tech 7–2 5–2 5th
1910 Georgia Tech 5–3 3–3 11th
1911 Georgia Tech 6–2–1 5–2–1 5th
1912 Georgia Tech 5–3–1 5–3 5th
1913 Georgia Tech 7–2 5–2 4th
Georgia Tech: 59–23–5 39–23–3
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Independent) (1914–1915)
1914 Georgia Tech 6–2
1915 Georgia Tech 7–0–1
Georgia Tech: 13–2–1
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association) (1916–1919)
1916 Georgia Tech 8–0–1 4–0–1 T–1st
1917 Georgia Tech 9–0 4–0 1st
1918 Georgia Tech 6–1 3–0 1st
1919 Georgia Tech 7–3 3–2 8th
Georgia Tech: 30–4–1 14–2–1
Georgia Tech: 102–29–7 53–25–4
Penn Quakers (Independent) (1920–1922)
1920 Penn 6–4
1921 Penn 4–3–2
1922 Penn 6–3
Penn: 16–10–2
Washington & Jefferson Presidents (Independent) (1923)
1923 Washington & Jefferson 6–1–1
Washington & Jefferson: 6–1–1
Rice Owls (Southwest Conference) (1924–1927)
1924 Rice 4–4 2–2 T–3rd
1925 Rice 4–4–1 1–2–1 5th
1926 Rice 4–4–1 0–4 7th
1927 Rice 2–6–1 1–3 6th
Rice: 14–18–3 4–11–1
Total: 186–70–18
      National championship         Conference title         Conference division title


  1. ^ "Mike Bobinski Bio". Retrieved 2013-07-27. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Rielly, Edward J. (2009). Football: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. U of Nebraska Press. pp. 163–164. ISBN 0-8032-2630-6. 
  3. ^ a b Heisman, John M. (2012). Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy. With Mark Schlaback. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4516-8291-5. 
  4. ^ Brandt, Nat (2001). When Oberlin was King of the Gridiron: The Heisman Years. Kent State University Press. pp. 53–54. ISBN 978-0-87338-684-5. 
  5. ^ a b "John Heisman (1869-1936)". Penn Biographies. Penn University Archives & Records Center. Retrieved 2013-12-24. 
  6. ^ Umphlett, Wiley Lee (1992). Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-313-28404-5. 
  7. ^ Woodbery, Evan (2012). 100 Things Auburn Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die. Triumph Books. ISBN 978-1-62368-073-2. 
  8. ^ a b Gould, Alan (January 24, 1931). "Sport Slants". Prescott Evening Courier. 
  9. ^ Schafer, Elizabeth D. (2004). Auburn Football. Arcadia Publishing. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-7385-1669-1. 
  10. ^ Foster Senn (October 17, 1987). "This Day in Tiger Football". Clemson University Football Programs - Clemson vs Duke: 81. 
  11. ^ "Amateur Sport". The Olympian Magazine 2. 
  12. ^ "Amateur Sport". The Olympian Magazine 2: 383–384. 
  13. ^ a b c McMath, Robert C.; Ronald H. Bayor; James E. Brittain; Lawrence Foster; August W. Giebelhaus; Germaine M. Reed. Engineering the New South: Georgia Tech 1885–1985. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0820307848. 
  14. ^ "John Heisman". Tech Traditions: Ramblin' Memories. Georgia Tech Alumni Association. Archived from the original on 2007-09-07. Retrieved 2007-05-21. 
  15. ^ "Tech Timeline: 1910s". Tech Traditions. Georgia Tech Alumni Association. Archived from the original on 2007-10-16. Retrieved 2007-05-21. 
  16. ^ Pees, Samuel T. "John Heisman, Football Coach". Oil History. Retrieved 2014-11-12. 
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ "Gravesite Still Draws Visitors". Associated Press. December 10, 1999. Archived from the original on 2007-10-18. Retrieved 2007-09-23. 
  21. ^ "Wisconsin Hometowns". Retrieved 2007-09-23. 
  22. ^ John Heisman. Principles of Football. p. 267. 
  23. ^ Magee, Mary (2012). Red, Third Edition. Beyond Football: The Legacy of Coach Jimmy 'Red' Parker. Tate Publishing & Enterprises. p. 256. ISBN 978-1-62024-962-8. 

External links[edit]