John Heisman

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John Heisman
Heisman at Georgia Tech
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
Alma mater
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 a player and coach of American 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 Golden Tornado 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 served as the athletic director at Georgia Tech from 1904 to 1919 and at Rice from 1924 to 1927.

Heisman 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, both German immigrants.[3][4]: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.[5] He went on to play football at Brown University (1887–1889)[2] and at the University of Pennsylvania (1890–1891).[6][7] He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1892.[6]

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.[4]:64–65[8] Heisman returned to Oberlin in 1894.

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.[9]


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.[10] Vanderbilt won nevertheless, 9 to 6; the first time in the history of southern football that a field goal decided a game.[11] "Billy" Williams recalled:[12]

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.

Heisman at Auburn

Quarterback Reynolds Tichenor described the nature of the play as follows:[11]

"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.

The 1897 team finished $700 in debt, and Heisman was the actor, director, and producer of David Garrick to raise the money.[13] As such, he is founder of Auburn’s first theatrical group: The A.P.I. Dramatic Club. The 1899 team lost only by a single point to the "Iron Men" of Sewanee, and ran an early version of the hurry-up offense.[14] As Heisman recalled:

The team of ’99—my last at Auburn—was a great one. It only weighed about 160 (pounds per player), but its speed and team work were something truly wonderful. I do not think I have ever seen so fast a team as that was. It would line up and get the ball in play at times before the opposing players were up off the ground. You see it was a ‘stunt’ of ours to catch them off side and get the benefit of the penalty. Nowadays no team is taken by surprise by such lightning lining up; but that Auburn team of ’99 was the first to show what could be done with speedy play, and then it wasn’t long before all other teams were laboring with might and main to inject speed into their work.


Heisman at Clemson

In 1900, Heisman went to Clemson University, where he coached four winning seasons and three SIAA titles. The 1902 team beat Tennessee 11–0, during which the Vols' Tootsie Douglas launched a 109-yard punt (the field length was 110 yards in those days)[15][16][17] Heisman described the kick:

"The day was bitterly cold and a veritable typhoon was blowing straight down the field from one end to the other. We rushed the ball with more consistency than Tennessee, but throughout the entire first half they held us because of the superb punting of "Toots" Douglas, especially because, in that period he had the gale squarely with him. Going against that blizzard our labors were like unto those of Tantalus. Slowly, with infinite pains and a maximum of exertion, we pushed the ball from our territory to their 10-yard line. We figured we had another down to draw on, but the referee begged to differ. He handed the ball to Tennessee and the "tornado." Their general cheerfully chirped a signal – Saxe Crawford, it must have been –; and "Toots" with sprightly step, dropped back for another of his Milky Way punts. I visualize him still, standing on his own goal line and squarely between his uprights. One quick glance he cast overhead– no doubt to make sure that howling was still the same old hurricane."

"I knew at once what he proposed to do. The snap was perfect. "Toots" caught the ball, took two smart steps and – BLAM!–away shot the ball as though from the throat of Big Bertha. And, say, in his palmiest mathematical mood, I don't believe Sir Isaac Newton himself could have figured a more perfect trajectory to fit with that cyclone. Onward and upward, upward and onward, the crazy thing flew like a brainchild of Jules Verne. I thought it would clear the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our safety man, the great Johnny Maxwell, was positioned 50 yards behind our rush line, yet the punt sailed over his head like a phantom aeroplane. Finally, it cam down, but still uncured of its wanderlust it started in to roll–toward our goal, of course, with Maxwell chasing and damning it with every step and breath. Finally it curled up and died on our one-footline, after a bowstring journey of just 109 yards."[18]

1903 Clemson Tigers; Heisman in back, second from left with glasses

The 1903 team tied Cumberland 11–11 in a game billed as the championship of the South. Clemson'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 29–0. Georgia offered a bushel of apples for every point Clemson could score over its rival Tech. Clemson then rushed for 615 yards.[19] Star players for Clemson under Heisman included Vedder Sitton, Hope Sadler, and Jock Hanvey.[20][21] One publication reads "Vetter Sitton and Hope Sadler were the finest ends that Clemson ever had perhaps."[22]

Georgia Tech[edit]

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.[23] 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.[23] He cut back on these expanded duties in 1918, when he only coached football between September 1 and December 15.[23] Georgia Tech is where Heisman most famously utilized the jump shift.

1909 Tech team; Heisman in center with hat

In football at Tech, Heisman put together 16 consecutive non-losing seasons, including three undefeated campaigns and a 32-game undefeated streak. Heisman was hired by Tech for $2,250 a year and 30% of the home ticket sales. Heisman would not disappoint the Tech faithful as his first season was an 8–1–1 performance, the first winning season since 1893.[24] One source relates: "The real feature of the season was the marvelous advance made by the Georgia School of Technology which burst from fetters that kept it in the lowest class for ten years."[25] 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. The 1905 team went 6–0–1.

In 1906, the rules committee legalized the forward pass, for which Heisman was instrumental. The 1906 team beat Auburn for the first time. Stars of this early period for Tech include Lob Brown and Billy Wilson. The 1907 and 1908 teams were led by "Twenty Percent" Davis

GT Cumberland 222 scoreboard.jpg

From 1915 to 1918 Georgia Tech went 30–1–2 and outscored opponents 1611 to 93. The 1915 team was then the greatest in Tech's history. One writer claimed the 1916 team "seemed to personify Heisman."[26] This was the first team to vault Georgia Tech to national prominence.[27] 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.[28]

Heisman c. 1917, in front of Clemson's Bowman Field

In 1917 the backfield of Everett Strupper, Joe Guyon, Al Hill, and Judy Harlan propelled Tech to a national championship, the first southern team ever to do so. The team produced the first two players from the Deep South ever selected All-American: Strupper and tackle Walker Carpenter. Heisman challenged Pop Warner's undefeated Pittsburgh team to a decisive national championship game, but he declined. In the next season of 1918, Tech lost a lopsided game to Pitt 32–0. Historian Francis J. Powers wrote:

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.'[29]

Center Bum Day became the first player from the south selected for Walter Camp's first team.

Georgia Tech All-Heisman Era team[edit]

Penn; leaving Atlanta[edit]

Heisman in 1925

After a divorce in 1919, Heisman left Atlanta to prevent any social embarrassment to his former wife, who chose to remain in the city.[31] He picked Bill Alexander as successor and went back to Penn for three seasons from 1920–1922. Most notable perhaps is the 1922 loss to Alabama, the Tide's first major intersectional victory. In 1923, Heisman coached the Washington & Jefferson Presidents, which beat the previously undefeated West Virginia Mountaineers.

Rice University[edit]

Heisman then went to Washington and Jefferson College, before ending his career with four seasons at Rice. Heisman took over the job as Rice University’s first full-time head football coach and athletic director after Phillip Arbuckle in 1924;[32] he was selected by The Committee on Outdoor Sports.[33] 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.[32]

Death and legacy[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.[34][35]


He was an innovator and developed one of the first shifts,[36] 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.[37]

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] A wooden statue of Heisman was placed at the Rhinelander–Oneida County Airport.[38]

Coaching tree[edit]

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

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 Yellow Jackets (Independent) (1914–1915)
1914 Georgia Tech 6–2
1915 Georgia Tech 7–0–1
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets / Golden Tornado (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: 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. ^ [1]"Born Johann Wilhelm Heisman on October 23, 1869, in Cleveland, Ohio, he was the son of John M. Heisman and Sara Lehr. The name John William was later adopted in order to make less apparent the fact that he was the son of immigrants. His father was the estranged son of German aristocrats and husband to his lower-class wife, for whom he gave up his family, inheritance, and surname."
  4. ^ a b Heisman, John M. (2012). Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy. With Mark Schlaback. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4516-8291-5. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ a b "John Heisman (1869-1936)". Penn Biographies. Penn University Archives & Records Center. Retrieved 2013-12-24. 
  7. ^ "Football Master Strategist New Name For Heisman". The Atlanta Constitution. October 13, 1918. p. 3. Retrieved May 4, 2016 – via  open access publication - free to read
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ Pees, Samuel T. "John Heisman, Football Coach". Oil History. Retrieved 2014-11-12. 
  10. ^ Woodbery, Evan (2012). 100 Things Auburn Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die. Triumph Books. ISBN 978-1-62368-073-2. 
  11. ^ a b Gould, Alan (January 24, 1931). "Sport Slants". Prescott Evening Courier. 
  12. ^ Schafer, Elizabeth D. (2004). Auburn Football. Arcadia Publishing. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-7385-1669-1. 
  13. ^ "Auburn theatrical legend John Heisman put on, starred in play to save Auburn football – The War Eagle Reader". 2013-05-31. Retrieved 2015-12-24. 
  14. ^ "John Heisman: Auburn 'the first to show what could be done' with the hurry-up offense – The War Eagle Reader". Retrieved 2015-12-24. 
  15. ^ Wiley Lee Umphlett. Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football. pp. 64–65. 
  16. ^ "Records" (PDF). p. 324. 
  17. ^ "Prodigious Kick". Schenectady Gazette. October 10, 1934. 
  18. ^ John M. Heisman. Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy. pp. 104–105. 
  19. ^ Foster Senn (October 17, 1987). "This Day in Tiger Football". Clemson University Football Programs - Clemson vs Duke: 81. 
  20. ^ "Amateur Sport". The Olympian Magazine. 2. 
  21. ^ "Amateur Sport". The Olympian Magazine. 2: 383–384. 
  22. ^ "Vetter Sitton Clemson Coach". The Anderson Daily-Intelligencer. January 21, 1915. 
  23. ^ 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. 
  24. ^ McMath, p. 96
  25. ^ "On Gridiron In South". Atlanta Constitution. December 25, 1904. p. 7. Retrieved March 10, 2015 – via  open access publication - free to read
  26. ^ Heisman, John M. Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy. p. 144. 
  27. ^
  28. ^ "John Heisman". Tech Traditions: Ramblin' Memories. Georgia Tech Alumni Association. Archived from the original on 2007-09-07. Retrieved 2007-05-21. 
  29. ^ Powers, p. 42
  30. ^
  31. ^ "Tech Timeline: 1910s". Tech Traditions. Georgia Tech Alumni Association. Archived from the original on 2007-10-16. Retrieved 2007-05-21. 
  32. ^ a b "Heisman". Retrieved 2015-12-24. 
  33. ^
  34. ^ "Gravesite Still Draws Visitors". Associated Press. December 10, 1999. Archived from the original on 2007-10-18. Retrieved 2007-09-23. 
  35. ^ "Wisconsin Hometowns". Retrieved 2007-09-23. 
  36. ^ John Heisman. Principles of Football. p. 267. 
  37. ^ 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. 
  38. ^ "Man prestigious Heisman trophy named after buried in Rhinelander". Chippewa Herald. 1999-12-10. Retrieved 2015-11-16. 


  • Powers, Francis J. (1969). Life Story of Glen S. (Pop) Warner, Gridiron's Greatest Strategist. Chicago, IL: The Athletic Institute. 

External links[edit]