There are few things the RedState Department of History enjoys more than a crisp fall afternoon with college football on the tube. While watching this weekend’s games staff was left to observe a rather amazing anniversary today on which, simply put, college sports saw one of the worst beatdowns ever administered in any sport anywhere in the world.
Heisman was an innovator. As part of the campaign to reduce violence in the game (and violent deaths — 18 players died and 159 suffered severe injuries in the 1905 season alone, leading President Theodore Roosevelt to call for action to make the sport safer) — Heisman advocated making the forward pass a legal play, to reduce the congestion at the line of scrimmage.
It was bad in those days. Very bad, in fact. In 1890, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a short poem which was intended to be sung to the Civil War song “Just Before the Battle, Mother”:
“Farewell, mother; you may never
Press me to your heart again;
For I’m in the rush-line, mother,
And more than likely to be slain.”
Yet Heisman was also responsible for some of the mayhem that had by that time infected the sport. Heisman was an early advocate of the “flying wedge”, a now-banned maneuver which put seven players in an inverted V formation to run interference for the ball carrier on kickoff returns. The wedge was made stronger by suitcase handles Heisman had sewed onto the pants of his players’ uniforms, to give members of the wedge something to hold onto during kickoffs.
He was also given to oratory. Before one practice, he explained the physical makeup of a football to his players in this way:
“What is this? A prolate spheroid — that is, an elongated sphere — in which the outer leathern casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this.”
It was an inventive time. While coaching at Auburn in 1896, the student body was getting excited for Heisman’s team to face his future employer, Georgia Tech. They greased the train tracks outside of town, causing the Tech train to slide nearly five miles past the station, forcing the players to walk back to Auburn — for a game they lost. The lore surrounding the event lives on to this day at the school, with the “Wreck Tech Pajama Parade” continuing for nearly 90 years.
But, we digress. In 1915, tiny Cumberland College had entered an agreement to play mighty Tech in 1916. The problem was that the school disbanded its football team in the interim.
Yet Heisman would not let Cumberland out of its contract, demanding payment of $3,000 if the team didn’t show. So it was that a man named George Allen, who would later have a job in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, assembled a team of 16 fraternity brothers to travel to play Tech as the Cumberland College team.
There was already bad blood between the schools. Cumberland had beaten Tech 22-0 in baseball the previous year, and used professional players in doing so. The Tech baseball team was also coached by Heisman and he didn’t take kindly either to the hiding or to the extra players used by Cumberland. So, he set out to teach them a lesson.
Cumberland received the opening kickoff and was forced to punt, after which Tech scored on its first play. Cumberland fumbled on its next possession and Tech recovered, scoring a defensive touchdown in the process. They fumbled again on their third possession, Tech recovering and scoring two plays later. Cumberland lost nine yards on its fourth possession, punting for Tech to score again two plays after that.
It was 63-0 after the first quarter. It was 126-0 at halftime. Heisman, ever wary, gave his players a fiery halftime oration.
“You’re doing all right, team, we’re ahead. But you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. They may spring a surprise. Be alert, men! Hit ’em clean, but hit ’em hard!”
The second half was little different. Georgia Tech added 54 more points in the third quarter and 42 in the fourth, despite the quarter length being shortened from 15 to 12 minutes.
The Golden Tornado, as Tech was then known, scored 32 touchdowns in the game. But a big part of the issue was the rules of the day, which allowed a team scoring a touchdown to elect to receive the next kickoff. Tech didn’t make habit of this practice on this particular day, but did it often enough to make a difference in the scoreline.
For the day, Tech gained 522 yards, all on the ground, while holding Cumberland to -28 net yards on the day (but 14 passing yards). Cumberland turned the ball over fifteen times, losing nine fumbles and six interceptions.
The story even went that Heisman had deliberately decided on 222-0 as the final score as revenge for the baseball game, which had ended 22-0 for Cumberland.
Hopefully, your favorite team did better than Cumberland did that day (they could hardly miss.) Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!