On a big Saturday at collegiate gridirons nationwide, we share 20 facts you might not know about college football pioneer John W. Heisman, born on this day in 1869.
1. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, John W. Heisman played college football at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania.
2. Despite standing at 5’8” and weighing only 158 lbs., he played tackle, center and guard. Today the average offensive lineman in college is 6’4” and weighs 320 lbs.
3. The year after graduating, he began coaching at Oberlin College.
4. His early coaching years saw him bouncing around to many different schools, including Buchtel College, Auburn University and Clemson.
5. While at Auburn, he also acted in summer stock theater productions.
6. His longest stint saw him coaching at Georgia Tech between 1904-1919, where he had a 77% winning average.
7. At Georgia Tech, he also enjoyed a 33-game winning streak and three undefeated seasons, during which his teams outscored their opponents 1,599 to 99.
8. He became the first paid college football coach in the country, receiving $2,250 a year plus 30 percent of the gate receipts.
9. A strict disciplinarian who didn’t permit his players to swear, he especially hated fumbles. Any player who fumbled in practice was punished by having to bounce a ball one hundred times against a fence.
10. Aside from the trophy that bears his name, Heisman is perhaps best known today as a pioneer of the forward pass.
11. Heisman first witnessed a forward pass in a game between North Carolina and Georgia. In a play that should have been disallowed, a punter threw a forward pass for a 70 yard touchdown (the ref had been distracted). Heisman saw the forward pass as a way to bring excitement and greater tactical flexibility to the sport.
12. Not everyone in college football agreed. It took him three years of constantly badgering the rules committee before he won enough support and the rules were changed in 1906.
13. Nevertheless, the forward pass went widely unused until 1913, when Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame had great success with it.
14. The center snap was another innovation designed by John Heisman. Previously, centers had rolled the ball backward to the quarterback. Heisman’s team at Buchtel had an unusually tall quarterback and the coach thought it would be simplify things if the center just threw the ball back to him.
15. Heisman was also credited with inventing the onside kick – but in an article he wrote for Baseball Magazine in 1908, he gave credit for that innovation to George Woodruff.
16. Heisman was the coach when Georgia Tech beat the Cumberland College Bulldogs 222-0 (all without throwing a single forward pass). Cumberland had actually disbanded their football team prior to the start of the season, but would have been forced to pay Georgia Tech a large sum if they forfeited the game. So they threw a team of scrubs together and travelled to Atlanta to play.
17. It is believed Heisman might have had two motives for running up the score against his unprepared rivals. For one, earlier in the year the Cumberland baseball team, loaded with semi-pro players, had unsportsmanly walloped Georgia Tech 22-0. Secondly, Heisman may have been trying to point out the absurdity of ranking teams based on the number of points scored, as was done at the time.
18. The game remains the most one-sided victory in the history of college football.
19. Heisman later also coached at Penn, Washington-Jefferson, and Rice University. While at Rice, he was paid more than anyone on their faculty.
20. In addition to coaching football, John Heisman coached both baseball and basketball. His overall record in baseball was 219-119-7, while in basketball his teams at Georgia Tech only managed a 9-14 record.