Heisman, John William ("Johnny")
HEISMAN, John William ("Johnny")
(b. 23 October 1869 in Cleveland, Ohio; d. 3 October 1936 in New York City), one of the early innovators in college football coaching who is memorialized by the Heisman Memorial Trophy, emblematic of college football's "outstanding player," presented annually by the Downtown Athletic Club of New York.
Heisman's grandfather, Baron von Bogart, was a nobleman in Germany. The baron's son, Heisman's father, John M. von Bogart, had a rebellious streak, and against his father's wishes he married a peasant girl. So enraged was the baron that he disinherited his son. So defiant was the son that he and his bride, Sarah Lehr Heisman, sailed for America and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. The baron's son also took his wife's maiden name as his own last name. The baron later relented and asked the young couple to return to Germany, but they liked the United States and chose to stay.
Johann Wilhelm Heisman was born two weeks before Princeton and Rutgers played what is considered the first intercollegiate football game in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His father was a cooper or barrel maker, and his mother was a homemaker. In the 1870s the family moved to Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the nation's first oil boom was taking place. After graduating from Titusville High School in 1887, Heisman matriculated at Brown University that year. He played football and baseball there, but the football was not "varsity," as Brown had dropped intercollegiate football. It was reinstated in 1889, but by that time Heisman had transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. While with the Quakers, Heisman and his teammates played a game indoors at Madison Square Garden. During this game the Garden's chemically produced, direct-current electrical lighting system damaged Heisman's eyes.
This drastically changed Heisman's career path and perhaps the face of college football. Instead of using the law degree he took from Penn in the spring of 1892, Heisman became the first football coach at the progressive Oberlin College in Ohio. Under the rules of the day Heisman, because he was enrolled as a graduate student in art, could play on the team he coached. He and the team were successful immediately, going undefeated and scoring 262 points to their opponents' 30. Among Oberlin's 7 victories were 40–0 and 50–0 whitewashings of Ohio State. It was not uncommon in the early days of college football for schools to play nearby rivals more than once in a season. Harper's Weekly magazine termed Oberlin's Yeomen "one of the three strongest teams west of the Alleghenies."
The next season (1893) found Heisman at another small Ohio school, Buchtel, now the University of Akron. The highlight of that season was a game at the state fair in Columbus against Ohio State. Once again a Heisman team defeated the Buckeyes, 12–6. Heisman was back at Oberlin for the 1894 season, but he went south in 1895 to Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now Auburn University. In a three-game season Heisman's team lost to Vanderbilt (9–6) but stunned Alabama (48–0) and Georgia (16–6). During this time Heisman saw an illegal forward pass play and thought if it were legal "it would scatter the mob." Football at the time was massed formations with often brutal tactics. Heisman wrote to Walter Camp, "the Father of American Football" and the sport's rules guru, asking him to legalize the forward pass. Camp never replied, but the game became so barbaric, with twenty-three on-field deaths in 1905, that President Theodore Roosevelt issued an edict: "Clean up football or it will be banned." Camp and the rules committee legalized the forward pass for the 1906 season.
As the nineteenth century played out, Heisman built a solid reputation at Auburn. He was considered part of an elite coaching triumvirate that included Amos Alonzo Stagg and Glenn S. "Pop" Warner. Heisman moved on to Clemson in 1900. His first season gave Clemson its first undefeated season. Heisman, who always enjoyed outfoxing an opponent, was at his best in 1902. For a game with Georgia Tech in Atlanta, he sent a group of his "scrubs," substitute players posing as the varsity, into Atlanta the day before the game. They checked into a hotel that evening and then, at the behest of the locals, stayed out all night partying. Atlantans bet heavily on the hometown Tech after word of Clemson's carousing got around. The Clemson varsity had actually spent the night—well rested—in a small village just outside the city. To the surprise of many in the crowd at the field where the game was played, the Clemson starters arrived for the game fresh and ready to play. Heisman's Clemson team destroyed Georgia Tech 44–5. After his team embarrassed Tech again in 1903, 73–0, the Atlanta university enticed Heisman to come and coach them in 1904.
At Georgia Tech, Heisman had his greatest success, a record of 102–29–7 through 1919. While there Heisman also took part in "summer stock" theater. He was especially fond of Shakespearean roles. In 1903 he married a fellow thespian, Evelyn McCollum Cox.
Heisman was a stern taskmaster and a devout believer in fundamentals. He often addressed his team as if he were emoting from a theatrical stage, once saying, as he held up a football: "Gentlemen, what is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere, in which the outer casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber bladder. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."
Perhaps nothing in Heisman's early years at Tech foretold what would happen in 1916. He and other coaches of his era often coached more than one sport. Stung in the spring by a 22–0 baseball loss to little Cumberland College, who used players from the Nashville team of the professional Southern Association, Heisman was bent on revenge. He offered Cumberland $500 to play a football game that fall. When Cumberland later tried to back out, citing a lack of players, Heisman threatened to sue for breach of contract. The Cumberland team forced to play that fateful football game was really a group of inexperienced fraternity boys (Kappa Sigma).
In the historic game neither team made a first down. Cumberland could not, and Georgia Tech did not have to. It never took Tech more than three plays to score one of its thirty-two touchdowns that day. Tech led at the halftime intermission 126–0. Between the halves Heisman told his team: "Gentlemen, you're doing all right. You've got them on the run. We're ahead, but don't let up. You can never tell what these tricky Cumberland players have up their sleeves. Be alert." Despite a second half with shortened third and fourth quarters, the final score was 220–0. Heisman had his revenge ten sweet times over. The score has remained for decades the most lopsided game in the history of intercollegiate football.
Heisman's 1916 team was voted the mythical national champion. They outscored their opponents 421–20. Only three teams, Washington and Lee (7), Auburn (7), and North Carolina (6), scored on them. By this time the pioneer coach had devised the "Heisman shift," in which before a play only the center was at the line of scrimmage. The rest of the team was several yards back and in a single line. The players went in motion right before the snap of the ball. As one southern writer described it, "The team deployed with the suddenness of a J. E. B. Stuart cavalry raid."
While at Tech in 1919, Heisman and his wife shocked their friends when they announced they were getting a divorce. Heisman simply said: "There are no hard feelings. I have agreed that wherever Mrs. Heisman wishes to live, I will live in another place." Mrs. Heisman chose to remain in Atlanta. Heisman returned to his alma mater Penn for three years and then moved on to Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania. In 1924 Heisman, now married to Edith Maora Cole, took the head coaching job at Rice. Heisman and Maora, the name she was known by, were sweethearts when she was a student and he was coach at Buchtel years before, but when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, they had decided not to marry. Heisman coached four seasons at Rice, bringing the small Southwest Conference school respectability. After the 1927 season Heisman retired from active coaching, moved to New York City, where he had a thriving sporting goods business, and became athletics director at the Downtown Athletic Club.
In 1935 Willard Price, the founder and editor of the Downtown Athletic Club Journal, proposed a trophy "for the outstanding college player east of the Mississippi." Heisman at first was opposed to "singling out one man from a team sport." But when he mentioned it casually and saw the enthusiasm of former players and writers, he changed his stance. Thus the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy came into being in 1935.
In October 1936 Heisman died after a brief bout with bronchial pneumonia. He is buried in Forest Home Cemetery in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, the home of his second wife where he often spent his summers. On 10 December 1936 the Downtown Athletic Club awarded its second trophy. This time it had a new name, the John W. Heisman Memorial Trophy, which became the most recognized award in college sports.
Heisman, a true innovator and a successful pioneer coach, was one of the driving forces behind the acceptance of college football in the United States. A somewhat austere and formal man to most, he could "let his hair down" with those close to him. He allowed the famed sportswriter Grantland Rice to call him "Jack" and his wife Maora to call him "Jackie."
Heisman wrote a technical book, Principles of Football (1922). His life and career are discussed in John T. Brady, The Heisman: A Symbol of Excellence (1984); Bert Randolph Sugar, The Southeastern Conference (1979); Allison Danzig, The History of American Football (1956); and Edwin Pope, Football's Greatest Coaches (1955). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 Oct. 1936).