John William Heisman

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John William Heisman

John William Heisman (1869–1936) was the football coach at Georgia Technical University (Georgia Tech) from 1904 until 1919. His teams played 33 games without a defeat including its record-setting win of 222-0 over Cumberland College in 1916. His career in college football lasted 36 years and marked some of the most significant changes in the sport's history.

Born to College Football

John William Heisman was born Johann Wilhelm Heisman, on October 23, 1869, at 183 Bridge Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, two weeks to the day before the first official intercollegiate football game was played on November 6, between Rutgers and Princeton, both in New Jersey. His parents were Johann "Michael" Heisman and Sarah Lehr Heisman, both German immigrants to America not long before Heisman's birth. The senior Heisman was actually the son of the Baron von Bogart, German nobility, who lost his inheritance and his family when he decided to marry for love instead of title. Heisman's mother's grandfather, the Mater of Knauge, had been an aide to Napoleon, but was not titled. The two young lovers married and took the bride's maiden name of Heisman. By the age of seven, Heisman moved with his family to Titusville, Pennsylvania, at the center of oil country, where his father would practice his trade as a cooper, or barrel maker. The business supplied barrels to such notables as John D. Rockefeller for his Standard Oil company and prospered quickly to approximately 35 employees. In 1890, the senior Heisman sold out his business and returned to Cleveland. Heisman grew up in a comfortable home, beginning his own love affair with the game of football as a player for Titusville High School.

Heisman first enrolled at Brown University in 1887, where he was active in athletics, especially baseball and football though the school had dropped intercollegiate play until 1889 so his play was limited to a club team within the university. By the time Brown was playing intercollegiately again, Heisman had already transferred to the University of Pennsylvania with the intention of getting a law degree. Throughout the completion of his law studies Heisman continued to play football for the school in that era when transfer restrictions did not exist. In a profile of Heisman included in John T. Brady's book, The Heisman, a Symbol of Excellence, writer Gene Griessman wrote an autobiographical chapter on Heisman. He discussed the events surrounding the decision that would change the course of Heisman's life. "There was a Penn player named Pop Thayer, whom Heisman claimed could punt a football 75 yards. Once, when Penn was playing Rutgers in Madison Square Garden, Thayer kicked a ball so high it broke a chandelier in the Garden's arched roof. A later event at the Garden changed Heisman's career forever. According to his widow, during Penn's game with Princeton, which also was played in the Garden, the galvanic lighting system somehow injured Heisman's eyes. The team's physician, Edward Jackson, told Heisman that he needed to rest his eyes for two years." With that pronouncement, Heisman returned to Ohio in 1892 and accepted the job as Oberlin College's first football coach instead of beginning the practice of law.

Began an Illustrious Career

Oberlin was located just about 20 miles southwest of Cleveland, and was already well-known for its academic excellence, especially in the liberal arts. In addition to joining the football staff, Heisman enrolled in a postgraduate course in art and also played on the football team—a practice, noted Griessman, that was legal at the time. The first team emerged undefeated that season and allowed only 30 points to its own 262 points. In an article for Campus Life, of Georgia Tech, Pat Edwards wrote in the fall of 1997, that during those early coaching years in Ohio, something else happened that was worth noting. "With John's career change to coaching, John's father made up for missing his son's high school and college games by attending the game between Oberlin and Western in 1892. At that game the elder Heisman, coming first to see what his son would give up a law practice for, and alter to support a team he saw as an underdog, began to pace up and down the Western sidelines offering $100 bills as bets in favor of Oberlin," noted Edwards. "The elder Heisman made money that day; Oberlin beat Western 38–8."

In a review of Nat Brandt's book, When Oberlin Was King of the Gridiron: The Heisman Years, Kevin Kern of the University of Akron noted that it was the author's claim that at Oberlin Heisman began to "revolutionize American football more than almost anyone else in those early years. Heisman's basic innovations and contributions to the college sport (and some that would be translated to the professional play of the game), included displaying downs and yards on the scoreboard, using both guards as blockers for the runner, drawing up a pre-set series of plays to start a game, sending signals in from the sideline, the long count, snapping the ball directly to the quarterback, and, even being the first to use the word "hike" in calling the plays. One move known as the "hidden-ball trick" was later declared illegal. In feats that would be impossible to fathom by mid-twentieth century, Oberlin would beat future power-houses such as Ohio State and Illinois. In 1892, Oberlin defeated Ohio State twice under Heisman's leadership both times keeping Ohio State scoreless. Other than a year Heisman spent at Buchtel College (later known as the University of Akron) in 1893–94, during which season the Akron team managed to beat Ohio State 12–6, he stayed with Oberlin until 1895. The coach received no regular salary for his job there but received between $400 and $500 when a hat was passed to collect money for him. At Akron, his salary was $750, though the faculty of that college was not very supportive of the sport.

According to Griessman, the attitude of the Akron faculty might have been influenced by the significant differences of the football game then compared to the way the game would come to be known by the end of the twentieth century. Citing those differences, he noted that, "When a team got the ball, it would form a wedge to shield the man carrying the ball and come galloping down the center of the field. Tackling was not allowed below the knees. No forward passes were allowed, substitutions were rare, and if a man was taken out, he could not return to the game. Serous injuries were more common, and the number of deaths was increasing at a troubling rate, as more and more men took up the sport. However, Buchtel was required to play football to qualify for membership in the Ohio Intercollegiate Athletic Association, so the football team was more or less tolerated as a necessary evil."

Heisman left Oberlin for Auburn University, then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute, where he stayed for five years. Though Heisman followed three previous football coaches at Auburn, he became the school's first full-time head coach. His record during that time was one of 12 wins, 4 losses, and 2 ties. In 1971 Auburn became the only school where Heisman had coached to have any players win the Heisman Trophy: Pat Sullivan won it in 1971 and Bo Jackson, in 1985.

Heisman was coaching at Auburn when he observed what would come to be known as a "forward pass" for the first time. Technically, the play was illegal. During a game between Georgia and North Carolina in 1895, as Griessman described it, "Toward the end of the game, North Carolina, with its back to the goal, was forced to punt. The fullback retreated until the crossbar of his goal was just above his head. Georgia rushed him mercilessly, and in desperation, he lobbed the ball forward to one of his teammates, who caught it and ran for a touchdown." Though Georgia's coach, Pop Warner, disagreed with the decision, the referee held fast to the opinion that the fullback could have fumbled the ball, allowing the touchdown to count. Heisman realized almost immediately that such a pass could open up the field during a game, and wrote to Walter Camp who was then the chair of the rules committee, petitioning him to make it legal. After years of campaigning, and due to the rise of public opinion against football due to the compounding of serious injuries and death, Camp and his committee finally relented. In 1906 the forward pass was confirmed as a legal play in the game of football. In his later years writing for Collier's, a popular American magazine, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, Heisman recalled that with the change that one play brought, "American football had come over the line which divides the modern game from the old. Whether it was my contribution to football or Camp's is, perhaps, immaterial. Football had been saved from itself."

Auburn's team lost only once during the 1896 season, and that was to Georgia, the team that Heisman would eventually lead after he left Auburn. When the rematch on Thanksgiving Day 1897 had to be canceled due to the death of one of Georgia's key players, Auburn had to cancel the rest of the season due to the grave financial losses suffered from that one change. The next year's team was small but worthy with an average weight of 148 pounds. Still, the team racked up a season of two wins against Georgia Tech and Georgia and a loss to North Carolina. Heisman maintained throughout his life that his stay at Auburn was highlighted by never having a team there he "did not love," quoted Griessman, nor with whom he had any quarrels. He remained friends with all of his players.

From Auburn, Heisman went to Texas briefly to raise tomatoes, investing nearly all of his money. When Walter Riggs, the Clemson University professor, and later its president, founded the school's first football team in 1895, he also served as head coach for the team in 1896 and in 1899. Riggs had played under Heisman at Auburn and urged him out of the tomato fields back into football at Clemson. When he coached at Clemson for the 1901 through 1904 seasons, Heisman enjoyed a 19-3-2 record. His 1900 team had a 6–0 season, the first undefeated season in its history. His players tended to be light but full of speed. His plays were written to make the best of that fact. Griessman noted "he would throw five men into a sweep ahead of the man with the ball, a play subsequently copied widely, but Heisman seem to have originated." One of his best-known tactics was that of using a player in one position for more than simply that one position.

Heisman continued to enjoy dabbling in the theater during his Clemson days and while doing so met his first wife, a widow named Evelyn McCollum Cox who was an actress in a summer stock company. She had one son, Carlisle, who would stay close to Heisman long after his mother and the coach were to divorce. Heisman and Cox married in 1903 when Carlisle was 12. Georgia Tech, whose team Clemson had defeated by 73–0 in the last game of the season, offered Heisman the position as head coach beginning with the 1904 season. The day after the offer had officially expired, he accepted the post at a salary of $2,250 per year, plus 30 percent of net receipts to coach its athletic teams. Heisman and his new family moved to Atlanta where he would coach the best games of his career and stay through 17 football seasons. It was Heisman's 1916 team that entered the Guinness Book of World Records, as it beat the once-powerful southern team of Cumberland College with a score of 222–0. By 1918 Heisman and his wife had mutually agreed to a divorce, and he decided that he wanted to prevent any social embarrassment by letting Evelyn choose where she wanted to live, and then he would choose another. When she decided to stay in Atlanta Heisman accepted a job as the head coach at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

Heisman stayed there for three seasons. He followed that with positions at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, known at the time to be a serious football contender, having played in the Tournament of Roses game in 1921. When he refused to remove a black player for a scheduled game with Washington and Lee College in Virginia, that team backed out of the game. In 1924, he was married a second time, this time to Edith Maora Cole, who had been a student at Buchtel College while Heisman coached at the school. They had been sweethearts but decided not to marry due to Edith's bout with tuberculosis. They met again during the years following his divorce and married. Shortly after that, Heisman took what would be his last coaching position with Rice University in Houston, Texas. His agreement was to be in residence during spring training and for the football season, making him available for a sporting goods business in which he was involved in New York City. He was granted a five-year contract and a salary of $9,000—a cut for him from Washington and Jefferson, but $1,500 higher than the highest paid faculty member. But with the two initial seasons bringing disappointing results, Heisman resigned after a third even more disastrous season. Heisman left college football coaching behind him and headed back to New York.

Final Years

Heisman became the man chosen by a recruiting committee to become the first athletic director of New York's Downtown Athletic Club (DAC), a name that would become synonymous with athletic excellence, particularly in football. In 1933 Heisman helped to organized the first Touchdown Club of New York and, in 1935, inaugurated the first Downtown Athletic Club trophy for the best college football player east of the Mississippi. On December 10, 1936, just over two months after his death on October 3, 1936, in New York City, the trophy was re-named the "Heisman Memorial Trophy," in his honor.

During the years following his coaching career, while at DAC, Heisman wrote and published a book, The Principles of Football, wrote magazine columns for various popular magazines, and was at work on another book at the time of his death. Heisman was buried in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, his wife's hometown.


Brady, John T., The Heisman, A Symbol of Excellence, Atheneum, 1984.


New York Times, October 4, 1936.


"A Brief History of the Heisman Memorial Trophy," website, (January 22, 2004).

Carney, Jim, "Heisman Trophy namesake coached at Buchtel College," website, (January 22, 2004).

"College Football History," College Football History website, (January 22, 2004).

"Creating the Big Game, John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football," Greenwood Publishing Group website, (January 22, 2004).

"Heisman, John W., Football," website, (January 22, 2004).

"Heisman Led Jackets to Victory," Campus Life, Georgia Tech website, (January 22, 2004).

"John Heisman," College Football Hall of Fame website, (January 22, 2004).

"John Heisman," Find a Grave website, (January 22, 2004).

"John Heisman at Auburn," Rocky Mountain Auburn Club website, (January 22, 2004).

"John Heisman, Profile," Fans only, Clemson University, (January 22, 2004).

"John William Heisman, Sports, Biographies," reference website, (January 22, 2004).

Pees, Samuel T., "John Heisman, Football Coach," Oil History website, (January 22, 2004).

"Principles of Football," Hill Street Press website, (January 22, 2004).

"When Oberlin was King of the Gridiron: The Heisman Years," book review, Northeast Ohio Journal of History (University of Akron, OH) website, (January 22, 2004).

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John William Heisman (hīs´mən), 1869–1936, American football coach, b. Cleveland. He studied and played football at Brown (1887–89) and the Univ. of Pennsylvania (1890–91). He coached football for 36 years from 1892–1927, most memorably at Auburn (1895–99), Georgia Tech (1904–19), and Rice (1924–27). At Georgia Tech his teams played 33 games without a defeat, and his squad was victorious in the record setting 222–0 victory over Cumberland in 1916. From 1927 until his death, Heisman was athletic director of the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. The trophy presented annually since 1935 by that club to the most outstanding college football player in the nation was named (1936) in his memory.