Heisman, John

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John Heisman


American college football coach

John William Heisman was immortalized in 1936, the year of his death, when the New York Downtown Athletic Club changed the name of its annual trophy awarded to the best college football player in the nation to the Heisman Memorial Award to honor the club's former director. Best known today for his name on that trophy, Heisman is also recognized for his innovative coaching during the developing years of American college football. Walking the sidelines for thirty-six years as the coach for eight different schools, Heisman was at the pinnacle of his career during his fifteen years at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). His often dictatorial style with his players and his habit of running up the score on his opponents sometimes hurt his popularity, but no one denied his ability to extend the game of collegiate football into new areas of strategy and style. One of the earliest and strongest supporters of legalizing the forward pass, he is credited with inventing or first implementing such modern-day offensive formations as the center snap on the signal of "hike" or "hep" from the quarterback, the double pass and fake pass, the later-outlawed hidden ball trick, and what became known as the Heisman shift.

Football Mad

Heisman was born October 23, 1869, in Cleveland, Ohio, just two weeks before Princeton played Rutgers in what is considered the first college football game. Heisman's father, a cooper, and his mother, a homemaker, were both immigrants from Germany. During the 1870s, the Heisman family moved from Cleveland to Titusville, Pennsylvania, following the oil boom in the region, and Heisman graduated from Titusville High School in 1887. During his high school years, Heisman was a motivated student and participated in baseball, football, and gymnastics. Despite his small stature, Heisman fell in love with the developing game of football. Having played soccer-style football in his youth, as a young man, he was particularly enthralled with the concept of being allowed to carry the ball, a new innovation that was spreading among East Coast colleges.

Although Heisman's father considered football to be a brutal and barbaric sport, which in the early days of the game was not far from the truth, his disapproval could not squelch his son's overflowing enthusiasm for the game. He matriculated at Brown University as a 17-year-old freshman in 1887, unfortunately the same year that the school discontinued its intercollegiate football program. Nonetheless Heisman, weighing just 144 pounds, played with unabated enthusiasm and intensity

in intramural games. After two years at Brown, Heisman, working toward a law degree, transferred to the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), perhaps influenced by both the school's strong football program and the national reputation of its law department. He stayed at Penn for four years, playing football and studying law.

Heisman quickly turned Oberlin's fledging program into a winning football team, and it was during these early days of coaching that he developed many of his innovative strategies. Approaching the game in an analytical and methodical manner, Heisman deduced from his own playing experience that if a lineman came out of his position to block on the outside, it would open a path for the running back. Thus, Heisman became one of the first to consistently and successfully move the ball by pulling a guard off the line to run lead blocks. He also built on the popular wedge, or V-style, offense by introducing a smaller, secondary wedge that also wrecked havoc on opponents' defenses. Creating another new offensive formation, Heisman developed the double pass play, the precursor to the reverse play, in which a tackle pulled out of the line and handed the ball to the halfback.

In 1893 he left Oberlin to accept his first paid position at Buchtel College (now the University of Akron), receiving an annual salary of $750. During the one year Heisman spent at Buchtel, he faced numerous challenges, the first being a male student enrollment that barely reached one hundred, which made even fielding a full team a difficult feat. He also encountered criticism from Buchtel's faculty who joined the growing protest against the violent nature of the game that commonly led to injuries. Heisman was well aware of the physical toll football could take on the body and continually sought offenses that would reduce the danger and impact on his players. As a result, Heisman erased the tradition of mirroring the offensive and defensive positions. Typically, if a player was a halfback on offense, he played halfback on defense. What Heisman reasonably felt was that this put some of his smaller players, such as his quarterback, right in the thick of the fray while some of his bigger players, such as the fullback, were often left out of the action. Thus, Heisman stopped matching offensive and defensive positions, instead placing his strongest players up front and his quicker, lighter men back in what became known as safety positions. While at Buchtel he also developed the center snap, a maneuver that quickly caught on at other schools and soon replaced the former method of rolling the ball to the quarterback.


1869Born in Cleveland, Ohio
1887-88Plays football for Brown University
1889-91Plays football for University of Pennsylvania
1892Coaches at Oberlin College
1892Earns law degree from University of Pennsylvania
1893Coaches at Buchtel College (now Akron University)
1894Returns to coach at Oberlin College
1895-99Coaches at Alabama A & M University (now Auburn University)
1900-03Coaches at Clemson University
1903Marries Evelyn Cox
1904-19Coaches at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)
1919Heisman and wife agree to divorce
1920-22Coaches at University of Pennsylvania
1922Authors The Principles of Football
1923Coaches one year at Washington & Jefferson University
1924Marries Edith Maora Cole
1924-27Coaches at Rice University
1927Retires from coaching
1929Becomes director of the New York Downtown Athletic Club
1936Dies in New York City
1936The Downtown Athletic Club trophy, awarded annually to the best college football player, is renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy

Heisman's football team at Buchtel took five of seven games in 1893, outscoring their opponents for the season 276-82. Heisman also coached the baseball team to a state championship. However, the next year he returned to coach again at Oberlin. Although he could be hardnosed with his players, Heisman learned early in his career to carefully cultivate his public image and actively sought out relationships with the local media. His natural affinity for publicity resulted in high praise by the media, and he quickly built a reputation for his coaching abilities. In the process of developing its football program, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn University) caught wind of Heisman's success and offered him a coaching job. Twenty-five-year-old Heisman accepted.

Growing Reputation: Auburn and Clemson

Although Heisman's first year at Auburn was fairly unspectacular, winning two of three games, it was during the first game of the 1895 season that he first employed his innovative trick hidden-ball play. Down 9-0 to Vanderbilt University in the second half, Auburn's quarterback, under the protection of the offensive wedge, discreetly tucked the ball under his shirt. As the other Auburn players dispersed widely on the field, successfully spreading out the defense, the quarterback pretended to be out of the play, crouching down to tie his shoe. He then nonchalantly sauntered in for a touchdown. Before being deemed illegal, the play worked once again that season in a game against Georgia.

From 1895 to 1899, Heisman led Auburn to a record of 12-4-2. Considering that his teams were often outmatched in size and talent, the record earned Heisman increasing respect, with many regarding him as one of the best coaches in the country. Enticed perhaps by an increase in salary, in 1900 Heisman accepted a coaching position at Clemson University near Greenville, South Carolina, where he quickly turned the football program into a notable success. During his first year of coaching there, Clemson went undefeated, without even a tie to blemish their perfect record. The team's win over league-dominating Georgia was icing on the cake for Clemson fans.

The Glory Years: Georgia Tech

Heisman coached Clemson football, as well as baseball, through 1903. His football record of 19-3-2 and .833 winning percentage established a yet-to-be-broken school record. In 1903 Heisman married Evelyn Cox, a widow with a twelve-year-old son. The following year Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) lured Heisman away from Clemson, offering a salary of $2,000 and 30 percent of gate receipts. Heisman was at the peak of his coaching career at Georgia Tech, compiling a record of 102-29-6 during his sixteen-year stay. As with his previous teams, Heisman began to develop the Tech program through tough workouts, strict discipline, and the highest standards of commitment from his players.

On a national level, football was under fire for the ever-increasing number of football-related deaths and injuries; twenty-one players were reported to have died in 1904 alone. Consequently, for a period of time numerous schools, including Columbia, Northwestern, California, and Stanford Universities, discontinued their football programs altogether. To create a safer game, Heisman joined those who advocated the legalization of the forward pass. By allowing the ball to be thrown beyond the line of scrimmage (up to that time, only laterals were allowed), the crushing pile of players that led to so many injuries would be neutralized by spreading play across the entire field. Heisman became one of the strongest voices in support of the forward pass, which was finally legalized in 1906.

Related Biography: Coach Glenn "Pop" Warner

Glenn S. Warner earned the nickname "Pop" as captain of the Cornell University football team because he was older than most of his teammates. After graduating from Cornell with a law degree in 1894, Warner became the football coach at the University of Georgia. During the 1895 season Georgia played Auburn, and Heisman successfully used the hidden ball trick against Warner's team. Warner later copied the trick play and is subsequently sometimes credited with inventing it. After two seasons at Georgia, in which Warner's team went undefeated with a 4-0 record, Warner coached two years at his alma mater, Cornell. In 1899 he became the coach at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Five years later he returned to Cornell to coach three seasons. Again in 1907 Warner left Cornell to resume his job at the Carlisle Indian School, the same year that the All American halfback Jim Thorpe joined the Carlisle team.

Warner's greatest coaching success came after becoming the football coach at the University of Pittsburgh in 1914, where his team recorded a 33-game winning streak and earned two national championships. In 1924 Warner moved to California to coach at Stanford for the next nine years. During that time, his teams won three Rose Bowl championships. He spent his final years of coaching at Temple University before retiring in 1933. Best remembered for founding the Pop Warner Youth Football League in 1929, Warner is also credited with numerous innovations in college football, including the screen play, the three-point stance, the use of shoulder pads, and putting players' numbers on their jerseys. Warner and Heisman were two of college football's most influential coaches during the sport's infancy.

Awards and Accomplishments

Heisman retired from coaching in 1927 with a career record of 186 wins, 70 losses, and 16 ties.
1900-03Establishes school record for winning percentage during three years at Clemson (19-3-2, .833)
1904-19Goes 102-29-7 during his tenure at Georgia Tech
1915-17Georgia Tech football team goes undefeated for three consecutive years, adding up to a 31-game streak with no losses.
1916Georgia Tech beats Cumberland College 220-0, the most lopsided game in the history of college football
1917Wins a national championship
1936New York Downtown Athletic Club trophy is renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy in his honor
1954Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame

With the forward pass now at his disposal, Heisman regularly added its use to his game plan. He also developed what became known as the jump shift, or Heisman shift, in 1906. Prior to Heisman's invention of jump shift, players lined up and stayed put until the ball was snapped. Once again breaking with traditional play, Heisman's team would line up in one formation, then one or more men would quickly shift to new positions with the snap coming as soon as they were reset. This put the opponent at a disadvantage as the defensive players had little time to assess the new formation or communicate with teammates regarding necessary changes in defensive coverage.

During his first ten years at Georgia Tech, Heisman fielded good teams that sometimes struggled against chief rivals Auburn, Georgia, and Sewanee. Rules were changing rapidly as the prototype for modern college football began to take shape. By 1912 the game had evolved into what can be recognized as American football. Gifted at forming a winning team from players who were outmatched in size and talent, Heisman's recruiting efforts eventually paid off, and in 1915 he found himself with a truly talented team. For three consecutive seasons, from 1915 to 1917, Heisman's team went unbeaten, outscoring opponents during the 31-game streak 1,599 to 99. The crowning moment came in 1917 when Georgia Tech earned its first national championship.

On October 7, 1916, Georgia Tech participated in the most lopsided game in the history of college football. According to the nearly legendary story, Tech's baseball team (coached by Heisman) had been trounced the previous spring by Cumberland University, a small school in Tennessee. Reportedly, Cumberland had loaded its baseball team with professional players out of Nashville, hoping to salvage its struggling athletic program. Heisman, in need of revenge for the humiliating defeat, offered Cumberland $500 to come to Atlanta for a football game. At halftime the score stood at 126-0, and Heisman told his team, "You're doing all right, but we can't tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeve. They may spring a surprise." For his part, the Cumberland coach reminded his players to hang on and remember that $500 guarantee.

Legends surrounding the game include reports of several Cumberland players who jumped the fence and deserted and one player who found his way to the Tech bench. When informed he was on the wrong side, the Cumberland player refused to join his own team for fear he'd be put back in the game. The third and fourth quarters were mercifully shortened to 10 minutes, and at the end of the day Tech had racked up 528 rushing yards and an additional 450 yards in punt returns. Cumberland posted a total of 20 yards rushing, 12 yards passing, and 10 fumbles. Georgia Tech's record of 32 touchdowns and 18 consecutive extra points still stands.

The Later Years

In 1919 Heisman announced that he and his wife were divorcing and, although the split was amicable, he had agreed to live in another place as his wife wished to remain in Atlanta. Much to the dismay of Georgia Tech fans, Heisman tendered his resignation and accepted a coaching position at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Penn fans were hoping for a return to the university's glory days of football experienced under the great coach George Woodruff in the 1890s. However

during the next three seasons Heisman's Quakers posted a mediocre record of 16-10-2. In 1922, the same year he published his book The Principles of Football, Heisman announced his resignation to accept a coaching job at Washington and Jefferson, a small private school located south of Pittsburgh. However, Heisman's demanding and dictatorial coaching style that in the past had motivated his players was no longer achieving positive results. He had encountered problems with discipline and drive with some of his Penn players, and his difficulties forming bonds with his players increased at his new post. Consequently, Heisman stayed at Washington and Jefferson just one year before moving on to Rice University in Houston, Texas, after the end of the 1923 season. In the same year he married Edith Maora Cole, a former girl-friend from his early coaching days in Pennsylvania.

As testament to his national coaching reputation, Heisman asked for and was granted a five-year, $9,000 contract at Rice, an incredible amount considering the university's highest paid faculty received $7,500. But Heisman's glory days in football had clearly ended. Rice posted marginal records over the next couple of years, and in 1927 Heisman coached the first losing season of his entire 36-year career. After compiling a record of 1-6-1 and being outscored over the season 148 to 52, Heisman tendered his resignation.

Once relieved of the pressures that run concurrent with consistently fielding winning teams, Heisman's demeanor mellowed. In a series of eleven articles published in Collier's, he recounted amusing and memorable moments of his long career. Over the next two years he operated a successful sporting goods business in New York City. Then, in 1929 he was appointed the inaugural director for the newly built Downtown Athletic Club, where he served until his unexpected death on March 10, 1936, of bronchial pneumonia. The DAC trophy given to the most outstanding college football player in the nation, first awarded in 1935, was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy to honor Heisman's contributions to the development of college football. Popularly known as the Heisman, the trophy has become the most prestigious honor in collegiate football.


The Principles of Football, Hill Street Press, 1922.



Campbell, Jim. "John Heisman." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Sport Figures, Volume 1, edited by Arnold Markoe. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.

Hickok, Ralph. A Who's Who of Sports Champions: Their Stories and Records. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Gems, Gerald R. "John William Heisman." American National Biography Volume 10, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Mendell, Ronald L., and Timothy B. Phares. Who's Who in Football. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974

Pope, Edwin. Football's Greatest Coaches. Atlanta: Tupper and Love, 1955.


Culley, Jennings. "Heisman's Insight Raised College Game." Richmond Times Dispatch (November 15, 1998): C7.

Harig, Bob. "Ward Brushes Up on Heisman History." St. Petersburg Times (December 11, 1993): C1.

Heller, Dick. "Georgia Tech Authored the Rout to End All Routs in '16." Washington Times (October 7, 2002): C15.

Huey, Anthony, and Jonathan Knight. "The Man Behind the Trophy." Ohio Magazine (December 1998-January 1999): 57-58.

Mulhern, Tom. "Namesake Rests in Rhineland." Wisconsin State Journal (December 12, 1999): D2.

Mushnick, Phil. "Legendary Coaches, Dubious Means." New York Post (November 30, 2001): 112.

Sapakoff, Gene. "Heisman, the Man and the Trophy." Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) (December 8, 1999): C1.

"Tech Wins 222-0." Sports Illustrated (fall, 1991): 7.


"John Heisman." 1996 Clemson Football Media Guide. http://www.hubcap.Clemson.edu/~tcrumpt/history/heisman.html/ (October 31, 2002).

Sketch by Kari Bethel