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  • Mark Schipper

Georgia Tech's Destruction of Cumberland College in 1916 Wasn't Exactly As It Seemed

By Mark Schipper

To this day it is a game that lives in infamy. And every year, on its anniversary, the nation is reminded of the ignominy of what transpired.

The worst drubbing in college-football history happened in Atlanta on a hot October 7th Saturday, Year of Our Lord nineteen-hundred-and-sixteen. It was a 222-0 obliteration administered by Georgia Tech—a program led by the famously cutthroat head coach John Heisman—with malice aforethought on Tennessee’s Cumberland College Bulldogs.

The famous photograph of the scoreboard stares out like a grotesque hallucination from a head coach’s worst nightmare. The numbers, hand painted onto rectangular pieces of wood, are slotted into their grooves, quarter by ghastly quarter, with an almost occultic strangeness to their values. The last "2" hangs crookedly off the edge of the board, on the verge of tumbling, because no one had foreseen the possibility for a three-figure final score.

After one quarter, it was 63 to zero.

At the half, the score was 126 to nothing.

Following the third period of play, the Yellow Jackets had stretched the lead to 180 points.

As the final gun cracked-off into the hot downtown sky, the game went final: It was 222 to zero. The roundness of the final score seems to suggest the infinite.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution that 42-point fourth quarter, coming in the wake of 63, 63, and 54 points in the preceding three, was as sluggish in person as it appeared by statistical comparison. The young scribe sent to cover the game, a smug, heartless know-it-all who'd apprenticed in the finest traditions of sportswriting, blithely reported back to readers that “Tech had tired out a good deal towards the close of the game. Otherwise, the score would have been larger than it was.”

The Ramblin' Wreck had physically worn itself out clobbering an opponent that had gone limp shortly after the opening kickoff. It is something to consider what the lads on the other side must have felt like. One of coach Heisman’s own players, Noye Nesbit, later scrawled “Tech’s Disgrace” into his scrapbook above a photograph of that final scoreboard. The cliche about beating a dead horse seems to fit here.

The details of the game only add wonder to the outcome. The Yellow Jackets did not so much as attempt a forward pass, even though coach Heisman was a great proponent of the new'ish tactic and an innovator in that style of attack. There had been no need and, even when you are ahead 180-0, why risk it? This may have been the spiritual birth of the Woody Hayes school of football.

Cumberland lost their starting quarterback on the opening kickoff after—(for reasons we might today second guess)—he had been sent out as a blocking back and got himself trampled. Cumberland’s longest run had been three yards and came on their first carry of the afternoon. Their longest pass, a robust ten-yard completion, was executed on fourth down and twenty two.

The Bulldogs turned the ball over fifteen times, including nine lost fumbles and six interceptions. They finished the day with negative twenty-eight yards total offense.

For Georgia Tech the statistical outlay somehow is more appalling.

Coaches get almost giddy talking about imposing their team's will on an opponent, demoralizing them with the running game until they don't want to line up anymore. Heisman’s Yellow Jackets may have come as close to literally making that happen as any team ever. Tech rushed for nearly one-thousand yards on the afternoon, hitting nine-hundred and seventy-eight by the end, with a hale thirty-two touchdowns behind what must have been a healthy push from the offensive line.

But while this bludgeoning appeared to be a straight forward thing—and in many ways it was—it also was very much another, and that’s part of the story that's rarely told. This was a game scheduled largely out of spite, and played, at John Heisman's end, for blood . . . .

Coach Heisman's was a complicated, often prickly, personality, filled with both the good and the bad. In the off-season he performed professionally as a dramatic actor, including well-received turns as a Shakespearean player, to supplement his income. During football season he used a megaphone at practice, which in combination with his bellowing stage voice, allowed him to cajole, berate, castigate, and, of course, inspire his young athletes to execute their football roles at a frightening volume.

Heisman also was a great advocate, ambassador, and innovator of the sport—and shortly after his death he had the game's most-prestigious trophy named in his honor. He was a compelling leader and teacher of young men and is without doubt a major figure in the history of this country's greatest game, someone who left it better than he found it.

But along with the incredible energy to build, he was a nasty dictator with a cruel streak he was not ashamed to unleash. In 1919, after Heisman had divorced his wife, for example, he was ordered to leave the city of Atlanta as part of the settlement, an order he complied with. He was so loathed during his days as head coach at Auburn, where he built a reputation for coaching borderline dirty football, fans of opposing teams (whose schools were not competing) would show up to heckle Heisman from the sidelines, hoping to goad him into a screaming rage. Heisman satisfied them frequently enough they continued showing up to harass him.

Heisman was known for running up the score on crushed opponents, and dressing down referees with foul-mouthed, highly-dramatic monologues during games. Heisman went to war against local newspapers over unfavorable coverage and never hesitated to confront someone he felt had spoken out of turn. When things broke bad with Heisman, it was for real. He abandoned most of the places he lived and coached with ugly feelings going both directions.

Heisman, with megaphone.

In Cumberland's case the spite was engendered in 1915, the year prior to the game, when the Bulldogs' baseball team clobbered Georgia Tech, winning by the embarrassing score of 22-0. Heisman had been convinced—by whom we’re never told—the Bulldogs had played with professional ringers, cheating the Yellow Jackets out of a fair game. Heisman, who like every other serious head coach in those days was in charge of his team's schedule, talked Cumberland into signing a contract to come back the next year and give it a go on the gridiron.

All appeared set for the revenge match until Cumberland dropped football in the spring of 1916. Administrators from the school informed Heisman the Bulldogs would not be boarding that train from Lebanon, Tennessee to Atlanta for the ball game, after all. But that change of plans, necessitated by the fact the opponent had stopped playing the sport, did not go over well with Mr. Heisman—head ball coach and chief authoritarian at Georgia Tech.

Heisman threatened Cumberland with legal action, informing the small school, (which had cut football because they couldn't afford it), that he would take his financial pound of flesh from their coffers if they broke their contract. It would cost Cumberland far less than that, Heisman knew, just to come south and take their drubbing. From Heisman's perspective, dropping the sport of football was no excuse for missing this particular game.

So Cumberland re-agreed to the competition, but this time without the requisite football team needed to make good. According to the known history of what happened next, a student captain was put in charge of wrangling up a squad from the university's general population. He had posted Help Wanted hand bills and wandered around campus, eye-balling specimens by height and weight, promising a free trip to sunny Atlanta for a nice weekend in exchange for a few hours service on the gridiron.

The Kappa Sigma fraternity allegedly contributed more than their share of players to the effort. Something resembling a traveling squad—these were Iron Man days and twenty athletes were more than enough to compete—was cobbled together.

The train stopped at Nashville on the way south, where Cumberland hoped to poach a few current or recently graduated players from Vanderbilt University, a powerful program at that time. Instead, a day after docking in the Music City the train departed down another three bodies after a wild night became a lost weekend for the trio. Maybe the pressure had set in and they grabbed an easy out when they saw it.

Cumberland arrived in Atlanta with fifteen volunteer athletes on an unofficial roster. The Yellow Jackets were expected to compete for a national championship.

The only decent thing Heisman did all afternoon was to allow a shell-shocked Cumberland player to hide out under a sideline jacket on Georgia Tech’s bench. Heisman noticed the kid during a brief interlude between Yellow Jacket touchdowns and likely assumed he was suffering from a head injury. When he informed the player he had come to the wrong sideline, the player responded he was aware of the situation, but if Heisman sent him back he would be thrown out to the wolves for another mauling. Heisman tossed the kid a jacket and let him ride out the assault in peace.

Heisman as a young player at Penn University.

Beyond the intense spite and dark desire for vengeance, Heisman did have one substantial reason for doing what he had done—though it could be argued there were far-more sportsmanlike options available to him. For several seasons Heisman had been lamenting what he believed were the stupidity of newspaper polls and the way in which sportswriters rated football teams.

What Heisman hated, he wrote in several of his long, meandering columns for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—for which he was paid by the word—were how point totals between teams were being endlessly compared to determine the superior squad. It was all these hired geeks seemed to care about, Heisman said. He wanted an enlightened sporting press capable of rating teams based on how well they played the game, and not on point differentials accumulated over the course of a season.

Heisman knew what every coach has always known, which is that the circumstances during any game between two teams are always different, even when they've shared an opponent. A reliable transitive property to handicap the differences did not exist, and points scored or surrendered did not necessarily mean anything without additional, crucial context. The polls were a sham operated by a batch of incompetents, so said Heisman.

Over and over the coach said the things that sportswriters seemed to care about could lead to unscrupulous coaches running up scores against weak competition in order to appear stronger than they were. In Cumberland College, Heisman found both the right amount of malice, and the proper conditions, to make his point.

It was too bad his team ran out of energy at the end.

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