• Mark Schipper

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

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 occurred in Atlanta on October 7th, year of our lord nineteen hundred and sixteen. It was a 222-0 obliteration administered by Georgia Tech, a program led by the famous head coach John Heisman, with malice aforethought on Tennessee’s Cumberland College Bulldogs.

The famous photograph of the final scoreboard looms like a grotesque hallucination from a head coach’s most-lurid nightmare, with the hand-painted totals slotted into their grooves, quarter by ghastly quarter, with an almost occultic strangeness to their values.

After one, 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 it to 180 over nada.

And, as the final gun cracked off its round into the hot downtown sky, the game went final, 222-0. The roundness of the final scoring total almost 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 as it seemed. The young scribe sent to cover the game, a smug, heartless know-it-all who'd clearly apprenticed in the finest tradition of sportswriters, blithely reported back to the paper’s 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.”

Georgia Tech had physically worn itself out clobbering an opponent that went limp sometime shortly after the opening kickoff. It is something to truly consider what the other side must have felt like. One coach Heisman’s own players, Noye Nesbit, later scrawled into his scrapbook above a photograph of the scoreboard: “Tech’s Disgrace.”

The expression beating a dead horse does come to mind.

The details of the game only add wonder to the anomaly. The Yellow Jackets did not so much as attempt a forward pass, even though coach Heisman was one of the era’s great proponents of the new tactic and a cutting-edge innovator of the style. There had been no need and, even when you are ahead 180-0, why risk it? This may in fact 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 is somehow 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. Well, Heisman’s Yellow Jackets clearly believed in that maxim, and rushed for nearly one-thousand yards on the afternoon, hitting nine-hundred and seventy-eight, with a hale thirty-two rushing touchdowns to show for what must have been a fairly healthy push up front.

But while this bludgeoning appeared to be one thing—and it was—it also was very much another. And that’s the part of the story that is rarely told. This was a game staged largely out of spite from the beginning, and played, at Georgia Tech's end, for blood.

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

But in addition to everything good and great, he was also a nasty little martinet with a vicious streak that he kept a sharp edge on. In 1919, after Heisman had divorced his wife, for example, he was ordered to leave the city of Atlanta as part of the settlement. He was so loathed as the head coach at Auburn, where he built a reputation for playing low-rent, dirty football, that fans of opposing teams (whose schools were not playing in the game) would show up at Auburn contests to troll and heckle Heisman from the sidelines, hoping to goad him into a screaming rage.

Heisman was known for running up the score on weak opponents, dressing down referees with foul-mouthed, highly-dramatic monologues, and going to war with local newspapers over unfavorable coverage. When things broke bad with Heisman, it was for real. He abandoned most of the places he lived and coached with bad feelings going in both directions.

Heisman, with megaphone.

In the case of Cumberland the spite had been engendered in 1915, the year prior to the game, when Cumberland’s baseball team clobbered Georgia Tech, winning by the embarrassing score of 22-0. Heisman had been convinced—by who we’re never told—that the Bulldogs had played with professional ringers, cheating the Yellow Jackets out of a fair game. Heisman, who like every other serious head-football 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 seemed set for the revenge match until Cumberland decided to drop football entirely in the spring of the following season. Administrators from the school informed Heisman that the Bulldogs would not be boarding that October train from Lebanon, Tennessee down to Atlanta for the ball game, after all. But that change of plans, necessitated by the fact the school was no longer going to play the sport, did not go over well with Mr. Heisman—head ball coach and chief authoritarian—at Georgia Tech.

Heisman immediately threatened Cumberland with legal action, informing the small school, (which had cut funding presumably because of difficulty making the monthly nut), that he would extract $3,000 precious dollars from their coffers if they broke their contract with Georgia Tech. It would cost Cumberland far less than that, Heisman knew, just to come down south and take their whuppin’. Dropping the sport of football was no excuse for missing this particular football 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 was put in charge of wrangling up a squad from the general population of the university. He had put up 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 was cobbled together.

On the way to the game the train stopped in Nashville, where Cumberland’s student leadership hoped to poach a couple of current or recently graduated players from Vanderbilt University, which at that time had a powerhouse program, to lend a helping hand. Instead, a day after docking in the Music City, the train departed down another three bodies after a wild night turned into a lost weekend for several members of the entourage. College kids, you know? Cumberland arrived in Atlanta with fifteen volunteer athletes on an unofficial roster.

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 had noticed the kid during one of the brief interludes between Yellow Jacket touchdowns, and likely assumed he was suffering from the effects of a head injury. When he informed the player he had come to the wrong sideline, the player responded that he was aware of the situation, but if Heisman sent him back over he would only be thrown out to the wolves for another gorging. 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 spite and dark desire for vengeance, Heisman did have one substantial reason for what he had done, though it could be argued there were far-more sportsmanlike options available to illustrate the point. For several seasons Heisman had been lamenting and bemoaning 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 weekly 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 in the newsrooms seemed to care about, according to Heisman. He wanted an enlightened sporting press fully 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 in any given game between two teams are always different, even when they've shared an opponent. There was no proven or reliable transitive property to put into service to handicap the differences, 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.

In fact, Heisman liked to claim, the things that sportswriters seemed to care about most could lead to unscrupulous and unsportsmanlike coaches running up scores against weak teams 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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