John Heisman

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John W. Heisman
John W. Heisman
John W. Heisman
Title Head Coach
Sport Football
Born October 23 1869(1869-10-23)
Place of birth Cleveland, Ohio
Died October 3 1936 (aged 66)
Career highlights
Overall 185-70-17 (71.1 percent)
Coaching stats
College Football DataWarehouse
Playing career
Position Center / Tackle
Coaching career (HC unless noted)
Georgia Tech
Washington & Jefferson
College Football Hall of Fame, 1954

John William Heisman (October 23, 1869 – October 3, 1936) was a prominent American football player and college football coach in the early era of the sport and is the namesake of the Heisman Trophy awarded annually to the nation's best college football player.[1]

His career as a coach lasted 36 years and included stints at Oberlin College, Auburn University, Clemson University, Georgia Tech, University of Pennsylvania, Washington & Jefferson College, and Rice University. His career at Georgia Tech lasted 16 seasons, where his teams won the national championship in 1917 and won 33 straight games. He concluded his coaching career in 1927, with a 190-70-16 record.

Heisman was a pioneering coach who helped create a surge in popularity for intercollegiate football with his many innovative contributions to its development. His greatest innovation is considered to be the forward pass, which he fought to get legalized for three years. Heisman was also a pioneer in the use of high minded character building standards of self-discipline, loyalty, and teamwork in collegiate sports.

Heismann helped form a permanent organization of coaches that became the the American Football Coaches Association in 1921. He became its president in 1923, when he was head coach at Pennsylvania and again in 1924, following his move to Rice.[2] He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.

Early life

John William Heisman was born Johann Wilhelm Heisman, on October 23, 1869, in Cleveland, Ohio, two weeks to the day before the first official intercollegiate football game was played on November 6, between Rutgers University and Princeton University in New Jersey. His parents were Johann "Michael" Heisman and Sarah Lehr Heisman, both German immigrants to America not long before Heisman's birth.

At the age of seven Heisman's family moved to Titusville, Pennsylvania. His father was a cooper and his business supplied barrels to such notables as John D. Rockefeller for his Standard Oil company. In 1890, the senior Heisman sold out his business and returned to Cleveland.

He matriculated at Brown University as a 17 year old freshman in 1887, the same year that the school discontinued its intercollegiate football program. Nonetheless Heisman, weighing just 144 pounds, played baseball and football with a club team. He later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania with the intention of getting a law degree and continued to play football.

Because of an eye problem that developed while he was in school Heisman took his final exams orally and graduated with his law degree in the spring of 1892. His eye problem would lead him to decide to return to Ohio to accept the job as Oberlin College's first football coach rather than pursue a career in law.

Coaching career


At Oberlin his first team went undefeated and allowed only 30 points to its own 262 points. Oberlin defeated Ohio State University twice under Heisman's leadership, both times keeping them scoreless. He remained at Oberlin College for only a single season before moving to Buchtel College (The University of Akron) for one year.

At Buchtel Heisman coached the baseball team to a state championship.[3] and his football team managed to beat Ohio State 12-6 while finishing with a 5-2-0 record. Also at Buchtel, Heisman had his hand in the first of many permanent alterations he would make to the sport: The center snap. This came out of necessity because the previous rule, which involved the center rolling the ball backwards, was too troublesome for Buchtel’s unusually tall quarterback, Harry Clark. At six foot four, it became clear that if the ball was thrown to him, the play could go on with less complication. This evolved into a common practice now known as the snap that begins every play in all forms of American football. In spite of his successful coaching, Heisman’s overly competitive nature was never welcomed at Buchtel and he returned to Oberlin after one season.[4]

He returned to Oberlin for a 4-3-1 season in 1894.


In 1895, he was offered a job as a coach and English professor at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) 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.

The lack of talent at Alabama Polytechnic led to his famous hidden ball play. During a game against Vanderbilt University a player hid the football in his jersey, a move that is no longer legal. As the originator of deceptive plays, John Heisman tired of being accused of bending the rules so he published a promotional pamphlet about himself that later would catch the eye of Clemson University.[5]

Scouting a North Carolina-Georgia game in 1895, Heisman said he saw the first forward pass in history when a bungled punt attempt led a desperate punter to illegally fling the football over the line to a teammate who ran for a touchdown. Heisman walked away convinced it was the play that would save football from itself. As Heisman wrote, violent scrums based around bruising running plays were "killing the game as well as the players."[6]

Heisman realized almost immediately that such a pass could open up the field during a game but it wasn't until 1903, that he wrote to Walter Camp, 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 1904-5, 44 players had been reported killed in football games, with hundreds sustaining serious injuries. Heisman said the forward pass "would scatter the mob."[7]

In his later years writing for Collier's Weekly, a popular American magazine, 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."


Heisman was focused on raising tomatoes in Texas when Walter Riggs, the Clemson University professor, and later its president, talked him into coming to Clemson. Riggs founded the school's first football team in 1895, and served as head coach for the team in 1896 and in 1899. He had played under Heisman at Auburn and urged him out of the tomato fields and back into football.

His record at Clemson from 1900 through 1903 was 19-3-2 record. On November 29, 1900, Clemson defeated Alabama 35-0, giving Heisman's first team an undefeated 6-0 record. It was the only team to win all of its games in a season until the 1948 squad went 11-0. The Tigers only allowed two touchdowns the entire 1900 season and won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship.

Clemson opened the 1901 season with a 122-0 win over Guilford. The Tigers averaged 30 yards per play and a touchdown every minute and 26 seconds. They scored thirty-two touchdowns, rushed the ball for 978 yards, and did not attempt a pass. The first half lasted 20 minutes, while the second half lasted only 10 minutes.

In his third season, on November 27, 1902, Clemson played in the snow for the first time in a game against the University of Tennessee. The Tigers won the game, 11-0, and claimed it's second Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association crown.

In his final season in 1903, the team finished 4-1-1. Clemson defeated Georgia Tech 73-0 on October 17 rushing the ball 55 times for 615 yards, while Tech ran the ball 35 times and collected 28 yards.

On November 24, 1903, Heisman led Clemson in what is considered its "First Bowl Game." Clemson and Cumberland met on this date for the Championship of the South. The contract for the game was drawn up two weeks before the game was to be played. Cumberland, who had earlier defeated Auburn, Alabama, and Vanderbilt, was considered to be champion of the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Clemson was considered to be the best team in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The game was played on a neutral site, Montgomery, Alabama. Cumberland and Clemson fought to an 11-11 tie.[8]


While at Clemson, in 1903, Heisman married Evelyn McCollum Cox, a widowed mother of one son, Carlisle. She was an actress in a summer stock company. Heisman, who dabbled in acting, met her while performing roles in summer stock plays.

At first, Carlisle was furious that his mother would marry Heisman, as he was such a strict disciplinarian. Eventually he was won over by his stepfather and attended Georgia Tech to play under his coaching supervision.[9]

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, 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.

In 1924, he married a second time, this time to Edith Maora Cole, who had been a student at Buchtel College while Heisman coached there. They met again during the years following his divorce and married.

Glory years

Georgia Tech, whose team Clemson had defeated by 73-0 in the last game of the 1903 season, offered Heisman the position as head coach beginning with the 1904 season. He accepted the post at a salary of $2,250 per year, plus 30 percent of net receipts to coach its athletic teams. He was hired to coach baseball and basketball as well. Heisman and his new family moved to Atlanta, where he would coach some of the best football games of his career.

John Heisman was the head coach at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, from 1904 to 1919. He led Georgia Tech to its first national championships in 1917, and posted a career record of 102-29-7 in sixteen seasons. Heisman's career winning percentage of .779 remains the best in school history by a wide margin.[10]

The Yellow Jackets posted a record of 8-1-1 in 1904, in Heisman's first season in Atlanta. Tech had a winning percentage of .500 or better in each of Heisman's sixteen seasons and went a combined 37-4-2 in his final five seasons. That stretch included a 33-game unbeaten streak during which Tech outscored its opponents by a margin of 1,599 wins to 99 losses.[11]

It was at Georgia Tech that his efforts to get the forward pass legalized finally bore fruit in 1906. In 1908 and 1910, he was named the director of the Atlanta Athletic Association and the president of the Atlanta Baseball Association, respectively. It was also in 1910 that he helped champion the change of football game timing from a two half model to its present four quarter setup.[12]

Heisman himself described some of his contributions to the developing sport of football in an article appearing in the October 1908 issue of Baseball Magazine.[13]

Heisman's success prompted a local businessman to fund a massive expansion of Georgia Tech’s stadium in 1913. Two years later, Georgia Tech began their two and one half year winning streak that left them undefeated until a 1918 loss to the University of Pittsburgh. During this historic run, the team also managed the highest scoring game in the history of college football.

In 1916, mainly as a publicity stunt, Heisman paid Cumberland College $500 to play his team in the new Atlanta stadium. The score was run up to a cruel and embarrassing 222 to zero and led Heisman's team to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. In the spring of 1916, Tech's baseball team was humiliated 22-0 by a Nashville pro team masquerading as Cumberland College. That fall, Cumberland decided to drop football, but Heisman was determined to avenge the baseball loss.[14]

After 16 years, Heisman ended his term as Georgia Tech’s coach due to his divorce from Evelyn.

Final years


After leaving Georgia Tech, Heisman went back to his alma mater and coached there for three seasons (1920-1922) compiling a 16-10-2 record.

Washington and Jefferson College

In 1923, he took a position with Washington and Jefferson College (W&J) in Washington, Pennsylvania.

In 1922, Washington and Jefferson had become the smallest college ever to have competed in the Rose Bowl and had the first African-American quarterback to play in that competition.

When Heisman took over in 1923, W&J was scheduled to play Washington and Lee. When Washington and Lee traveled north from Virginia to play football, they always demanded that the northern teams bench any Black players they might have. They would not play with Black players on the field. And most teams complied with their request. But W&J acted on principle and refused to bench Charlie West, paid Washington and Lee, and sent them away. The school's record was 7-1-1 under Heisman.[15]

Rice University

In 1924, 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. After three seasons of 4-4 records, Heisman resigned after his fourth year when he suffered the first losing season of his 36 year career (2-6-1). Heisman left college football coaching behind him and headed to New York.

After coaching

In New York City, John Heisman focused on writing and served in advisory positions. His articles were published in magazines such as American Liberty and Collier's Weekly. He also served as football editor for the professional publication Sporting Goods Journal.

On May 23, 1930, Heisman was named the first Athletic Director of the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC) of New York City. Serving in this capacity, Heisman organized and founded the Touchdown Club of New York in 1933, and later the National Football Coaches Association.

At the insistence of the DAC officers he organized and set into motion the structure and voting system to determine the best collegiate football player in the country. Heisman initially opposed pointing out an individual over a team, feeling teams and not individuals should be recognized. The first Downtown Athletic Club Award was given in 1935 to Chicago's Jay Berwanger. On October 3, 1936, before the second award could go out, Heisman succumbed to pneumonia. The officers of the DAC unanimously voted to rename the DAC Award, the Heisman Memorial Trophy that year.[16]

The Heisman Trophy is now given to the player voted as the season's best nationwide collegiate player. Voters for this award consist primarily of media representatives, who are allocated by regions across the country in order to filter out possible regional bias, and former recipients. Following the bankruptcy of the Downtown Athletic Club in 2002, the award is now given out by the Yale Club.

During the years following his coaching career, while at DAC, Heisman wrote and published a book, The Principles of Football, and was at work on another book at the time of his death.

Death and burial

Heisman died October 3, 1936, in New York City of bronchial pneumonia .[17] Three days later he was taken by train to his wife's hometown of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where he was buried in Forest Home Cemetery.[18]


The Heisman Memorial Trophy has now been awarded for more than 70 years to honor John W. Heisman. As the Heisman Trophy website says, "No one more thoroughly studied the dynamics of football, nor witnessed more closely the game's evolution, nor personally knew more immortals of the gridiron, nor effected more change in the game's development, than John W. Heisman."[19]

A bronze statue of Heisman is displayed at Georgia Tech on the Callaway Plaza adjacent to Grant Field on Bobby Dodd Way.

A bronze plaque stands on a stone monument at the edge of the field named for Heisman in his home town of Titusville, Pennsylvania where he grew up and first learned to play the game.

Oberlin College named its athletics Hall of Fame the John W. Heisman Club's Athletics Hall of Fame.

Heisman, The Musical was created by Michael Kaye. He wrote the Book, Music, Lyrics, Vocal Arrangements, and Orchestrations for the show. The initial showcase presentation of the stage production was in 2006. He has also completed a screenplay for the motion picture Heisman and the Television Biography and Football Halftime Show called The Wizard and His Game.[20]


  1. Georgia Tech Alumni Association, John Heisman, Tech Traditions: Ramblin' Memories. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
  2. AFCA, History of the AFCA Presidency. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  3., John Heisman—Football Mad. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  4. Adrienne DiMatteo, John Heisman Biography. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  5. Pennsylvania State University, John Heisman Biography. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  6. Bill Pennington, John Heisman, the Coach Behind the Trophy Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  7. Bill Pennington, John Heisman, the Coach Behind the Trophy, Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  8. Clemson Tigers, John Heisman Profile. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  9. Pennsylvania State University, John Heisman Biography. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  10. Georgia Encyclopedia, John Heisman (1869-1936). Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  11. Ramblin Wreck, Georgia Tech Heisman Profile. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  12. Pennsylvania State University, John Heisman Biography. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  13. University of Pennsylvania, Penn Biographies. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  14. Ramblin Wreck, Georgia Tech Heisman Profile. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  15., All-Time Records of Washington & Jefferson. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  16., Heisman Trophy.
  17., Heisman John William. Retrieved July 23, 2008.
  18., Gravesite Still Draws Visitors. Retrieved July 23, 2008.
  19., John W. Heisman. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  20. Heisman, the Musical, Homepage. Retrieved July 19, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brandt, Nat. 2001. When Oberlin was King of the Gridiron: The Heisman Years. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College. ISBN 0873386841.
  • Heisman, John W. 2000. Principles of Football. Athens, GA: Hill Street Press. ISBN 1892514990.
  • Somers, Marilyn J. 2001. John W. Heisman the Renaissance Man: The Atlanta Years (1904-1919). Atlanta, GA: Georgia Tech Living History Program (VHS tape).
  • Umphlett, Wiley Lee. 1992. Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313284040.

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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