Jerry Summers: John Heisman (Football Innovator)

Sunday, August 2, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Most sports fans can quickly identify John Heisman as the name on the trophy awarded to the most outstanding collegiate football player in America each year.  However, only the really dedicated sports fans are familiar with his extensive coaching career at eight major universities and his multi-faceted career as a basketball and baseball coach, athletic director, creator of the forward pass, sports writer, actor, law student, and head of the New York Downtown Athletic Club.

John Heisman was born on October 23, 1869, in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he gained his law degree.  During his playing career he played center, tackle, and end as a 158-pound lineman.  In his early career at Oberlin College and Buchtel, Heisman became an innovator and produced many changes on the football field.  He was responsible for implementing the “flying wedge” offense, which consisted of seven players in the form of a “V” protecting the runner.  Due to numerous injuries taking place with the tactic it was declared illegal to use in a game. 

Heisman is also credited with developing the forward pass and turning football into “a game of science.”  Temporarily Heisman was out of coaching and was working at a tomato farm in Marshall, Texas.  When the manager, Walter Riggs of the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University), contacted Heisman and offered him the position of being head football coach for the large sum of $500, John headed for the Plains of Auburn. 

During the years 1895-1899, Heisman revolutionized the football program at Auburn.  The school’s yearbook praised Heisman and described his arrival at the school “as the luckiest in the history of athletics at the Auburn Polytechnic Institute.”

He continued to develop new tactics including using oral commands such as “hike” or “hut” directing the center to put the ball in play.  This often led to the opposing team jumping offsides and receiving a penalty.  Heisman was a vocal coach both at practice and in the game and would constantly urge and demand that his players put forth their maximum effort. 

Other new tactics were the “hidden ball trick” that is occasionally still used today.  He also was one of the main proponents of making the forward pass legal after he saw it used in a game between the University of North Carolina and Auburn University in 1895.

The year 1896 is best remembered for two off the field stunts.  Auburn players greased the tracks that carried the Georgia Tech team to Auburn and the train could not be stopped until it went five miles past the Auburn Depot.  The Tech players had to walk back to Auburn and lost 45-0 to the Tigers, which many claimed that the long walk was a significant contributing factor.  As a result of the lopsided victory another tradition was started - the student body proceeding through the streets of Auburn in their pajamas, known as the “Wreck Tech Pajama Parade.”

In 1897, Auburn traveled to the University of the South at Sewanee and engaged in a scoreless tie with the little Episcopal school.  Because of a debt of $700 incurred during the football season Heisman used his acting experience from early in life and produced and staged a comedy play at Auburn titled - David Garrick.  This was just one of many performances by Heisman in several acting troupes in the off season.  He was known for using his acting talents to motivate and inspire his players.  With the proceeds of the play Auburn was able to field another team in 1898.

The year 1898 produced what Heisman described as his best team at Auburn.  Heisman initiated what today is a common part of both college and professional football - the hurry up offense.  Heisman over the years would continue to use new and unknown tactics that would often not only confuse the opposing team but also the officials calling the game. 

The 1899 team lost only one game, 11-10 to the “Iron Men” of Sewanee, who shut out all of their other opponents.  Heisman left Auburn after the 1899 season and spent four seasons at Clemson (1900-1903), 15 seasons at Georgia Tech (1904-1919), three seasons at Pennsylvania (1920-1923), and four seasons at Rice (1924-1927).  In 1927, Heisman retired to lead the Downtown Athletic Club in New York and in 1935 it began awarding what is now known at the Heisman Trophy. 

John Heisman died on October 3, 1936, in New York City of pneumonia and was buried in his wife’s hometown of Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  He was inducted into the second class of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954 as a coach.

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

John Heisman
John Heisman

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