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John Heisman: The man behind the famous trophy

These days, John Heisman isn't remembered for much beyond his name on an iconic trophy - a trophy he didn't approve of in the first place.

Cam Newton is a favorite to win this year's coveted trophy. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke, File)
Cam Newton is a favorite to win this year's coveted trophy. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke, File)Read more

These days, John Heisman isn't remembered for much beyond his name on an iconic trophy - a trophy he didn't approve of in the first place.

Heisman the man is more interesting than Heisman the trophy, which will be awarded Saturday for the 75th time. He stands as one of the University of Pennsylvania's great contributions to football, explaining why a replica Heisman Trophy was donated to Penn this year and now stands at Franklin Field.

Heisman, who died in 1936, was a driving force behind introducing the forward pass to college football. He was way ahead of the game in using laterals, reverses, and pulling guards on sweeps. He was the first to ask his quarterback to yell "Hup" to signal a snap. He also coached the biggest blowout in the history of the sport: Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0. Heisman allegedly ran it up to prove that the system for determining a national champion was deeply flawed.

Born in 1869, Heisman was one of the first transfers in college football, moving in 1890 from Brown to Penn after two seasons to play at a more organized program - but mostly to get a law degree, which Brown didn't offer.

When Heisman's eyes went bad just before graduation - legend has strayed from the truth about what caused this - he realized he couldn't practice law. He turned to coaching football and became a huge success. He also predated many modern coaches in willingness to stay on the move. Among his eight head coaching stints were Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Auburn. He won a national title at Georgia Tech in 1917, going undefeated four times at the school. His next stop? Back to his alma mater, not quite as successfully. Heisman coached at Franklin Field for three seasons, from 1920 to '23, before moving on to Washington and Jefferson.

"Heisman was a demanding perfectionist and peerless strategist," wrote Jack Wilkinson, author of Georgia Tech Football Vault. "His teams used the Heisman shift, or jump shift, the forerunner to the T and I formations. His Tech teams didn't huddle. Instead, the quarterback shouted plays or called a series of plays. Or sometimes, Heisman illegally hand-signaled plays from the sideline."

For all his sophisticated strategies, Heisman allegedly was the first to come up with the hidden-ball trick, telling his quarterback at Auburn to slip the pigskin under his jersey and pretend to tie his shoelaces. Vanderbilt fell for it.

Heisman also once used a hidden team trick, in 1902, when he coached Clemson to a victory over Georgia Tech, two years before he switched schools. Wilkinson wrote how Clemson got off the train the night before the game, "checked into a hotel and proceeded to party until dawn." Tech fans saw all this and bet heavily on the home team. Except the Clemson partyers were decoy scrubs. The varsity showed up well-rested the next morning and annihilated Georgia Tech, 44-5.

Heisman also dabbled in Shakespearean acting and for years managed a summer-stage traveling acting troupe. He learned golf from a buddy, the legendary Bobby Jones, who gave him a set of clubs. He sent out nightly for ice cream for the family poodle, named Woo.

Crushing blow

Wilkinson also related how this could have been the von Bogart trophy all these years, how Heisman's father was a German immigrant and son of a man named Baron von Bogart. The Baron disapproved when his son married a peasant girl from Alsace-Lorraine and disinherited him. In turn, the son took his wife's name, "Heisman," and moved to America.

Heisman had some social graces himself. He left Georgia Tech to take the Penn job only because he was getting a divorce and decided his ex-wife shouldn't have to live in the same place, to "prevent any social embarrassment."

His first coaching job after graduating from Penn had been at Oberlin. "His first team was undefeated and untied," his second wife told the Associated Press in a story printed in The Inquirer in 1947. "At the start of the season, he didn't think the material looked so good, so he enrolled in the art department and played end himself."

Legend now has it, including in his official biography at the Heisman Trophy website, that a bolt of lightning once nearly cost him his eyesight. This is almost certainly fiction. It was lighting, not lightning, that cost Heisman, according to numerous sources, including a 1947 Sporting News article that related how Heisman suffered from bad eyesight during his days at Brown.

But it was the Penn-Princeton game in 1890 that changed his life. The game was played in New York, at the old Madison Square Garden, and antiquated battery lights flashed, causing the problem. Doctors soon told Heisman that he faced the loss of his sight if he didn't give up all eye strain. Classmates read to him, and he took his law exams orally in 1891. But practicing law was out of the question, "a crushing blow."

Instant converts

A 5-foot-8, 155-pounder, Heisman played the line in college, all positions from center to end. To understand how much the game changed during his lifetime, go back to his high school days in Titusville, in northwest Pennsylvania. His school had been playing more of a soccer-style game until Heisman read a 10-cent rule book that explained how players could actually carry the ball. When returning college players demonstrated the innovation, Heisman and his schoolmates were instant converts.

In a biography of Heisman, Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football, Wiley Lee Umphlett wrote of those Titusville roots and also detailed Heisman's arrival at Penn.

"That Heisman would even consider playing football at Penn, particularly as a lineman, was a testimonial in itself to the young man's competitive zeal and fortitude," Umphlett wrote. "Weighing only about 150 pounds at the time, he confessed to a fear that his larger teammates playing on either side of him in the line might fall on him and cause a disabling injury. But play he did, fighting his way up from the scrubs to make the varsity team as a center in 1890."

Umphlett found remembrances from Heisman himself: "We wore jerseys and shorts of great variety. We had no helmets or pads of any kind; in fact, one who wore homemade pads was regarded as a sissy. Hair was the only head protection we knew, and in preparation for football we would let it grow from the first of June. Many college men of that day, especially divinity and medical students, permitted beards to grow. Often they were referred to as 'Gorillas.'

"We didn't have many sweaters in those days, but we all wore snug-fitting canvas jackets over our jerseys. You see, the tackling in that day wasn't clean-cut and around the legs as it is today. All too often it was wild, haphazard clutching with the hands, and when runners wore loose garments they were often stopped by a defensive player grabbing a handful of loose clothing. Some players wore pants, or jackets, of black horsehair. When you made a fumbling grab, you lost your fingernails."

Umphlett, observing how Heisman took over as Penn's coach three decades later, noted that this was a big-time job, in a state-of-the-art stadium, and Heisman had five assistant coaches. (For a backfield coach, he hired a Penn graduate, future Eagles cofounder and NFL commissioner Bert Bell.) The coach also was an early proponent of the idea that collegiate sports should be about more than just the players on the team.

"I have a big job ahead of me, but I am going to try to get the whole spirit of the undergraduates into this attitude," Heisman wrote. "It doesn't seem that college athletics fulfill their purpose if the habits of the football or baseball squad are carefully guarded while the rest of the students are left pretty much to themselves."

Heisman also understood business. At Georgia Tech, his salary for a time included getting 30 percent of attendance fees.

His successes at Georgia Tech didn't entirely convert to Franklin Field. The Quakers were a disappointing 16-10-2 in Heisman's three seasons. Umphlett wrote about how Heisman became "clearly frustrated by the lack of a unified purpose among his players. One of them became so impatient with Heisman's incessant drilling to perfect his shift offense that one day in practice he informed his teammates he merely wanted someone to 'just hand me that pumpkin and let me run!' "

Wrong bench

There was a lot of back-and-forth in the press at the time, with sides chosen. A story in Penn's Alumni Register argued for Heisman's retention, railing against impatient alumni unwilling to let a continuous system be put in place. But Heisman moved on and ultimately finished his coaching career at Rice University in 1927. Rice turned out to be the only school where Heisman failed to achieve a winning record.

In addition to the trophy named for him, Heisman's place in the record book will presumably stand for as long as they play football, thanks to that 222-0 game in 1916. At the time, national champions were being selected based on total points scored and allowed. Heisman thought this ridiculous and set out to prove it. He seemed to pick a specific opponent to prove the point. Cumberland's baseball team allegedly had beaten Heisman's Georgia Tech baseball team the year before, 22-0. Cumberland's football team was barely more than a pickup squad. Legend has it that the group stopped at Vanderbilt to try to recruit players on the way to Atlanta. Instead, three players defected to Vandy.

In the game, neither team had a first down since Georgia Tech scored on every offensive play and Cumberland never ran a play that resulted in positive yardage. At speaking engagements later in his life, Heisman would tell of the Cumberland player who ended up on the Georgia Tech sideline.

"You're on the wrong bench, son," Heisman told him.

"I'm on the right bench, sir," the player said. "If I go on the other side of the field, they might send me back into the game."

Heisman said he let him stay.

'Absurd' proposal

The Heisman replica is at Penn because the school thought it fitting given his place in the game's lore and contacted the Heisman Trophy Trust, which agreed to donate a perfect replica to Heisman's alma mater.

Heisman probably would have appreciated the gesture, although the award itself did little for him. In retirement, he served as director of New York's Downtown Athletic Club. Umphlett wrote of Heisman's beliefs on the award for the outstanding player in the nation: "How could one player be singled out as better than his peers? How could an offensive specialist be looked upon as more valuable than a defensive man? How could a halfback be more essential than a lineman who made it possible for the back to gain yardage?"

He thought the proposal "absurd." But when the group overwhelmingly went for it, Heisman went along, and the first award was given out in 1935. Heisman died the next year. Two months later, the award was renamed in his honor.