An early football coach, John W. Heisman
(My father published an epic book, titled “The Football Thesaurus, 85 Years on the American Gridiron”
(When he completed it, he overlooked the opportunity to feature one of the great all-time coaches, and that attracted me to the subject. John W. Heisman was a historic character, and I will attempt to correct the oversight of Deke Houlgate, the elder, and far better known historian of the college gridiron sport.)
John W. Heisman became known as the father of Southern football and was a trailblazer who contributed a great deal of innovation to the game, some for which he isn’t even credited. He was also a link to the modern day development of American industrial history. Heisman grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania in a small town known as Titusville that also turned out industrial titans such as John D. Rockefeller. Heisman’s rise in the football world was parallel to the era of the “go-getter” and is linked to the president who made “go-getters” so typically American, Theodore Roosevelt.
Heisman’s Early Life
Heisman was a skinny 150-pound guard on the Titusville High School team. When it came time to pick a college he chose Brown University of Providence, R. I., which had a football team for which Heisman aspired to play. His father, Michael Heisman, was a cooper, who made the barrels in which quantities of oil were transported by rail. He and wife Sarah moved their family from Cleveland to Titusville, which had become a boom town due to the burgeoning oil industry. John W. Heisman was motivated in his high school years to achieve in both studies and athletics. Horatio Alger, a popular literary character of that day, was an influence on young Heisman. A nephew of Michael Heisman recalls a locker room incident in which he confronted a player, who thought football was more important than studying. William Lee Heisman remembered the coach busting into the locker room and scolding: “Red, you can’t play today, because you haven’t got your grades.” The player countered, “Don’t you know that the sportswriters call this toe on my right foot the million dollar toe?” The coach snapped right back, “Yeah, but what good is it if you only have a 15-cent head?”
Heisman was an outstanding student, captain of the baseball team, a champion gymnast and a member of the 1884, 1885 and 1886 Titusville football teams. Heisman himself believed that he had spent 15 cents on a football rule book and had studied it. When several college students came home and demonstrated running with the ball, Heisman hadn’t known how different it was from soccer.
American football was forever changed during a game in 1872 between Harvard and McGill University of Montreal. The first half was played using soccer rules familiar to the Harvard players and the second half with McGill’s rugby style of play. Harvard won, three touchdowns to 0.
On the train ride to college at Providence, Heisman missed his connection in Albany and found himself playing a pickup game of football while waiting for a later train. Heisman came out of that informal game with a black eye and bloody nose. But he was thrilled – he had run with the ball. He remembered arriving at Brown “17 (years old) and football crazy.” Brown, unfortunately for him, had discontinued varsity football in 1887 and 1888, substituting it with club football competition for the students. When football resumed in 1889, he had moved to Penn to study law. In an early game against Penn State Heisman leapt over the line to block a punt and grabbed something round. Instead of the ball, it was punter Atherton’s head. Atherton yelled, “Hey, what in hell are you trying to do?” The ball rolled down the field, a teammate grabbed it and scored a touchdown. The Quakers won, 20-0. Just before the Lehigh game his coach said to Heisman, “I believe you’re the best man I’ve got for left end, but nobody else seems to think so. Nevertheless I’m coach and I’m sending you in against Lehigh today. Son, you and I stand or fall on what you do today. Get in there, boy. Play football.” In that game Heisman saw a situation that brought out an important ruling. Penn’s Pop Thayer kicked a field goal as time ran out. The Lehigh captain argued that the goal should not count. The referee ruled that the play would count, even though there was nothing in the rule book covering it. The rules committee later concurred with the ref’s decision, and the rule still stands.
From Player to Coach
An indoor game at Madison Square Garden changed Heisman’s future, as a galvanic lighting system malfunctioned, badly damaging his eyes in a game Penn played with Princeton. A doctor advised him to take two years off to recuperate, but Heisman eventually decided that he couldn’t handle the reading and bookwork needed in the legal profession, switching his life work goal to football coaching.
On graduation Heisman went home to Cleveland to open a law office and apply for a football coaching job at Western Reserve. He didn’t get the job but took the same coaching job at Oberlin College in a small Ohio town downstate. That first year he was undefeated. (Oberlin records show a 24-22 victory over Michigan, although Michigan records a 26-24 win over Oberlin that season). Oberlin also scored two victories over Ohio State, 50-0 and 16-0. The most satisfying may have been two wins over Western Reserve, 38-8 and 16-0, personally satisfying the coach because he wasn’t hired there.