Heisman Divorces and Returns to Alma Mater, Penn
Heisman looked forward to 1919 as the season when war would not affect the outcome of football preparations. He welcomed back Judy Harlan from military service, plus 1917 stars Ham Dowling, Bill Fincher and Pup Phillips, plus Red Barron and Buck Flowers from the 1918 team. His domestic situation was deteriorating, but he had more assistants to help with the football team. The 1919 season opened with a 48-0 whipping of Camp Gordon, a second loss to Pittsburgh, 16-6, shutouts over Furman, 74-0, Wake Forest, 14-0, and Clemson, 28-0, followed by the first loss in five years to a Southern team, Washington & Lee, 3-0. The Yellow Jackets got back in stride with a 33-0 victory over Davidson. Harlan expressed his displeasure over the coach’s introducing new, radical strategies that the team had trouble learning in practice and being unable to execute on the playing field. Near the end of the season Heisman called for the first modern quick kick in football against Georgetown. Buck Flowers took the ball from center and drop kicked it down the field, so unnerving Georgetown that the Hoyas lost, 27-7. Traditional foe Auburn won the Thanksgiving Day game, 8-7. The following day Heisman invited three members of the athletic board, George Adair, Lowry Arnold and Chip Robert, a former player for Heisman, to lunch. As dessert was served, Heisman stood and announced - with appropriate drama - that he and Mrs. Heisman were parting as husband and wife. To save her embarrassment, if she chose to stay in Atlanta, he would leave town.
On Feb. 9, 1920, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin ran the following poem:
Ode to John W. Heisman
They say you were a Cracker Jack
Down there at Georgia Tech
They’re sorry you will not be back,
But Penn is glad, by Heck!
Your Alma Mater sent for you
To change her football style,
She wants to see the Red and Blue
In winning togs awhile.
Beneath her student’s cap and gown
She’ll wear your filial gift,
And proudly show the old home town
Her famous Heisman shift.
Back in Atlanta, Georgia Tech supporters were ruing the unexpected departure of their veteran coach. Atlanta sportswriter Oscar Davis, unaware of coach’s domestic troubles, rationalized in print:
“Heisman raised Tech from the mists of athletic obscurity to the brightest place in the limelight, and Tech has always been grateful. But not until Tuesday did she realize just how much Heisman has meant to her and how keenly his loss would be felt ....
“But Coach is gone and Tech can lose no time crying over spilt milk. Tech realizes too late that the proposition which Penn offered was a wonderful opportunity, the acknowledgement of greatness and the fulfillment of a life’s work.”
Rumors about Heisman’s new appointment were circulating in Philadelphia for weeks before any announcement of his hiring. Current coach Robert C. Folwell, who had a decent record going for him prior to Heisman’s usurping his job, Football was about to enjoy its greatest period of popular growth nationally in the 1920s.
Coach Heisman started right away to accept invitations to speak to booster groups and students, to expand on his views about school spirit and the role it played in fostering a successful football program.
Penn had four straight shutouts to start the 1920 season, 35-0 over Delaware, 7-0 over Bucknell, 21-0 over Swarthmore and 7-0 over Lafayette. The next game was against a Southern team, Virginia Military, which gained 280 yards to the Quakers’ 78 while drubbing Penn, 27-7. It was a wakeup call for the coach who had returned to operate a strong football team for his alma mater. That was followed by losses to Penn State, 28-7, and Pittsburgh, 27-21. Then came the smasher, a 44-7 dumping by Dartmouth. Heisman got some success at the end of the season, winning, 27-7, from Columbia and 28-0 over Cornell. Meanwhile, alumnus coach Andy Smith was starting a coaching dynasty at the University of California.
To start out the1921 season right, Heisman called a coaching meeting in April and decided to speed up his Heisman shift. The season started with shutouts over Delaware, 89-0, 20-0 over Franklin & Marshall, and 7-0 over Gettysburg. Against Delaware, team captain Rex Wray scored 33 points on four touchdowns and nine extra points, a Penn record. The most satisfying of the first five games was a 21-7 win over VMI. Alumni and fans were starting to jump on the Heisman bandwagon. But Gettysburg was a lot tougher for the Quakers, as the only score came on an 85-yard opening kickoff return by Poss Miller. And Swarthmore served notice with a 7-7 tie in the next game. That was just before losses to Pitt, 28-0, and Lafayette, 38-6. Next came a 14-14 tie with Dartmouth at the Polo Grounds in New York and a disastrous 41-0 loss to Cornell. His season record was 4-3-2.
In 1922 Penn supporters were weary of Heisman’s lack of success. He had a seven-man coaching staff, his largest ever, and the season started out well, with wins over Franklin & Marshall, 14-0, Sewanee (his old nemesis in the South), 27-0, Maryland, 12-0, Swarthmore, 24-6, and Navy, coached by his predecessor at Penn, Robert C. Folwell, 13-6. The coach gave one of his better halftime orations in the Navy game. He said, “Boys, I’m very proud of you. I mean that. Here we’ve let Navy have the ball almost the entire half, and they’ve scored only one touchdown. As a matter of fact, they’ve run themselves out. Now go back there. Take the ball yourselves this time. Go get it. Do your stuff this time. It’s much better than Navy’s. Let them chase you for awhile. They’ll cave in this half.” The upshot of the season was the second straight loss to Cornell. Rumors about Heisman’s future with the Quakers began to circulate again. Some said he was negotiating with two Eastern schools. Most prominent was Columbia, which had quit football from 1906 to 1915. An envoy from New York was quoted in a Philadelphia newspaper, “Heisman has done wonders in arousing not only the student spirit at Penn, but he has worked almost a miracle in causing a rebirth of spirit among the alumni. At one point in early December, 1922, John Heisman’s future role at Penn was still up in the air. Then, on December 14, athletic officials announced plans for a radical change in Penn’s football hierarchy, a change that if approved would relieve Heisman of his coaching duties and assign him to a newly created position that, for want of a better word, a local newspaper referred to as “football director.” It was as if the role of “football director” was being specifically created for him, a kind of honorary appointment for a person who had devoted a significant part of his life to Penn football. Heisman was a sports personality who had built a national reputation long before he had returned to his alma mater as head coach. However, if Heisman had any knowledge of what was going on in the athletic department at that time, he never admitted it. He confessed ignorance. Before the month was out, Heisman provided his own answer to his future when he announced that he would not be a candidate for a head coaching job in 1923. He said that after more than 30 years of coaching he felt he needed to take a rest.
The team captain, Poss Miller, wrote glowingly of coach Heisman, but guard John Humes had another view. He found Heisman’s red megaphone after his last day on the field and used it as a ball in an impromptu game with some teammates. Mimicking coach’s on-field behavior, they conducted a funeral service and buried the megaphone.
Heisman Stands Up To Racism
Heisman spent January in Miami, where he did a lot more than lounge in the sun like a tourist. He tried to get in on the land boom going on in Florida. Although the extent of his investment was unknown, it would be wiped out in the crash of 1929. Lou Young, one of Heisman’s assistants, got the Pennsylvania coaching job, but he had a mediocre year. In 1924, however, his team went 9-1-1 and was champion in the East. His only loss was to California. Young’s record was 49-13-2 from 1923 to 1929.
In March, 1923, Heisman had published an open letter to “My New Friends” at Washington & Jefferson University. He wrote, “You ask what is my athletics creed. I reply at once that I believe one goes to college primarily to acquire an education, while athletics, important enough though they be in undergraduate life, must still be considered as secondary in importance. And so I have small use for the chap who never concentrates on anything save athletics. Also I believe in flawlessly clean play and in conduct of lofty sportsmanship on the field - in practice as in match games. It’s an excellent thing to be a great athlete, but it’s more splendid to be a fine gentleman. If we are to have a winning team next fall we cannot begin too early the work of preparation for a strenuous campaign.... But what I want and ask right now is that every W & J man decide once and for all that he is going to give to the team, the coaches and the management his 100 per cent of moral and practical support through thick and thin. No half-hearted support, no brand of lackadaisical effort will ever do in football. That game is one that calls for the unswerving loyalty, the unquenchable spirit, the absolute best of everybody to the last man.”
Opening up the season on September 9 against Bethany College, the W&J team looked ragged, even lackadaisical at times, and in spite of the comfortable 21-0 win over a decidedly inferior team, Heisman knew he had plenty of work ahead.... He anticipated putting his best foot forward. Unfortunately, though, the Washington & Lee game was never played. Instead, one of the great dramas of racial discrimination in sports took center stage. Like most southern schools of that day, Washington & Lee, scheduled to come to campus the following week, refused to take the field against any team that had a black player in the lineup. One of Heisman’s most outstanding players was a hard-running black halfback who had played in the New Year’s Day game in 1921, against California and starred in the 1922 and 1923 Penn Relays. (After graduating, Charles “Pruner” West went on to a distinguished career in medicine.) Although W&L officials had known that he was on the W&J team, they assumed he would not be allowed to play against the Southern boys of Washington & Lee. But on their arrival at Washington, Pa., team manager Robert M. Murphy told his Southern visitors that coach Heisman would play West. When they wouldn’t take the field coach Heisman immediately claimed a forfeit victory. In the W&J yearbook, staffers took tongue in cheek and reported that the game was “not played. The Washington & Lee squad went back home to attend a Ku Klux Klan meeting that night.” Even though Heisman had coached in the South for 25 years (1905-1919) and was familiar enough with such situations, a story he related later affords us a clue to his personal feelings about breaking the color line in his beloved game of football.
He told about the time El Paso High School played Tucson High School, which had a black halfback named Daniels. When the game was played in El Paso, Texas, Daniels was left at home so as not to embarrass him, coach Heisman related. Next year the game was played in Tucson. The El Paso captain talked to the Tucson coach and told him his team would play against the black youngster that day. “You see,” he said, “over in El Paso the public’s sort of against colored boys playing, understand?” Daniels played the game. El Paso played him hard, but his touchdowns won for Tucson, and after the game El Paso players rushed into the Tucson dressing room to congratulate him on his game. After the forfeit was recorded in Washington & Jefferson’s favor, the team manager, Murphy, revealed that all the time he knew that West had a sprained ankle and could not play anyway. Coach Heisman had dodged a bullet.
With the W&L travesty behind him, one of Heisman’s biggest career victories came the following week when Brown University came to town. Big and experienced, Brown was expected to take care of the Washington & Jefferson team. The Bruins were heavily favored, mainly because Walter Camp had picked them to win the Eastern championship. But Heisman worked his team hard all week. The Generals won in an upset, 12-7. Heisman finished his one season at Washington & Jefferson with 7 wins, 1 loss and a tie.
Heisman Re-Marries, Ends Coaching Career At Rice
Despite a winning season, Heisman was not satisfied with his fortunes. He renewed his romance with Edith Maora Cole, who had been a sweetheart as well as a leading lady on stage when he coached at Akron (Buchtel). Not fulfilled as a bachelor since his divorce, he wooed her all over again and pursued her till she agreed to be his wife. Meanwhile, Heisman looked ahead to the day he would quit coaching and bought a sporting goods store in New York City.
By 1924 he would be coaching at Rice Institute in Houston. To go to work there he proposed a hard bargain. Contrasted with tenured professors, who earned $7,500 a year, Heisman demanded $9,000 and would work only during football season and spring practice, while he also managed his sporting goods business in New York. The city of Houston in 1924 reminded him of the Atlanta he left in 1919. It was a dynamic, growing metropolis. True to his reputation for dramatic entrances, Heisman greeted the student body with a bold statement emblazened across the top of the student newspaper, The Thresher: “Greetings to Rice and student body. Everybody roll up sleeves and let’s go.” Heisman brought with him to the campus his ebullience, demonstrated at Oberlin, Akron, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Pennsylvania and Washington & Jefferson over the decades. When he assumed his duties as athletic director, Heisman realized he might not be greeted enthusiastically by the faculty. He used tact in his opening speech to stress his stand on the primary mission of universities, relegating athletics to a secondary position. As usual he had captured the fealty of all the audiences at Rice, both faculty and student body especially. Harvey Smith, captain for the upcoming season, pledged, “If loyalty to the coach and hard work mean anything, we’ll have a winning team next year.” A new era in Rice athletics had been launched. For his part, Heisman pledged: “Control of athletics should be in the hands of the faculty, without joint committees of alumni, undergraduates and faculty such as some other schools had. There should be no extravagance, wasteful traveling or undesirable deviation from a student’s normal activities when he participated on a team. Scouting and recruiting were inadvisable, as were the scholarships for athletes; and student athletes should not be coddled with special courses or lenient grades.”
Rice opened its 1924 season with a 22-6 win over Sam Houston College. In the second game, though, Rice found itself behind in the first half to Southwestern University. Heisman’s men scored three touchdowns to win, 20-6, and Heisman called their comeback proof that Rice had begun a fighting tradition. Lack of experience was blamed when Rice lost to LSU, 12-0. In a hard fought game against Texas Christian, Rice came back in the last minute to win, 7-3. Heisman feared his team had been looking ahead to an important game with Texas. Rice scored one of its most important victories over the Longhorns, 19-6. The Owls weren’t prepared for an upset 6-0 loss to Austin College that featured a barefoot field goal kicker. Rice lost its last two Southwest Conference games, 13-6 to Texas A&M and 17-9 to conference champ Baylor. Rice finished with a 4-4 record.
To solve a problem of his players having difficulty with school work, Heisman set up an athletic dorm where players could live and study together. It was a model for many other universities today. Proctors and tutors were assigned. Athletes were given special study hours. While the new emphasis on studying may have helped the men improve their grades, it didn’t help the team’s playing performance. After shutout victories over Austin, 12-0, and Sam Houston, 6-0, the Owls lost to strong Trinity, 13-0, which scored all its points in the second half. Rice overcame Southwestern, 19-0, playing in the rain with a strong passing game. At Baton Rouge LSU connected on a 50-yard pass play in the last quarter to win, 6-0. Conference champion Texas A&M won, 17-0. Meeting Baylor on Thanksgiving Day, the Owls lost their chance at a winning season in a 7-7 tie. The team wound up 4-4-1.
The 1926 season started with the usual wins over Austin, 23-0, and Sam Houston, 20-0, but Trinity came away with a tie, 6-6, and another mediocre season followed. The Owls downed St. Edwards, 19-0, but lost to Texas, 20-0. A narrow 7-6 win over Southwestern was to be the team’s last win, as games with conference champion SMU ended in a 20-0 loss, Texas A&M a 20-6 defeat and Baylor a 9-7 loss.
The 1927 season was to be the worst of John W. Heisman’s career. Rice lost to Loyola of New Orleans, 13-0, then defeated Sam Houston, 13-7. St. Edwards held the Owls to a 0-0 tie. In the first conference game, Rice lost to SMU, 14-13. Next came Texas with a predictable 27-0 loss. After that Rice succumbed to a usual patsy, Southwestern, 14-12. With four of his regulars on the injured list, Rice had to play Centenary and lost, 33-7. Rice was next downed by Dana Bible’s Texas A&M, 14-0. Heisman turned in his resignation on the eve of the Baylor game. He was rewarded by his team with an upset 19-12 victory. He went out on a high note. Curtain.
End of Life and A Noble Chapter of Football History
He moved to New york City with his second wife, Edith, and started a sporting goods company. In 1935 the Downtown Athletic Club wanted to name its new trophy for Heisman, but the veteran coach refused, insisting that football was a team sport. On Saturday, Oct. 3, 1936, Heisman died of pneumonia just before his 67th birthday. The club renamed its award for the year’s most outstanding football player (that year it was Jay Berwanger of Chicago, who had played for Heisman’s old friend and colleague, A.A. Stagg) in honor of John W. Heisman.
Heisman finished his coaching career with four seasons at Rice Institute with a record of 14-18-3. Heisman’s 36-year coaching career ended with 190 wins, 70 losses and 16 ties.