John Heisman (1869-1936) is among the people credited with making college football an American passion, and the game's most prestigious individual award is named after him. He coached at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn University) from 1895 until 1899. As a serious student of the game's rules and strategies, Heisman introduced innovations that increased the popularity of football, particularly in the South, where he coached for 25 years.
A son of German immigrants, John William Heisman was born on October 23, 1869, in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up in Titusville, Pennsylvania, an oil boom town, where he excelled in both athletics and academics. Heisman, the valedictorian of his graduating class of 1887, was captain of the baseball team, a championship gymnast, and a member of the football team for three years. He continued to play football in college, first at Brown University (1887-89) and then at the University of Pennsylvania (1890-91), where he earned a law degree. Instead of practicing law, Heisman decided on a career coaching football, beginning at Oberlin College in 1892. In 1893, he took a coaching job at Buchtel College (now the University of Akron), but returned to Oberlin College in 1894.
Impressed with Heisman's success in Ohio, Auburn hired him to take over its football program in 1895. Auburn's football team had been through four coaches, none of whom had lasted more than a year. Dr. George Petrie, Auburn's first coach, was actually a history professor. By 1894, however, when Auburn became a charter member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA), it wanted an experienced coach.
Heisman's first season at Auburn consisted of only three games, with a loss to Vanderbilt and wins over rivals the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia. In his second year at Auburn, Heisman posted a 3-1 record with lopsided wins over Mercer, Georgia Tech and Sewanee, and a loss to Georgia. Auburn went 2-0-1 in 1897, 2-1 in 1898, and 3-1-1 in Heisman's final season of 1899.
The Vanderbilt game in 1895 was memorable for the introduction of a hidden-ball play into the game. Trailing Vanderbilt, 9-0, in the second-half, Heisman instructed Auburn quarterback Reynolds Tichenor to stuff the ball under his shirt. The wedge of players surrounding him then scattered to all parts of the field, distracting the Vanderbilt players. Tichenor, who pretended to be tying his shoe, got up to run down the field unopposed for a touchdown. The play would later be outlawed.
Other innovations attributed to Heisman include the handoff, the double lateral, and the "flea flicker." He also invented the center-to-quarterback direct snap; up to that time, the center simply rolled the ball on the ground back to the quarterback. To commence play, Heisman began the use of the voice signal, "hike." Although Heisman did not introduce the forward pass, he crusaded to have the play eventually legalized in 1906.
During his time at Auburn, Heisman had to teach elocution and oratory and act in stock productions during the summer in Atlanta to supplement his scant salary of $500. Thus, after the 1899 season, Heisman decided it was time for him to move on. In 1900, he became Clemson's head football coach, a position he held until 1903. At Clemson his record was 19-3-2. In 1904, Heisman left Clemson for Georgia Tech, where in 16 seasons his record was 102-29-7, a winning percentage of .779 that is still best in the school's history. Under Heisman's leadership, the Yellow Jackets won a national championship in 1917 and recorded the most lopsided score in college history by defeating Cumberland University (the forerunner of present-day Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham) 222-0 on October 17, 1916.
After his success at Georgia Tech, Heisman completed his coaching career with stints at the University of Pennsylvania (1920-22),
Washington and Jefferson University (1923), and Rice University (1924-1927). His overall career record was 185-70-18. Upon
retirement from coaching, Heisman became the director of athletics at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. In 1935,
the first Downtown Athletic Club award for best college football player in the country was given to Jay Berwanger of the University
of Chicago. John Heisman died the next year at the age of 67, and the award was renamed in his honor. The Heisman Trophy was
awarded to Auburn's Pat Sullivan in 1971, Vincent "Bo" Jackson in 1985, and Cameron Newton in 2010, still the only athletes to win the award from a university at which Heisman coached.
In December 2009, Mark Ingram became the first player from the University of Alabama to win the coveted award.
Umphlett, Wiley Lee. Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published November 19, 2008
Last updated May 26, 2013