A legendary coach who helped create college football’s national following, John Heisman was the head coach at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta from 1904 to 1919. He led Georgia Tech to the first of its four national championships in 1917 and posted a career record of 102-29-7 in sixteen seasons. Heisman’s career winning percentage of .779 remains the best in school history by a wide margin. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.
The son of a German immigrant and a native of Cleveland, Ohio, John William Heisman was born on October 23, 1869. Heisman attended Brown University in Rhode Island (1887-89) and the University of Pennsylvania (1890-91), playing football at both schools. After establishing himself as a coach at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1892 and 1894, Buchtel College (later the University of Akron) in Ohio in 1893, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (later Auburn University) in 1895-99, and Clemson University in South Carolina in 1900-1903, Heisman was named Georgia Tech’s head coach for the 1904 season. He was the first paid coach in college football history, earning $2,250 and 30 percent of the gate receipts from home games.
Georgia Tech won 2 games and lost 5 in the season before Heisman’s arrival, but got quick returns on its investment in him: the Yellow Jackets posted a record of 8-1-1 in 1904 in Heisman’s first season in Atlanta. Tech had a winning percentage of .500 or better in each of Heisman’s sixteen seasons and went a combined 37-4-2 in his final five seasons. That stretch included a 33-game winning streak during which Tech outscored its opponents by a margin of 1,599 points to 99.
His innovations included the center snap and the Heisman or “jump” shift, the precursor to the T and I formations, which would become football standards in both the college and professional ranks. He also helped lead the campaign to legalize the forward pass, which would eventually change the game of football on all levels.
Heisman was Georgia Tech’s coach for one of the most memorable games in college football history, a 222-0 win over Tennessee’s Cumberland University in 1916. No team has ever scored as many points in a game or won by such a wide margin in college football history. In addition to his duties as football coach, Heisman also served as Tech’s baseball and basketball coach.
After coaching at Georgia Tech through the 1919 season, Heisman went on to serve as head coach at the University of Pennsylvania, Washington and Jefferson University in Pennsylvania, and Rice University in Texas. After retiring from coaching in 1926, he was named director of athletics at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. The first Downtown Athletic Club Trophy (given to college football’s top player) was awarded in 1935.
Heisman died on October 3, 1936, at the age of sixty-six. Two months after his death, the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy was renamed the Heisman Trophy. Today, the Heisman Trophy remains college football’s preeminent individual award, given annually to the nation’s best college football player.