The legend of John Heisman

The Heisman Trophy namesake, a Penn Law alumnus, was a former player and coach on the Penn football team.

Coach John Heisman stands on Clemson's Bowman Field
John Heisman, c. 1917, in front of Clemson’s Bowman Field. Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Archives & Records Management

Football in the early 1900s was exceedingly violent and sometimes deadly. Eighteen people died playing the sport in 1905 alone.

The country was not a fan, and some wanted it outlawed.

A group of reformers, including John Heisman, had been pressing for years for football’s rule-makers to legalize the forward pass. Facing threats of abolition and pressure from President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1906, they agreed.

American sports have never been the same.

Heisman, a Penn Law School alumnus and former Penn football team player and coach, is best known for the college trophy that bears his name. An accomplished coach, he compiled an 186-70-18 record in 26 years, and won a national championship with Georgia Tech in 1917. 

He was also a football innovator, introducing the quarterback-center snap, scoreboard, and hut/hike cadence to the game, and leading the charge to switch from two halves to four quarters. In 1954, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Each year for the past 84 years, the Heisman Trophy Trust has presented the award to college football’s top player, such as future NFL Hall of Famers Paul Hornung (1956), Roger Staubach (1963), O.J. Simpson (1968), Tony Dorsett (1976), Earl Campbell (1977), Marcus Allen (1981), Tim Brown (1987), and Barry Sanders (1988).

Originally called the Downtown Athletic Club Award, it was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy after Heisman’s death on Oct. 3, 1936.

John Heisman poses holding a football at Penn in 1891
 Heisman posing as a football player while at Penn in 1891. Photo courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

The pride of Titusville

Heisman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 23, 1869, and grew up in Titusville, Pa., in the northwest part of the state, near Erie. After graduating from Titusville High School in 1887, he enrolled at Brown University. In 1889, he transferred to Penn Law. 

 At Penn, Heisman was a member of the 1890 and 1891 varsity football teams coached by Elwood Otto Wagenhurst. The 1890 team went 11-3 with wins over Penn State, Virginia, and Rutgers. The 1891 team finished 11-2.

Although Heisman was only 5’8” and weighed 158 pounds, he was a letterwinner and played tackle, guard, and center.

“Play fair, but tear their heads off.”

After earning his law degree, Heisman was hired in 1892 as the first football coach at Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin went 7-0-0 his first season, including wins over Ohio State and Michigan.

Coach John Heisman with members of the 1892 Oberlin College varsity football team
The undefeated 1892 Oberlin College varsity football team. Coach Heisman sits second row, first from left. Photo courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

In 1895, Heisman was hired as the head coach at Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which later became Auburn University. In his first year, he led the Tigers to victories over the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia. He coached at Auburn for five years and had a record of 12-4-2.

Clemson recruited Heisman to South Carolina in 1900. Like his previous stops, he produced immediate results. The Tigers defeated Alabama 35-0 and finished the season 6-0. 

In 1902, Clemson finished 11-0 and won the Southern Intercollegiate Athlete Association title.

Georgia Tech, after a 73-0 defeat by Heisman’s Clemson team the previous season, lured him away in 1904 by paying him a salary of $2,250 (around $62,000 in 2018) plus 30 percent of the gate. He posted an 8-1-1 record during his first season.

Georgia Tech's backfield players pose in 1917
The 1917 Georgia Tech backfield. From left to right: Everett Strupper, Judy Harlan, Joe Guyon, and Albert Hill. Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Library

Heisman stayed at Georgia Tech for 16 years and turned the school into a national football powerhouse. In 1915 and 1916, his teams went undefeated.

On Oct. 7, 1916, the Yellow Jackets defeated Cumberland College of Tennessee 222-0, the most lopsided and highest-scoring game in college football history. Georgia Tech led 126-0 at halftime.

In the locker room during intermission, Heisman told his team, “Men, we’re in front, but you never know what those Cumberland players have up their sleeve. So in the second half, go out and hit ‘em clean, and hit ‘em hard. Do not let up.”

His players went out and scored 96 more.

The scoreboard from the Georgia Tech/Cumberland game on Oct. 7, 1916
The scoreboard from the Georgia Tech vs. Cumberland game on Oct. 7, 1916. Georgia Tech won 222-0.

(Heisman, who also coached the Georgia Tech baseball team, ran up the score because he thought the Cumberland baseball team used professional players during a game.)

The 1917 Yellow Jackets finished 9-0-0 and won the national championship with notable wins over Wake Forest (33-0), Penn (41-0), Washington & Lee (63-0) Vanderbilt (83-0), Carlisle (98-0), and Auburn (68-7). Georgia Tech outscored opponents 491-17, or 54.6 points per game to 1.9.

Heisman’s record at Georgia Tech was 102-29-7. His .764 winning percentage is still the best in school history.

Hail! Pennsylvania

From 1920-22, Heisman coached the Quakers. Penn had a 16-10-2 record during his tenure: 6-4 in 1920, 4-3-2 in 1921, and 6-3 in 1922.

John Heisman yells into a megaphone while coaching Penn
Heisman yells into a megaphone while coaching Penn circa 1920. Photo courtesy of University Archives and Records Center

On Sept. 24, 1921, Heisman led the Red & Blue to an 89-0 defeat of Delaware, the second-most points in school history (the Quakers defeated Vineland 96-0 on Nov. 15, 1886).

Penn and Cornell played in the first college football game broadcast on the radio on Nov. 30, 1922, at Franklin Field. Aired on WIP-AM radio, the Quakers fell to the Big Red 9-0.

Following Penn, Heisman coached at Washington and Jefferson College and Rice University before retiring in 1926. He served as director of athletics at New York City’s Downtown Athletic Club until his death in 1936 at age 66.

“Hello, Heisman!”

The Heisman Trophy itself is 14 inches long, 13 inches high, six inches wide, and weighs 45 pounds. It was designed in 1935 by sculptor Frank Eliscu, who used Ed Smith of the New York University football team as his primary model.

The Heisman Trophy surrounded by photos of past winners
The Heisman Trophy. Photo courtesy of the Heisman Trophy Trust

Made from an ancient method known as the lost wax process of bronze casting, the trophy depicts a player carrying the ball in his left hand and stiff-arming a defender with his right, with one knee pumping high and the other leg turning.

College football players in contention for the award have from time to time struck a Heisman Trophy-like pose after scoring a big touchdown, most famously, Michigan wide receiver/returner Desmond Howard after returning a punt 90-plus yards for a touchdown in 1991 in a game against archrival Ohio State.

“Hello, Heisman!” said announcer Keith Jackson, in one of his most memorable calls. Howard went on to win the award.

Desmond Howard strikes the Hesiman pose after returning a punt for a TD in 1991
Michigan wide receiver/returner Desmond Howard strikes the Heisman pose after returning a punt for a touchdown in 1991 against Ohio State. Photo courtesy of ABC Sports

Texas running back Ricky Williams did the Heisman pose after rushing for 203 yards and two touchdowns in the 1999 Cotton Bowl Classic. Williams was that season’s winner.

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson struck the Heisman pose after returning a punt for a touchdown in a 2010 game against West Virginia, when he played for LSU. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton won the trophy that year. 

Freshman running back Leonard Fournette of LSU caused some controversy in 2014 when he did the Heisman pose after scoring his first touchdown in his second game.

“It’s a little early for that pose, young man, but I got your excitement,” said announcer Brent Musburger.

President Obama does the Heisman pose with members of the Air Force Academy football team
President Obama strikes the Heisman pose after accepting a football from quarterback Tim Jefferson, left, during the Commander-in-Chief Trophy presentation to the Air Force football team on April 23, 2012. Photo by Pete Souza

During the National Prayer Breakfast in February of 2016, President Obama struck the Heisman pose while taking a photo with recent trophy winner Derrick Henry, a running back for Alabama.

Penn was presented with a Heisman Trophy in 2010 in recognition of Heisman’s stellar career as a student-athlete and coach at the University. It rests in the office of Ray Priore, the George A. Munger Head Coach of the Penn football team.