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Nov 09, 2023

College Football Hall of Famer | John Heisman

By: Tim Bourret

Note: The following appears in the Georgia Tech football gameday program.

The rivalry between Clemson and Georgia Tech dates to 1897, the second season of Clemson football and the sixth season for the Yellow Jackets. Both programs were positively impacted by John Heisman, one of the first nationally known coaches in the history of the sport.

In many ways, the fanbases of both schools believing that coaching is important dates to the 1903-05 era. Heisman was Clemson’s head coach in 1903, and he led the Tigers to a 73-0 victory over the Yellow Jackets. Two years later, he was the head coach at Georgia Tech, and his Yellow Jackets beat the Tigers 17-10.

Heisman came to Clemson in 1900 after serving at Auburn from 1895-99. Walter Riggs, Clemson’s first head football coach in 1896 and later Clemson’s president, had worked at Auburn when Heisman was the head coach, and he convinced Heisman to leave Auburn and come to Clemson. The announcement was made on Dec. 8, 1899.

It did not take long for Heisman to whip the Tigers into shape, as Clemson finished the 1900 season with a 6-0 record, a campaign that included wins over Alabama (35-0), Georgia (39-5) and South Carolina (51-0). It was the first undefeated season in Tiger history, and it was the school’s first conference championship, as Clemson won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Clemson did have another perfect record until 1948.

The 1901 season included a 122-0 win over Guilford, still the largest margin of victory in Tiger history. Clemson averaged 30 yards per play and scored a touchdown every 26 seconds in a game that saw just 30 minutes of playing time.

Heisman coached Clemson to two more conference titles in 1902 and 1903. The 1902 season included an 11-0 victory over Tennessee, a game played in the snow that clinched the SIAA championship.

The 1903 season included victories over Georgia and Georgia Tech. After Clemson’s 29-0 win over Georgia, the Bulldogs made a deal with Heisman that they would give Clemson one bushel of apples for every point it beat Georgia Tech above their 29-point margin recorded against the Bulldogs.

Heisman and his Tigers must have loved apple pie, because they went on to beat the Yellow Jackets 73-0. Clemson had a school-record 615 yards on 55 carries in that game. That winter, Georgia sent Clemson 44 bushels of apples.

Oct. 28, 1903 turned out to be a landmark day in Clemson history for a good reason and a bad one. The Tigers beat NC State 24-0 in a game played at the fairgrounds in Columbia. After the game, Heisman married Evelyn Barksdale in Columbia. He had met Barksdale while he was performing in plays, his favorite hobby outside of coaching.

Never has a marriage had a more profound effect on the history of Southern football. Barksdale was more interested in living in the “big city” of Atlanta and was a major factor in Heisman leaving Clemson after the 1903 season for Georgia Tech and a $2,250 salary plus 30 percent of the home gate.

Heisman had taken the Tigers to a 19-3-2 record in four years, and the 83.3 winning percentage is still the highest in school history. He coached just four games (4-0 record) on Clemson’s campus and was 11-2-1 on the road, a winning percentage (82.1) that will never be topped.

Heisman’s impact at Georgia Tech was immediate, as he coached the team to an 8-1-1 record in 1904. The tie was against Clemson, a 73-point net improvement over the previous game against the Tigers.

Heisman went on to coach Georgia Tech for 16 years (1904-19), and like his record at Clemson, he holds the Yellow Jacket record for winning percentage (76.4). He won five more conference titles at Georgia Tech.

One of his most famous games took place in 1916, when he beat Cumberland 222-0, still the largest margin of victory for an FBS school against any opponent. In Grantland Rice’s report on the game, he said that Cumberland’s best offensive play was a six-yard loss.

Heisman was famous for running up the score, and it is not a coincidence that he coached both Clemson and Georgia Tech to their largest victory margins in history.

Heisman was also the head baseball coach at Clemson and Georgia Tech, and the spring previous to the Cumberland football game, Cumberland’s baseball team beat Georgia Tech 22-0. That game certainly stuck in Heisman’s mind.

Late in his career at Georgia Tech, Heisman’s marriage to his wife was in a difficult place, and they divorced. According to many reports, Heisman did not want to stay in the same city as his ex-wife, and he accepted the head coaching position at his alma mater, Penn, for the 1920 season.

Overall, Heisman coached 36 years and finished with an overall record of 186-70-18. In retirement, he ran the Downtown Athletic Club of New York. He was the driving force to start presenting an award to the “best player in college football” in 1935.

Heisman died on Oct. 3, 1936, and when the award was presented for the second time in December of that year, the club announced it would forever be named the Heisman Trophy.