In 1915, Georgia Tech’s football team was seeking to avenge an embarrassing loss in baseball. Tech’s baseball team was thrashed by Cumberland College in a shut-out. Georgia Tech’s football coach, John Heisman, for whom the coveted Heisman Trophy is named, vowed to get revenge on the football field.
Cumberland, located in Lebanon, Tennessee had played many of the teams in the southeast, but school officials opted to discontinue their football program in 1916. Unfortunately, they were scheduled to play Georgia Tech on October 7, 1916 and forgot to tell Georgia Tech who scheduled the game. As game day neared Georgia Tech officials found out Cumberland had no intention of fielding a team. It was too late for Georgia Tech’s coaches to schedule another game with another school. This meant a loss of revenue as football games generate substantial amounts of income for colleges. With this in mind, Heisman insisted Cumberland play the game or pay a forfeit fee of $3,000 (equivalent to $63,000 in the current economy). Rather than forfeit the money, Cumberland’s coaches decided to hastily assemble a team.
Around the turn of the century, many had lost their enthusiasm for football. For most, it was a casual pastime. Teams were organized haphazardly playing prep schools one week and colleges the next week. Football schedules were much less formal than today.
Cumberland’s coach Butch McQueen enlisted the help of student manager, George Allen, to recruit 16 students, many fraternity brothers, to go to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech. Several of the students had limited experience in football and were completely unprepared. One student, Gentry Dugat, later recalled “I had played once in high school and once in prep school. They had promised me the first Pullman ride of my life and a chance to visit the home of my idol, Henry Grady, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution.”
Compounding Cumberland’s disadvantages was the absence of three players who missed the train in Nashville. With little time to practice, Cumberland took the field at Grant Stadium and set the stage for the most humiliating loss in college football history.
The unskilled Cumberland team was like 13 little leaguers taking on a well-trained crack team of athletes. Georgia Tech’s Coach Heisman was a stark contrast to McQueen. Heisman was one of the architects of the game. He was the originator of the forward pass. He created the scoreboard which listed downs, yards-to-go and other data. He devised the center snap and the hidden ball trick. He had his eccentricities, however. He banned his team from having hot water or soup theorizing it weakened them. His players were forbidden to eat apples, nuts and any other foods and beverages he personally did not like including coffee.
He became incensed once with sports writers for their habit of assigning value to the margin of victory.
“I have often contended that this habit on the part of the sports writers of totaling up the number of points each team has amassed in its various games and comparing them to one another was a useless thing…. We at Tech determined last year, at the start of the season, to show folks it was no difficult thing to run up a score in one easy game, from which it might perhaps be seen that it could also be done in other easy games as well.”
Cumberland was unaware they were about to become guinea pigs for Heisman’s brutal theory. Tech won the coin toss and performed their only act of charity during the game by electing to kick to Cumberland. Cumberland received the ball on the 25 yard line
Cumberland gained three yards before turning the ball over on downs. On Tech’s first play, Everett Struper swept left and ran in a touchdown. This pattern continued throughout the first quarter with Tech scoring easily over the inferior team running in touchdowns one after another. The first quarter ended with Tech leading 63-0.
The second quarter played out much like the first with Cumberland never making a first down and Tech never needing more than two plays to score a touchdown. The half ended with Tech maintaining a whopping 126-0 lead.
One can only imagine what the coach at Cumberland told his players at the half time. The pep talk was never quoted but it would be hard to imagine anything he said would have been of comfort to his demoralized players. Anything he said would have seemed pointless or ludicrous. He might have told them “Boys, this game ain’t over, yet. We could still come out and win it!” That’s a tough sell. It’s doubtful his team would have been encouraged.
Heisman had a tough sell to make as well. He had to convince his boys not to get overconfident as they had not won the game yet and victory was not assured. That’s a tough sell to make, too.
Heisman was quoted as telling his team “We’re ahead, but you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. They may spring a surprise. Be alert, men.
In the third quarter things got worse for Cumberland as Tech continued to rack up points and the Cumberland morale crumbled. At one point Heisman turned and noticed two Cumberland players sitting on his bench. He yelled at them to get back to their side of the field. One of the two men responded “Don’t make us go back. We’ll have to go into the game.”
Both teams were now showing signs of fatigue. The Tech squad was exhausted from all the running and scoring. An Atlanta Journal writer later wrote “As a general rule, the only thing necessary for a touchdown was to give a Tech back the ball and holler ‘Here he comes’ and “there he goes.’ ”
At the end of the third quarter the score stood at 180-0.
When the game finally came to an excruciating end for Cumberland the game stats were compiled. The final score was an embarrassing 222-0. Neither team made a first down. Georgia Tech amassed 528 yards rushing, returned punts 220 yards and kicked off 220 yards and threw no passes. Cumberland lost 45 yards, completed two of 11 passes to gain 14 yards and fumbled nine times.
Many football players exaggerate scores and other statistics. This was one game where no exaggeration was needed. As a result of this game a system of ranking teams was devised to prevent such debacles from occurring again.
The two teams got together in 1956 for a 40 year reunion to remember the history making game. George Griffin, a member of Tech’s 1916 team organized the reunion. At the reunion Gentry Dugat addressed the reunion and said “Little did we realize we were playing ourselves into immortality that day. We made you of Georgia Tech a great team.”
Michael Williams has written a book entitled “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual but true stories. The stories will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said “truth is stranger than fiction.”
He has written for more than 30 newspapers and magazines including the Civil War Times Illustrated, The Civil War Courier, the Associated Press and the Knoxville Journal.
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