On Oct. 7, 1916, one of the strongest teams in the South took to Grant Field for a game widely recognized for what it was – a glorified scrimmage against a clearly outclassed team. The roughly 1,000 fans who paid their $1 to watch Georgia Tech play Cumberland most certainly didn’t realize they were watching history, not that warm Atlanta afternoon and perhaps not for a long time to come.
But, improbably, the Yellow Jackets’ 222-0 win over Cumberland has held fast its place in school and college football history. Perhaps no final score of any game before or since remains as indelible as that, at once both outrageous and memorable.
The architect of that blowout, Tech coach John Heisman, ultimately led a career so successful that one of sport’s most cherished awards is named in his honor. Yet, the one fact that is perhaps most associated with him is his role in a game that, in the context of that season and perhaps even his career, was probably the least meaningful and most predictable.
A look back at 222-0.
Why it was played
As would be the case a century later, money was at the heart of college athletics and in this game particularly. Cumberland didn’t want to play the game; it had given up football after the 1915 season in part because the school was enduring a financial crisis.
However, the school had failed to properly notify Tech that it was discontinuing its team, and Heisman wouldn’t let Cumberland out of the game contract, even threatening to sue for $3,000 for breach of contract.
To avoid that possibility, a Cumberland student manager assembled a ragtag team, mostly fraternity brothers, to take to Atlanta. According to the book “Heisman’s First Trophy,” a novelized account of the game, the decision to play Tech may have saved Cumberland from bankruptcy.
Why Tech didn’t relent
The most recognized motivation for Heisman to hold Cumberland to its contract was to gain revenge for a 22-0 win by its baseball team over Tech in the previous spring, an outcome influenced by Cumberland’s use of several ringers.
However, Heisman had another purpose to pile up the points that Tech’s present-day coach might approve of – to tweak sports writers. According to “Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy” (co-written by a descendant of Heisman’s and ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, formerly of the AJC), Heisman took issue with writers who heavily valued points scored when comparing teams.
Wrote Heisman, “So, finding that folks are determined to take the crazy thing into consideration, we at Tech determined this year, at the start of the season, to show folks that it was no very difficult thing to run up a score in one easy game, from which it might perhaps be seen that it could be done in other easy games as well.”
Also making headlines
The game was not the biggest sports news of the day. It shared top billing with the opening game of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Brooklyn Dodgers and Atlantan Alexa Stirling’s victory at the U.S. Women’s Amateur golf championship. The Oct. 8 Journal had no less than nine headlines devoted to Stirling, a childhood friend of Bobby Jones who became the youngest U.S. Women’s Amateur champion at the age of 19. One was a poem and another was a short biography that included a story about her making a violin out of a cigar box at the age of six.
The poem’s author, Morgan Blake, is credited with giving Tech one of its early nicknames, the Golden Tornado, as well as proposing Bulldogs as the nickname for Georgia. Blake had a busy day; besides composing his 16-line poem, he also covered the Tech game.
Inside the numbers
The statistics from the game, as kept by the Journal: Tech gained 528 yards, all on the ground. Cumberland was credited with 32 yards of offense, 20 by run and 12 by pass. Neither team gained a first down, as the Jackets reached the end zone on each possessionbefore it could gain a first down. The Bulldogs never made it 10 yards in a possession. Tech also never punted.
Wrote the Constitution, “Cumberland was totally unable to stop the Jackets, who were not thrown for a loss or even held or one.”
Observers of the game recognized it for what it was, a high-powered team imposing its will against an unorganized collection of students. While the score was a record breaker, the outcome was unsurprising, the result of a well-trained college team playing against the equivalent of an intramural team.
Wrote the Journal’s Blake, “The Lebanon boys were minus any apparent football virtues.”
Once a football powerhouse
Cumberland has played football off and on since that point. It was once a powerhouse, finishing the 1903 season with a 6-1-1 record. That included a stunning six-day stretch in which it beat Alabama, LSU and Tulane by a combined 113-0. The one tie was against Clemson in the championship game of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (a forerunner of both the SEC and ACC) played only a week after the Tulane game.
Clemson’s coach was none other than Heisman, a hot commodity after another strong season. According to “Heisman,” written from the coach’s extensive personal documents, Clemson’s train to the game in Montgomery, Ala., happened to delay in Atlanta for three hours. That fateful stop provided boosters from a rival school the chance to offer him their job.
The following day, as Cumberland and Clemson tied 11-11, Tech announced that Heisman was coming to Atlanta to coach in 1904. As Tech coach, Heisman and Cumberland would meet three times more, the last in 1916.
The program was brought back the most recent time in 1990 and now plays in NAIA. The team is coached by Donnie Suber, who is quite familiar with Tech coach Paul Johnson. Suber was a freshman defensive back at Georgia Southern in 1986, Johnson’s final year in Statesboro as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. In fact, Suber’s defensive back that year was Tech offensive line coach Mike Sewak.
May have happened
A perhaps apocryphal story from the game: A Cumberland player was sitting on the Tech bench late in the game. Heisman noticed him and told him he needed to return to the Cumberland side. The young man responded, “No, sir, Mr. Heisman, this is the right bench. If I go over there, they’ll put me back in the game!”
The story goes that Heisman had mercy on the player and gave him a blanket to hide under for the rest of the game.
Jackets’ star vs. Cumberland
The best player on Tech’s team was one of its greatest of all-time. Halfback Everett Strupper led the Jackets in the game with six touchdowns. In 1917, Strupper was named an All-American, only the second player from the Southeast to earn that distinction. It represented growing recognition from the game’s power brokers of the ability of teams and players outside the Northeast. Strupper was posthumously inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1972.
Strupper had another unrelated contribution to the game. In 1930, as a writer for the Atlanta Journal, he covered an Alabama-Ole Miss game and made reference to the Tide team as “elephants.” Strupper and other writers began to refer to Alabama linemen as “Red Elephants,” the source of the school’s adoption of that animal as its mascot.
The 1916 team had two more College Football Hall of Famers on the roster, not including Heisman. End Bill Fincher was a freshman backup and halfback Joe Guyon sat out the year as a transfer. Guyon is also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the only Tech player in both halls, although Calvin Johnson’s day likely is coming.
Guyon and Strupper were part of one of the greatest backfields of all-time, along with quarterback Albert Hill and fullback Judy Harlan. In 1917, the year after the Cumberland game, they were the driving force behind Tech’s undefeated season, which gave the Jackets the claim on their first national championship.
Fincher, who had a glass or porcelain eye, was said to surreptitiously remove the prosthetic after the first few plays of a game and then show his face to an opposing lineman and growl, “So that’s the way you wanna play, huh?”
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