Cumberland - Chapter 16: The Legacy

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
- Friedrich Nietzsche

     The 1916 game between Cumberland and Georgia Tech still stands as the most lopsided score in college football history. The game wasn’t remotely competitive. The outcome was never in doubt. There was not even a slight possibility of a turn in momentum. Yet the football game had all the drama of a championship match that comes down to the final seconds. Because this game wasn’t played for the scoreboard that John Heisman gifted the sport with. This game was played for the One Great Scorer that Grantland Rice wrote about in 1908. This was about how you play the game. Are you a cheater, or a man of honor? Are you a bully for administering a beating, or brave to withstand it?

     All who took part in the immortal game somehow managed to survive the experience and come out stronger in the end. David was not able to slay the great giant, but he did live to tell the tale. And as the years, and decades, passed by, the tales grew taller and taller, as they do in any great story. The game is now an intrinsic part of the lore of both schools and holds a unique place in the history of American football. Although the game is now more than 100 years old, and the participants are all gone, it refuses to be forgotten.

     On the surface, the game was a footnote in history - an odd little curiosity that elicits humor and disbelief whenever mentioned or read about. The Cumberland game against Georgia Tech is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the worst recorded defeat in college football history. There were also the additional records of 63 points in a quarter, 32 touchdowns and 30 points after touchdowns in a game. The eighteen straight field goals in one half by Georgia Tech player Jim Preas were featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! In 1986, a four-part series in the National Enquirer titled “The Football Hall of Shame” called the Cumberland loss to Georgia Tech “The Most Crushing Defeat in the History of Football”. The magazine characterized the Cumberland team as “victims of the most horrendous rout since General Sherman sacked Atlanta in 1864.”

     One publication was more responsible for bringing notoriety to this “historical attraction” than any other. According to historian G. Frank Burns in a 1988 newspaper column, “the widest circulation was the result of an article in Reader’s Digest by O. K. Armstrong, a Cumberland graduate who had been congressman from Missouri and was an editor of the Digest. Called ‘The Funniest Football Game Ever Played’, the article was published in October 1955.” In the article, the game was brought to life through first-hand accounts from many of the players of what happened on that fateful day back in 1916. “We took a glorious licking!” George E. Allen revealed in the article in his typically understated manner. “It was positively the worst football game ever played!” David Harsh, a lineman for Cumberland that afternoon added, “We never should have taken on Tech. They had us somewhat outclassed.”

     Leon McDonald, who played halfback in the game, explained the team’s motivation to play the game despite their lack of preparedness. “We had had very little practice. But our manager, the old tightwad, said we couldn’t afford to lose the $500 guarantee.” Left end Charlie Warwick described what it was like trying to stop the relentless onslaught from Georgia Tech: “They would trample us down as if we were weeds.” E. W. McCall, who had been assured by Allen he would not have to play in the game, was called on late in the game when there was a lack of players healthy enough to continue. “On every play I got flattened,” McCall said. “Not only their All-American tackle, Bill Fincher, but every Tech man seemed to be about six inches taller and six inches wider than I was.” Even the simple act of kicking the ball proved troublesome according to Bird Paty. “One of Allen’s more brilliant plays was when he attempted a punt. It was a good, hard kick, but the ball hit our own center squarely in the back of the neck and bowled him over.”

     On October 12, 1956, survivors of the game assembled together for a forty-year reunion at the Greater Atlanta Club. Among the attendees were six members of the Cumberland team and twenty-two players from Tech. All had played in the 1916 game. Gentry Dugat from Cumberland arranged the reunion. Players were introduced and stories were told. Some true, some questionable. Quarterback Morris Gouger, who filled in for Eddie “QB” Edwards following the injury Edwards suffered on the opening kickoff, highlighted one of the few bright spots for Cumberland in the game. “In one of the smartest bits of football strategy on record,” Gouger gloated. “I called for a quarterback sneak on fourth down late in the final period. We needed 25 yards and were deep in our territory. I made it back to the line of scrimmage and saved us from really ignominious defeat. If we had punted, as we should have, Tech would have blocked the kick, made another touchdown and the score would have been 229-0.”

     Coach Bobby Dodd was a guest speaker. Assistant coach L. W. “Chip” Robert was on hand. Standout players from Tech were in attendance, including right tackle Bill Fincher, quarterback Froggie Morrison and the big, lumbering, touchdown-scoring lineman Canty Alexander. There was talk of a rematch. “This is one of the great thrills of my life,” said one of the Cumberland players. “I haven’t seen any of these men since 1917. And this chance to relive this game is something I will never forget. Thank you for making one man happy.”

     One person noticeably absent from the forty-year reunion was John M. “Johnny Dog” Nelson, the only known “ringer” in the game, who played under a phony name. Nelson was planning to attend, but sadly passed away before the event occurred. He would not be the only one absent. “Bird” Paty wrote his apologies that he would be unable to attend due to cases going to trial. Dow R. Cope, most believed, had died many years earlier. O. K. Armstrong, the writer of the Reader’s Digest article, tried his best to get George Allen to attend the reunion, informing the former football manager and current Washington power player he had “become a sort of legend to the old Cumberland boys - and rightly so.” Despite the obvious ego stroking, Allen would not be in attendance. But the event was not about any one individual. It was about an unbelievable game played 40 years earlier.

     Bobby Dodd, who at the time was the current coach of Georgia Tech, put things in perspective: “Of all players in all sports who exaggerate about their feats, I know football players are the worst. But this is one bunch who never has to exaggerate about a score.” Early on, members of both teams had mixed feelings about the game they had participated in back in 1916, but four decades later most had grown to appreciate the unexpected notoriety. “Fame for failure is a sorry solace,” quipped left guard Gentry Dugat in an interview. “I never realized that so much incompetence could receive so much attention. We have been televised, broadcast, columned and cartooned because we were unable to deliver.”

Georgia Tech was finally chosen as national champion in 1917 after going undefeated three straight seasons. Earning the “Golden Tornado” nickname, the 1917 Yellow Jackets outscored opponents 491-17 on their way to an undefeated 9-0 record.

     With Heisman’s Jump Shift offense and a celebrated backfield featuring standouts Al Hill, Indian Joe Guyan, Everett Strupper and Jude Harlan, Georgia Tech dominated the competition from start to finish, delivering seven shutouts along the way. The team was a scoring machine, generating an average of almost 55 points a game while holding opponents under 2: 

September 29

Furman

W 25–0

September 29

Wake Forest

W 33–0

October 6

Penn

W 41–0

October 13

Davidson

W 32–10

October 20

Washington & Lee

W 63–0

November 3

Vanderbilt

W 83–0

November 10

Tulane

W 48–0

November 17

Carlisle

W 98–0

November 29

Auburn

W 68–7

 

     Along the way, Heisman must have received a little satisfaction by delivering the worst loss in Vanderbilt history. Winthrop “Winnie” Collins, an assistant manager for Georgia Tech, said, “Before the game, Heisman told the Tech players not to hold back. He remembered the day 10 or 12 years previous, when he took a team to Vanderbilt to play them. In those days, if a team was short-handed in players it was customary to use one of the assistant coaches. When the Tech team arrived on the Vandy field they had only 10 players available. Dan McGugin was their coach, but they would not let on the Tech coaches fill in. So Vandy beat Tech something terrible. Heisman remembered that game and he told the Tech players in 1917 not to hold back, but to pour it on. The result was Tech 83-Vandy 0.”

     “I consider the 1917 Tech team the best football team I have ever coached,” Heisman was quoted in the Atlanta Constitution as saying following the 83-0 destruction of Vanderbilt by the Yellow Jackets, “even better than the 1916 champions, and better than the old Clemson teams. I’ll go even further. It’s the best football team I’ve ever seen in my long career as a football coach.”

     According to Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football, it was in response to the game against Penn, Heisman’s Alma Mater, that sportswriter Morgan Blake of the Atlanta Journal first used the “Golden Tornado” nickname. After that same game, the Atlanta Constitution reported, despite being in an automobile accident Saturday morning, Everett Strupper, on one play late in the game “swung around the enemy’s left end on one of his famous runs, winding and twisting out of a mass of Red and Blue players for a 68-yard dash for a score.” After reading his account, it’s easy to imagine what inspired the Golden Tornados nickname. This would be the first national football title for a team from the South, much less the Deep South. The 1917 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who many believed to be the greatest team the south ever produced, was an unanimous selection as the college football national champion. After the votes were counted, the Yellow Jackets sat atop every major football poll of the day. This time Heisman had left no margin of error in determining who possessed rightful ownership of the title. Georgia Tech was a true champion. And so was John Heisman.

“In a system of play it's unfair to single out men too much for praise,” said Heisman in the 1917 Georgia Tech yearbook. “To be sure we had our stars, as teams always must have; but the best part of a good football team's work is that it teaches a man his place in the scheme of things. It teaches him to subordinate himself to the rules that apply to all. It teaches him to give help to others by showing him how others will help him... The lesson is not only for this Fall's football, but for all of life and for all time to come - and for all of you. Ponder it.”

     Even though Heisman didn’t preach individual success to his teams, there were plenty of successful individuals. The 1917 Yellow Jackets produced four All-Americans. Everett Strupper and Walker “Big Six” Carpenter were named first team All-American (the first players from the Deep South ever bestowed with this honor), while Al Hill and Joe Guyon were selected for the second team. Three of the four members of the celebrated backfield were named to the All-American team.

     Everett Strupper would be named to the Tech All-Era Team for the John Heisman Era as well as be posthumously named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1972 and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1974. “Were I compelled to risk my head on what one absolutely unaided gridster might accomplish, football under arm and facing eleven ferocious opponents,” said Heisman, “I would rather choose and chance this man on how he might come through the gauntlet than any ball carrier I have ever seen in action.” Lineman Walker “Big Six” Carpenter was team captain the 1917 championship season and joined Strupper on the Tech All-Era Team. Bill Fincher, merely a reserve freshman in the Cumberland game, became a two-time consensus All-American for Georgia Tech in 1918 and 1920, while also being named to the “All-Era” team. Fincher made a record 122 of 136 PAT attempts. He got a lot of chances to kick points after touchdowns playing under Heisman’s Golden Tornado teams.

     In the 1917 championship season, Heisman had made his point where he always makes it - on the football field. From 1915-1917, his teams went 33 games without suffering a single loss. Two games would result in a tie. His 1918 team would be even more dominating, putting up scores of 118-0, 123-0 and 128-0. Unfortunately, the team would end the winning streak in a 0-32 loss to national champion Pittsburg. He would coach only one more season at Georgia Tech. His record of 102 wins, 7 ties and 27 losses has yet to be equaled by a coach at Tech. His teams produced SIAA titles in 1916, 1917 and 1918 as well as the national title in 1917.

     Fuzzy Woodruff, the sportswriter and music and drama critic who once labeled Heisman a “great coach and a terrible thespian,” summed up the impact Heisman made everywhere he went: 

     Heisman's worth was never better displayed than when he left a college. He departed from Auburn and pretty soon Auburn's football glory went glimmering. He departed from Clemson in 1903 and from the minute of his departure Clemson dwindled as a football power. He came to Georgia Tech the next year and Tech promptly arose from a team of tertiary importance in a football way, to a football power that must be reckoned with and finally to a position of undisputed domination in the Southern section.

     Looking over Heisman’s career records, his distaste for losing was obvious. In his 16 seasons as coach of Georgia Tech, Heisman would never produce a single losing season:

JOHN HEISMAN, GEORGIA TECH (1904-1919)

1904

8-1-1

1912

5-3-1

 

1905

6-0-1

1913

7-2

 

1906

5-3-1

1914

6-2

 

1907

4-4

1915

7-0-1

 

1908

6-3

1916

8-0-1

SIAA Champions

1909

7-2

1917

9-0

SIAA Champions | National Champions

1910

5-3

1918

6-1

SIAA Co-Champions

1911

6-2-1

1919

7-3

 

 

     Coach John Heisman’s final year at Georgia Tech was the 1919 season, his sixteenth as head coach of the Yellow Jackets. Now fifty years of age, the team photo reveals an older and more subdued version of the head coach. His hair is thinner and grayer. Gone is the more stylish attire of his younger days with raised collars and effete eyeglasses. There’s no white poodle tucked in his arms. Heisman now wears a plain gray athletic shirt no different than the ones his two assistant coaches beside him wear. His team went 2-1 in the SIAA conference and 7-3 overall. Georgia Tech beat Vanderbilt, which always had to be satisfying, but lost to Pittsburgh, Washington & Lee and Heisman’s former team Auburn.

     The season record was impressive, but a little underwhelming for Heisman standards. It was clear his heart wasn’t entirely in it. After the loss to Auburn in the final game of the season, it was discovered why. Heisman announced he and his wife Evelyn were divorcing. She apparently had enough of being a football widow and Heisman agreed to leave Atlanta to avoid his wife any social embarrassment. Heisman’s decision meant he would be forced to leave the school he put on the football map. His teams never again achieved the same success they accomplished while Heisman was coaching the Yellow Jackets.

     Heisman returned to the north to coach at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater, from 1920-1922. From there he would coach at Washington & Jefferson for one season before taking his coaching talent down to Texas where he would coach at Rice for three seasons before retiring. At Rice, Heisman would spark a bit of controversy by requesting, and being granted, an annual salary of $9,000 for service as football coach, which was $1,500 more than the highest paid faculty. In 1903, Heisman had prophetically observed that, “Successful coaches are few and far between, and it is small wonder they command salaries practically without limit.”

     He could not have known how true that would one day be. The halls of academia would have to grow accustomed to football coaches earning exorbitant salaries that dwarf the salaries of the professors teaching the students and, once again, Heisman would be a pioneer of modern-day collegiate sports.

     By the time Heisman moved on to the final schools, the game had begun to change. Or he had.  His strict, dictatorial approach didn’t work as well at Penn and Washington & Jefferson as it had back at Tech. “You know how it was at Tech,” Heisman recalled to a former team manager years later. “My word was law. Everything I said went. At Penn, the Fraternities have more to say about who plays than I do.” One of the few positives to come out of his final coaching stops, Heisman would become reacquainted with Edith Maora Cole, the young woman he courted while coaching at Bechtel but had to move away to Denver when she developed asthma. With them both now single again, they rekindled their relationship 30 years later and the two married in 1924. With a new wife by his side, Heisman began to look beyond coaching football. To his good fortune, while his coaching career was winded down, his writing career started taking off.

     With more time to write, he authored a series of Monday columns for the Macon Telegraph dealing with every possible aspect of the sport of football. He also began work on his 376-page compendium, Principles of Football. When Heisman did finally step down after 36 seasons of coaching football, he contributed pieces for American Liberty and Collier’s Magazine and coauthored a book with legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice called Understand Football.

     More than anything else, however, it has been Heisman’s innovations that continue to have a lasting effect on the game of football. He was a visionary in the way he saw new possibilities and strategic in the way he in incorporated them into the game. Heisman was responsible for fundamental elements of the game like the center snap and word “hike” and “hut” as audible cues for the center to snap the ball. He introduced technological advancements, such as the scoreboard and yard markers. Both are now standard on all football fields and provide spectators with the benefit of being able to follow what’s going on in the game. He devised famous trick plays built on deception like the flea flicker, double lateral, delayed pass and hidden ball trick.

     He played an instrumental role in the development of shoulder and hip pads to improve safety for players and the division of the game into quarters. Though his years in coaching, Heisman pioneered his own training regimen and offensive system to create his own brand of Heisman football. He developed football psychology to motivate his players. All of this culminated at Georgia Tech, where he engineered the first true football factory. He didn’t recruit talented teams. He produced them. From player diets to scouting opponents, Heisman ushered in the age of scientific football.

     In a candid 1908 interview in Baseball Magazine, Heisman commented on some of his most meaningful contributions:

The Double Lateral

     The Oberlin College team of 1892 was the first I ever coached and though we won every game played, including one with Michigan, I cannot claim credit for anything for that year except a double pass from tackle to half-back. 

The Direct Snap

     In 1893 while coaching Buchtel College I hit upon the idea of having the center rush snap or toss the ball directly up to the [quarterback], instead of rolling it back on the ground.

The Delayed Pass

     At this time, too, the idea of the center rush making a fake snap and holding the ball under him, tight up in his crotch, first occurred to me. The play was freely copied, and was the direct forerunner of Pennsylvania’s famous Delayed Pass near the boundary line in 1896, which play has be the forefather of all the present forms of delayed passes.

The Hidden Ball Trick

     The hidden-ball trick which the Carlisle Indians played successfully on Harvard about 1898 or 1899 first originated with me, I believe; though I take no great pride in the matter as I used the play but one year, coming to the conclusion that it was a play open to question from the standpoint of pure and clean sportsmanship.

The Safety Position

     Until so late as 1894 no one had ever heard of a man playing any different position of defense from what he played on offense: If he was a half-back on offense that’s what he played on defense and that ended it. So, I put the little fellow [half-back] at full-back’s place and rested him up whenever we lost the ball, and I had my big full-back come up close and help back up the line. The plan worked like a charm—only that as it was the quarter-back who was usually the lightest man on a team; it was and is usually he who trades places with the full-back on defense.

The Onside Kick

     I distinctly am not the man who first thought of an on-side kick. That honor belongs to George Woodruff (former head coach at University of Pennsylvania), who brought out the play about 1893. What I did—and that not till several years later—was to invent a new way of performing the play, and my way is probably the father of the many new and complex ways in which the play is performed today.

The Forward Pass

     It was in 1901, 1902 and 1903 that the cry for a more open style of play began to become prolonged and insistent. All sorts of suggestion to open up the game appeared in print, some good, some bad. In 1903 after the season I wrote Mr. Walter Camp of the Rules Committee and suggested, that if the committee really wished to open up the game no easier or more certain way of doing it could be devised than by allowing forward passing.

     According to nephew John M. Heisman in his book Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy, there were a number of innovations Heisman introduced that wouldn’t take hold in the sport until much later. “In 1922, he proposed an extra period known as ‘overtime’ to settle tied games,” wrote his nephew although it wouldn’t become a part of college football until 1996. Heisman also proposed dividing teams into three divisions, called “First Rank,” “Second Rank,” and “Third Rank,” to group teams based on level of competition. Today college football is divided into Division I-A, Division 1-AA, Division II and Division III programs for precisely the same reason.

     Like everything else, the game was becoming specialized. This is why the first glimpse of the forward pass in the 1895 game between North Carolina and Georgia had been so intriguing to Heisman. In that moment, he saw all the new wrinkles to the game the development could open up. The sport could be more that groups of boys colliding with other groups of boys. The game was as much intellectual as it was physical. This appealed to Heisman, who viewed himself as straddling the same two worlds. The former head coach continued to innovate in ways that expanded the game. He developed a new valve for footballs and even invented his own football board game, but the game was never fully developed. If he had followed through on the idea, instead of Madden 16, gamers today might be playing Heisman 16.

     At 61 years of age, and regarded as one of the foremost authorities on the sport of football, Heisman was named the first Athletic Director of the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City. While serving in that capacity, he founded the Touchdown Club of New York and the National Football Coaches Association. In 1935, the Downtown Athletic Club approached Heisman with the idea to sponsor an annual trophy to honor the most outstanding college football player. At first, Heisman was opposed to the idea. He had long believed that football was a team sport and celebrating individual performances was counterproductive to this belief. Eventually, he warmed up to the idea, according to his nephew John M. Heisman, but on his terms:

More than anything else, Heisman wanted the award to reflect his own ideals of a football player. The individual needed to be of good character, someone who always presented himself as a gentleman. The player’s attitude should be selfless— with his team’s best interests in mind— not self-aggrandizing.

     The first Downtown Athletic Club Award was given in 1935 to Chicago’s Jay Berwanger. According to the current mission statement on the official website, the award “annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. The winners of the trophy epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.” The year following the first award being given out, Heisman unexpectedly took ill, and after a short battle with failing health, succumbed to pneumonia in New York City at the age of 66. Two months after Coach Heisman's death in 1936, college football’s most prestigious award was renamed, "The Heisman Trophy." There is no higher honor in all of college sports. Players who have since won the award include the greatest that have ever played the game, including Barry Sanders, Herschel Walker, Jameis Winston, Archie Griffith, Marcus Allen, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Tony Dorsett, Desmond Howard, Doug Flutie and Johnny Manziel.

     Heisman impacted almost every facet of the sport of football, but in spite of the record final score, his historic game against Cumberland would not achieve the results he had intended from the sportswriters. Not immediately anyway. The practice of selecting a champion based on flashy point totals and blowout wins continued for the next century until a playoff system was finally established in 2015. Prior to the 100-year anniversary of the game, the new college football playoffs, that even President Barack Obama championed, had produced two deserving national champions, the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2014 and the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2015.

     For the time being, however, his message seemed to fall on deaf ears. In the Shakespearean tragedy that Heisman had orchestrated, the sportswriters added the bitter pill of irony, rendering the gridiron obliteration almost meaningless in the end. Although they unwittingly contributed to the senseless evisceration of an innocent football team, the sportswriters from the era helped document the progression of American football from sweaters and leather helmets to what we know today. 

     Other sportswriters who reported on southern football in those, like Morgan Blake and Fuzzy Woodruff also played their part in defining football’s Golden Age. Morgan Blake, like Grantland Rice, was a Vanderbilt University graduate who worked for the Nashville Tennessean. Blake became sports editor for the Atlanta Journal in 1916, where he covered the game. In addition to first coining the “Golden Tornado” name for John Heisman’s Georgia Tech team, he reportedly gave archrival Georgia their team nickname that’s still used today. On November 3, 1920, when discussing team nicknames in his column, Blake wrote, “the ‘Georgia Bulldogs’ would sound good, because there is a certain dignity about a bulldog as well as ferocity, and the name is not as common as ‘Wildcats’ and ‘Tigers.’ Yale is about the only team I recall right now that has the name.” Lorenzo Ferguson “Fuzzy” Woodruff was another sportswriter from the south known for vivid writing that defined the Golden Age of sports. In 1928, he authored the book, A History of Southern Football, 1890-1928. Unfortunately, Fuzzy died one year later at the age of 45. His tombstone was inscribed “Copy All In.”

     Certainly no one, however, was impacted by the Cumberland-Georgia Tech game more than the boys from Cumberland who made that two-hundred and fifty-mile journey down to Atlanta to face certain annihilation. The devastating loss to Georgia Tech did not deter George Allen from going on to bigger, better things. Allen’s gift for elocution served him well after leaving Cumberland with his skin-of-his-teeth law degree. He practiced law in Mississippi and Indiana, but lost interest after a few years. He then amassed a fortune, and then lost that fortune, in the hotel business, winding up $500,000 in debt. But still Allen kept his sense of humor, pointing out he was a pauper compared to his friends. They were millions in debt.

     In his autobiography, Allen elaborated on what drew him to the hospitality industry in the first place:

     I was attracted to the hotel business as some are attracted to the theater. A hotel, to me was a temporary haven for transients, and transients were always a potential adventure because, among many of them, one might happen upon a good talker, or, even better, a good listener. Talking has always been my favorite pastime. I play bridge and gold and, I sometimes think, engage in politics and business principally to have an excuse to talk with others who are more seriously following these pursuits. Useless play and work can sometimes be interrupted, if one is on the scene, for a little important talk. I have often thought that my system in college of staying alert at all the midnight bull sessions and sleeping in class had its advantages as a way of acquiring useful knowledge.

     The stock market crash and the Great Depression forced Allen to audible out of hotels. He dabbled in a number of businesses. He even took a stab at writing jokes in Chicago, but the money was sluggish and the jokes were corny so he moved on to other means of employment.

It was in politics that Allen discovered his true calling. Allen took to Washington nonsense like a duck to water. He became a close friend and advisor to three U.S. Presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

     Eisenhower, interestingly, had been a football player for Army on the day Notre Dame unleashed the first aerial assault conducted on the gridiron. He was injured on the sidelines, but must’ve been taking notes. Forty years later, he led the Allied invasion of Western Europe. Newspapers frequently referred to Allen as “one of the most powerful men in Washington”. “The number of persons in Washington who are closer to the White House than George Allen,” wrote Frederick Sullens in an article preserved in the Cumberland University archives, “could be easily counted on the fingers of your two hands with several digits to spare.”

     According to Allen’s obituary, “He was considered Dwight Eisenhower’s closest friend when the former general was President. With Eisenhower, he played golf. With Roosevelt, Allen played bridge and with the down-to-earth Truman, it was poker. He fit easily into the role of a presidential crony and there was something about him that led all three Presidents to value his friendship as a refuge from the tensions of the world’s most powerful office.” His face was on the cover of Time Magazine in August of 1946 and he was interviewed in LIFE Magazine the following month. His interview includes a photograph of Allen attending a Gridiron Club dinner with President Truman. The caption beneath the photo merely says, “Allen and friend”. In the interview, Allen gave some insight into how he became known as a court jester:

     I’ll tell you about that, I tell a lot of jokes on myself - I make out I’m the dumbest, unluckiest man in the whole world. I found out a long time ago that when a man is always boasting how good he is people get bored and forget him. But when a man tells how bad he is - what a bungler - then people like him.

     Like the time I was in France at Eisenhower’s headquarters, in charge of war-prisoner work for the Red Cross. The German’s made an air raid and, of course, I was the first one down to the bomb shelter. I ran in and slammed the door, and it got jammed somehow, and nobody else could get in ‘til the raid was over. There was Ike on the outside and me on the inside - the Supreme Commander locked out of his own bomb shelter! We laughed and laughed about that, and it still makes a great story. 

     In 1950, Allen authored the bestseller Presidents Who Have Known Me, a mostly flattering portrait of his favorite subject, himself. He even warns the reader the book is only “incidentally” about the Presidents and is primarily about him. Allen was a Presidential “crony” in the best possible meaning of the word, once referred to by the New York Times as “a collector of Presidents”. When Allen died in 1973 of a pulmonary embolism, the AP wrote, “Presidential Friend George Allen Dies,” while the UPI announced, “Presidents’ Comforter Dead at 77.” His hometown library in Booneville, Mississippi is even named after him.

     Nearly a hundred years after the 1916 game, ESPN ranked the 100 worst blowouts in sports history. At the top spot, the sportswriters ranked the 1940 NFL Championship Game, which saw the Chicago Bears beat the Washington Redskins 73-0. At number two was Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in 1973. Earning the number three spot was Tiger Woods winning the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes. In fourth place was the San Francisco 49ers defeating the Denver Broncos 55-10 to win the Super Bowl XXIV in 1990. 

     Coming in fifth place was the Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0 game. If he were still alive, Coach Heisman would have once again been unsatisfied with the results from the sportswriters, surely protesting the fact that all the blowouts ranked above the 1916 game took place in championship settings that embellished the importance of the one-sided victories, whereas the Tech game against Cumberland was a pure, unadulterated blowout and nothing more. Certainly, if championship blowouts were being measured, those other drubbings would make excellent choices, but in the category of worst blowout in history, nothing comes close to the Georgia Tech - Cumberland game. And likely never will. 

     Cumberland’s run in with an immovable object did not sink the school the way it had for the Titanic four years earlier. While it is doubtful the school ever saw any of the $500 George Allen collected from Coach Heisman, the university didn’t have to pay the $3,000 forfeiture penalty that would have been disastrous. Thankfully, Cumberland University averted the brush with economic Armageddon and the School of Law survived the whole painful ordeal. Thanks to the contributions of a handful of brave volunteers. Their sacrifice to the gridiron gods prevented a bad situation from becoming a tragic one.

     Although the Cumberland School of Law managed to survive the brush with disaster, the school was sold forty-five years later to Samford University located about 220 miles due south down in Birmingham, Alabama where it has continued since 1961. While Cumberland University is no longer associated with the School of Law, the legacy of 114 years in Lebanon (including 63 years under the guidance of Judge Nathan Green, Jr.) still provides a foundation for everything they do.

     After the devastating game in 1916, Cumberland did not field a football team until 1920. Except for brief interruptions due to the Great Depression and World War II, the program carried on until 1949 when it was finally discontinued. After four long decades without football, the program quietly resumed in 1990 at Cumberland where it has remained in place ever since.

     In 2001, Cumberland made news again. In a game against the Bulldogs, Ashley Martin of Jacksonville State became the first woman to play and score in Division 1 history by kicking a total of three extra points without a single miss. Her breaking of the gender barrier led to her being named Southland Football League Special Teams Player of the Week as well as appearances on Good Morning America and Live with Regis and Kelly. The Gamecocks went on to beat Cumberland 72-10.

     In 2014, one Georgia Tech alumni had the opportunity to preserve part of the game as well as a part of college football history. An Atlanta patent attorney named Ryan Schneider paid $40,388 in an auction to win the original football used in the 1916 Georgia Tech-Cumberland game. The “weathered, slightly deflated artifact” is missing two laces and the side is imprinted with “GA. TECH. 222 CUMBERLAND U 0 OCT. 7th 1916” in thick black letters. “I hope I look that good after a hundred years,” said Schneider, who obtained the historic game ball with the intent of returning it to the school for public viewing. The ball now resides proudly in a display case in the museum room at the Edge Center, the headquarters for Georgia Tech athletics, along with articles and photographs from the game, including one photo featuring the inglorious scoreboard results. Whether John Heisman ever held this particular football in the face of a young freshman and told him it was better to have died as a small boy than to fumble it, can’t be confirmed at this date. What can be reasonably confirmed is, at some point in the game, a Cumberland player dropped it and George Allen wouldn’t pick it up.

     Outside of Bobby Dodd Stadium on historic Grant Field stands a statue of Heisman with his ball cap, megaphone and not an ounce of fat. The former coach sternly looks off to the east.

     On January 4, 2016, almost 100 years after Georgia Tech dismantled Cumberland in every conceivable way a football team could get dismantled, it was announced that Cumberland was changing the university’s athletic nickname from the Bulldogs to the Phoenix. “The Cumberland Bulldogs are a thing of the past,” reported the Lebanon Democrat, “as the Phoenix rose from the ashes to become the university’s new athletics nickname Monday.”

     The name change occurred exactly 150 years after the school was back up and fully operational after being burned to the ground during the Civil War. With the Latin inscription by Dr. W. E. Ward on the Corinthian column as inspiration, the school rose from the ashes and legend was born. The morning of the announcement, the university released a new logo emblazoned with the Phoenix. “In 2015 as in the 1860s, the Phoenix stands as an instantly recognizable symbol of Cumberland University’s fire-forged excellence,” a statement from the university said. “The Phoenix reflects the grace and dynamism of an institution continually reinventing itself to continue preparing its students to reach the pinnacle of academic and athletic success.”

     As of October 7, 2016, a century has passed since the Cumberland Bulldogs, led by George E. Allen, and Georgia Tech, led by John W. Heisman, faced off on Grant Field in Atlanta, Georgia to participate in a football contest that no one in those parts, or any parts for that matter, would ever soon forget. In those 100 years, the game, and the players, have not been forgotten.

According to the scoreboard, the game was the most lopsided game in the history of college football, but still that ragtag band of Cumberland irregulars managed to go the distance with the mighty Georgia Tech team and hobble off the field that day with as much honor as a group of future lawyers could possibly possess.

     In his 1922 book Principles of Football, John Heisman articulated his steadfast belief that “No one player or coach or team or college ever knew or will know all there is to know about football.” This is true. And on that Saturday day back in the fall of 1916, those Cumberland players knew something about the sport of football that one of the greatest coaches in the game did not.

     In the original published version of “Alumnus Football”, Grantland Rice included an additional stanza - a thirteenth - that summed up the overall theme of the poem, where the famed sportswriter added:

Such is Alumnus Football on the white-chalked field of Life -
You find the bread-line hard to buck, while sorrow crowns the strife.
But in the fight for name and fame among the world-wide clan,
“There goes the victor” sinks to naught before “There goes a man.”

     Over the years he spent in coaching, John Heisman wrote a list of “nevers” for a football player to follow. That list included “Never admit to yourself your opponent is a better man than you are”, “Never forget a football player can be a gentleman” and “Never give up.” As far as history can tell, no matter how thoroughly they were beaten, those boys from Cumberland never did any of those things in their game against Georgia Tech. They walked on the field as football players and walked off the field as men.

     In the 100 years that followed, the two teams never played each other again. There has been talk at times, but the simple fact Georgia Tech plays in the NCAA while Cumberland plays in the much smaller NAIA certainly complicates the matter. Still, the two teams will be forever linked by history due to one team’s determination to keep pouring it on and the other team’s resolve to keep getting back up. Despite the heavy price they paid, and all their contributions to the lore of college football and the school, not one member of the 1916 Cumberland football team who traveled to Atlanta to play the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets has ever been named to the Cumberland Athletics Hall of Fame. Perhaps, some year in the not-too-distant future they finally get their long overdue recognition.


Written by Scott Larson
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