I'm a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech and a hell of an engineer,
A helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, hell of an engineer.
Like all the jolly good fellows, I drink my whiskey clear,
I'm a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech and a hell of an engineer.
- Ramblin’ Wreck of Georgia Tech
"Tech Gets Heisman for 1904.”
The student banner that flew proudly over the Georgia Tech campus said it all. After the success John Heisman had at Clemson, he found himself in extremely high demand as a football coach. Three other southern schools -Auburn, Clemson and Georgia - were all vying for his services, but it was Georgia Tech, down in Atlanta, that managed to land him. The 73-0 shellacking of Georgia Tech by Heisman’s Clemson Tigers the previous season sealed the deal.
Getting Heisman would come at a price. Taking full advantage of his numerous suitors, Heisman negotiated a deal that paid him an annual salary of $2,250 as well as 30% of net gate receipts for football and baseball, both programs over which Heisman would provide his services to the school as coach. The 30% of gate receipts was to mean the gross of all of Tech’s receipts less park rent, coach’s salary, team supplies and modest advertising. Heisman’s annual $2,250 salary was to be paid to him in twelve equal installments at the end of each month.
“It was decided to raise such a guarantee fund as might be necessary to employ the very best coach to be had,” proclaimed the director of athletics at Georgia Tech in the first university yearbook published four years later. “The man to fill the position had been determined from the very inception of the movement.
Mr. Heisman had attracted great attention by reason of his successful teams at Oberlin, Auburn and Clemson. His employment began a new era for athletics at Georgia Tech. Other institutions no longer considered our games as purely practice affairs.”
A modest football advertisement in 1904 invited the citizens of Atlanta to patronize the annual Thanksgiving contest that was to inspire a long-standing school tradition:
AT 3 P. M.
TECHS VS. U. OF S. C.
MUSIC BY THE 16TH INFANTRY BAND FROM FORT McPHERSON
Tech is an Atlanta college.
Tech brings $200,000 to this city annually.
Tech tried to prevent competing games but was refused.
and also in 1905—06—07—& c., to infinity, in the afternoon at 3 o’clock.
AMPLE CAR SERVICE PROMISED.
The Georgia School of Technology, as Georgia Tech was formally known as in those days, was founded greatly in response to the creed of the New South. Following the Civil War, there was a movement by southerners to better embrace technology in the south to keep pace with industry in the north. The resulting university was everything you’d expect from engineers. The story of the school was an inspiring one: The movement for the establishment of a technical school in Georgia was started in 1882, introduced to state legislature, a committee was appointed, facts were gathered, reports were written, action was recommended, a bill was introduced and, finally, the school was established.
Following the construction of the academic building, soon to be known as Tech Tower, the school opened its doors to students on October 7, 1888, preceding the famous game against Cumberland by exactly twenty-eight years. Tech Tower is the oldest remaining structure today and the school’s most recognizable landmark. The red brick, Victorian-style building features a seven-story central tower visible from the entire campus in those days.
Teddy Roosevelt once gave a speech on the front steps of the building on the importance of engineering. Soon the school would fulfill the New South creed by offering degrees in mechanical, electrical, civil, textile, mining and chemical engineering. According to the 1916 university yearbook, “The Georgia School of Technology ranked as the best engineering school in the South by the great manufacturers in the North.”
Even though the university was still less than three decades old in the fall of 1916, there was already an impressive list of notable alumni who had passed through this fine institution. The first class had included 128 students and produced the school’s first two graduates in 1890: Henry L. Smith and George C. Crawford. Leonard Wood (1894) was a Medal of Honor recipient and served as the Chief of Staff in the United States Army. B. N. Wilson (1896) was a professor of mechanical engineering and head football coach at the University of Arkansas.
Ben T. Epps (1904) was known as “Georgia’s First Aviator”, developing several monoplane and biplane aircrafts. L. W. “Chip” Robert, Jr. (1908), who played and coached under Heisman, was Assistant Treasurer of the United States. Y. Frank Freeman (1910) was a movie producer at Paramount Pictures and the first winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Henry Grady Weaver (1911) was an executive for the General Motors Corporation and featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1938. Stephen Pace (1912) served in the United States House of Representatives. George C. Woodruff (1917) was director of the Coca-Cola Company and philanthropist. George C. Griffin (1922), who scored two touchdowns in the historic game against Cumberland, was Dean of Students at Georgia Tech from 1946-1964.
Other notable alumni would soon pass through the illustrious halls of Tech. Bobby Jones (1920) was the most successful amateur golfer of all time and co-founder of the Masters Tournament. Arthur Murray (1923) was a dance instructor and businessman, Randolph Scott (1924) was a movie star of the 1940s and 1950s and George P. Burdell (1930) was a fictitious student who enrolled at Georgia Tech in 1927 whose accomplishments are too numerous to list.
Two publications produced by the students at Tech were the Technique and the Blue Print. The Technique was founded in 1911 and continues to serve as the official student newspaper at Tech. The Blue Print (simply called Blueprint today) is the official student yearbook, first published back in 1908. Playing a major role in establishing both publications was the ANAK Society, considered the “oldest known secret society and honor society at Georgia Tech.” Anak is a biblical figure from the Book of Numbers said to be the forefather of a race of giants. The secret honor society was also responsible for another Georgia Tech tradition: RAT caps.
According to the official university website, “RAT caps were first found on Georgia Tech’s campus in 1915.” Originally called “freshman caps,” all freshmen were required to wear the bright yellow caps the entire fall semester until Tech beat Georgia in the freshman football game. “R.A.T.S.” (which stands for “recently acquired Tech student”) who were caught not wearing their caps were subjected to hazing, such as having the hair shaved by upperclassmen into the shape of a “T”, otherwise known as the “T-cut”. The Ramblin Reck Club listed the freshman regulations in the October 4, 1917 issue of the student paper. They read:
- Wear a RAT cap at all times. The Freshman’s last name along with the word RAT - such as RAT Jones - is to be lettered on the front bill. On the back, the words “To Hell with Georgia” are to be written.
- Learn all school yells and songs. When the “Ramblin’ Wreck” or “Up with White and Gold” is played, Freshman must stand immediately and wave his RAT cap.
- Attend all pep rallies, student meetings and every home football game. At the football game, a Freshman must sit in no section other than that designated for Freshmen.
- Wear no sweater with letters other than the Georgia Tech “T” on it. No high school letters or letters from other colleges can be worn at any time. Violations of this rule will be reported to the Georgia Tech “T Club”.
The ANAK Society, which was Tech’s version of the Skull and Bones, acted as a “de facto student government” in the early years of the school, according to a 1947 article in the Technique. “Georgia Tech's first homecoming celebration was organized and sponsored by ANAK in 1916,” recalled Pat Edwards of the Ramblin’ Reck Club. “It was at this time Tech's proud tradition of combining the alumni reunions with Homecoming was established. This tradition, once unusual among colleges, continues to this day.” Every year, the Technique “toil countless hours to provide a Freshman Survival Guide.” This includes a “Fight Song Cheat Sheet” so freshman will be well equipped to sing along at all Tech football games.
The “helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, hell of an engineer” from the Ramblin’ Wreck fight song is a testament to the ingenuity of the engineering students who attend the school. As is the 1914 Ford that became a mascot at the polytechnical university. “The earliest reference of a Ramblin’ Wreck in Tech folklore comes, of course, from the world-famous “Ramblin’ Wreck” fight song,” wrote the editor-in-chief of the Technique in 2002. “The author and date of the Tech fight song date back as far as the 1890s. The tune was certainly in existence by 1908, when it was printed in the first Blueprint yearbook. The title of “Ramblin’ Wreck” was first applied to motorized vehicles in the early years of this century in South America.
Tech engineers employed in projects in the jungle found themselves without a form of automotive transportation. The engineers, taking spare tractor and automotive parts, constructed machines that only survived because of the ingenuity and creative engineering of the men who made them. Because these vehicles were as remarkable as they were haphazard and eccentric, the other workers began to refer to them as the Ramblin’ Wrecks of Georgia Tech.”
Keep in mind team nicknames in those days were not the highly commercialized, mass-produced brands they are today with trademarked logos and colors printed on jerseys, hats, jackets, t-shirts, hoodies, backpacks, coffee mugs, pet bowls and anything else someone might want to fork over money to purchase.
The Georgia Tech eleven (as football teams were often referred to in those days) had gone through numerous nicknames prior to the game against Cumberland. In the first season in 1892, they were the “Middlers”. The next season, 1893, the team would go through a number of nicknames: “The Techs”, “The Technologicals” and “The Engineers”. In 1902 they were “The Blacksmiths”. In 1905, one year after John Heisman took over as head coach, Tech adopted the name “Yellow Jackets”, the official team nickname today. In 1916, the Tech football team acquired an additional nickname, “The Golden Tornado”, used to describe Tech teams from the era as early as 1915 to 1929.
In many ways, Georgia Tech and John Heisman were a perfect match. He approached the game like an engineer would. He distilled football down into a science. Heisman developed his own brand of football. Heisman football. He invented his own system of play with his shift offense. Heisman incorporated scouting, recruiting and game plans. He broke his philosophy down into a set of principles he outlined in a definitive guide to the game.
As a result, his teams ran like fine-tuned German sports cars. Each season he made new refinements. Perfected his design. Each new team striving to become better than the last. And every individual at the university was a part of the football machine in the mind of Heisman, from the head coach right down to the student supporting the team from the top row of the stands.
According to L. W. “Chip” Robert, a captain of the Georgia Tech football team and later an assistant coach, there were a couple other perks Heisman requested upon taking the job at Tech. The first was a weekly column in a local publication. The Atlanta Constitution satisfactorily, and quite happily, accommodated this request. The second was the building of a fence around the playing field and seating to facilitate the charging of admission.
In 1904, the location of the football field was little more than a rough ravine known as the “hollow”. Games were played in a nearby baseball field. The decision was made to construct an athletic field. Mostly Tech students did the work and a grandstand was built to seat about 500 spectators. Chip Robert was one of the Tech students who worked on the initial fence and grandstand.
The first game played on the new field was in the fall of 1905. Early games would attract up to 2,000 attendees. As the game became more popular and attendance grew, the field was upgraded to the historic Grant Field in 1913. With seating that could hold 5,600 ticket buyers, Heisman declared this new structure "the best athletic field in the entire south.”
The famed coach chose Tech over the other schools for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the big stage and cosmopolitan environment Atlanta offered. Heisman’s interests weren’t limited to the gridiron. He spent his off seasons performing Shakespeare in summer stock theaters, which Atlanta offered in great supply.
As the founder of Auburn’s first theatrical group, Heisman once even staged, and starred in, a production of David Garrick to save Auburn football from debt. Heisman took acting quite seriously. According to the War Eagle Reader, an online publication dedicated to everything Auburn, when Heisman left Auburn, an act he did with more than a little flair for the dramatic, he intended to return to pursuing acting full time before he was enticed back into coaching by Clemson, and a convincing amount of money. This flair for the dramatic was in full display in his letter to his players upon leaving:
December 11, 1899
Dear Auburn Boys,
At last we are to part. Is it not hard to believe? There are tears in my eyes, and tears in my voice; tears even in the trembling of my hand as I write you. You will not feel hard toward me; you will forgive me, you will not forget me? Let me ask to retain your friendship. Heaven knows I never felt more in need of it than I do at this moment.
Can a man be associated for five successive seasons with Grand Old Auburn, toiling for her, befriended by her, striving with her, and yet not love her? No. Where on Earth’s surface have I found better friends, manlier sportsmen, truer gentlemen than among the sons of the deservedly popular A.P.I.
The many fresh evidences I have lately received of your unwavering respect and esteem for me have touched me to my heart’s center. It is true that “prosperity brings friends and adversity tries them”. Our friendship has more than once been thoroughly tried and never yet found wanting. You believe in me - you trust me. Let me ask for a continuance of that faith. It shall be my life’s endeavor to prove myself worthy of it. I hope this is not the end. I hope we shall meet again. The recollection of these years of mutual endeavor, of mutual joy over all that was good for Auburn, of intermingled sorrow over all that was bad for Auburn, shall never fade. To you, to your faculty, to your friends, who have all been so kind, so just, so unfailingly true to me that I doubt I deserve it, I say “Farewell and yet I say “Aufs Wideuschen”.
May God bless you, everyone!
In Atlanta, Heisman would not have to trade football for acting. He could do both. Atlanta boasted a thriving theater community and plenty of opportunities to exercise his thespian chops. There was another factor to consider. Actually, there were two factors. Heisman had met and fallen in love with an attractive young actress named Evelyn McCollum Cox while coaching at Clemson, and the two married in the fall of 1903. Evelyn was a widow with a 12-year-old son by the name of Carlisle.
The three would share a Ponce de Leon Avenue home near the campus. The young stepson, admittedly spoiled and “deeply attached to his mother”, had initially disapproved of his mother’s marriage to Heisman. The Georgia Tech coach would eventually win over his new stepson with his unbending ethos and integrity. The young boy, in spite of his diminutive size and lack of athleticism, would later play under Heisman on the scrub team.
Although Heisman was unconventional in his approach to football as well as his interests, Cox denied any attempts to characterize the coach as any sort of odd duck. “The coach was not eccentric,” insisted Cox, “he might have been on the theatrical side, but this was for effect. He was, of course, a professional actor.” He did admit Heisman was, like most men, prone to ego. “Yes, he liked applause, as who does not? But he didn’t seek it,” recalled Cox who retired from the Army as a Colonel. “Or, if he did, he didn’t do so in an obnoxiously obvious manner.” Mostly, Cox remembered a stepfather who was committed to winning and would devote countless hours to devising new ways to raise the status of the Georgia Tech football team, often inviting critique from anyone who was around.
“In our study - this was in a home the coach had bought on Ponce de Leon - he would pace the floor and talk out his problems aloud,” recalled Cox. “In this room, and God knows why it was permitted to remain, there was a chandelier which hung just low enough to hit his bald spot. For one entire season his head never got well. He would walk under that chandelier, it would clip him, he would cuss a little, move off to one side and four minutes later he would walk under it and bust his head again.”
The final addition to the Ponce de Leon Avenue household was a small white poodle name “Woo” who Heisman doted on and indulged with ice cream on a nightly basis. In the 1906 Georgia Tech team photo, Coach Heisman can be seen holding the dog who often accompanied him to team practices. With or without a white poodle tucked beneath his arm, Heisman was an individual who could command respect on a sideline.
He was the prototypical football coach, right out of central casting. Broad shoulders. Stern face. Steely gaze. Heisman embodied all the characteristics that make up our worn out, modern day stereotype. Brilliant strategist? Check. Intimidating personality? Check. Unflinching principles? Check. And buried beneath his rough exterior was a genuine weakness for his players. If Paul Harvey ever wrote ‘So God Made a Football Coach’, this is the person he would be describing. With his high turtleneck sweaters and little red megaphone, the head coach relayed instructions to his players in a strident, no nonsense manner, but with a flair for the satirical and the dramatic from his years on the stage.
Inspired perhaps by Hamlet, Heisman, in overly dramatic fashion, would present a football to his team on the first day of practice and pose them with the question of what it is. Provided the players were all intelligent enough not to answer the strictly rhetorical question, Heisman would continue undeterred, stating “This is a prolated spheroid, an elongated sphere in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing.” He would then lock eyes with one of the anxious new players to add, in a voice deserving of a Shakespearean soliloquy, “Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.”
Like all the coaching stops before, Heisman made an instant impact on the quality of football play at Georgia Tech. “His first Tech team was an immediate success,” wrote Jack Wilkinson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Just 2-5 in 1903, Tech went 8-1-1 under Heisman. And the Heisman legend at Tech began.” In his first season as coach, the Yellow Jackets narrowly lost out to the undefeated Vanderbilt Commodores for the southern championship. But there were struggles in the years that followed, at least in John Heisman terms. His team fell short of overtaking the other teams in the south. Clemson and Auburn, two programs Heisman was responsible for putting on the football map, continued to produce quality teams, but the team who dominated the south, winning or sharing seven of the ten southern championships during Heisman’s first decade at Georgia Tech, was Vanderbilt.
“On October 1, 1904, Mississippi State played a football game in Nashville and was thrashed by the Commodores, 61– 0,” wrote Bill Traughber in Vanderbilt Football: Tales of Commodore Gridiron History. “That was also the day a new coach, Dan McGugin, appeared on the Commodore sidelines and would become a coaching legend not only at Vanderbilt but also in the South.” Like Heisman, McGugin started his coaching tenure at his current school in 1904. Unlike Heisman, McGugin led his team to a conference title - a lot of them, in fact. Soon Heisman found himself overshadowed by not only McGugin, but also Mike Donahue at Auburn who had also started his tenure in 1904 and already had a few conference titles under his belt. For the Georgia Tech football team, the 1910 season, despite a respectable 6-3 record, included consecutive losses to Auburn, Vanderbilt and hated rival Georgia. Ouch, ouch and another ouch. While Tech was being respectable, southern sportswriter Grantland Rice, a Vanderbilt graduate, was writing odes to his alma mater for accomplishing to hold one of the mighty football titans from the East to a 0-0 tie:
These are the gladdest of possible words,
“Yale Was Unable to Score”,
Sweeter than song from the clear singing birds,
“Yale Was Unable to Score”,
Words that are sweeter than nectar and honey,
Sweeter by far than the jungle of money,
Words that are roseate, golden and sunny,
“Yale Was Unable to Score”,
Find in the classics another such phrase,
“Commodores Draw with the Blue”,
Phrase that is all to the ripple and razzle,
Canonized cluster of words on the dazzle,
Words that have Emerson smashed to a frazzle,
“Commodores Draw with the Blue”.
With football becoming more and more popular, also came the pressure to perform. And win. Every school wanted a winner. Every school wanted a championship banner to boast about. Winning was validation of who you were. Everyone had a stake at the team winning. Although Heisman delivered instant notoriety and respectability to the Georgia Tech football program, the one thing he failed to deliver was an uncontested championship. He saw a championship as his gift back to the students, administrators and the fans. Their gift to him was the opportunity to run the football program at their university. His gift back was a title.
That was the goal to be achieved. That was the mountain still needing to be climbed. You don’t compete for any other reason than that. You play to win. And the big prize was to win it all. Not just a Southern title, but also a national title - something no Southern team managed to achieve since the birth of football more than four decades earlier.
The 1911 season, for Georgia Tech, again included losses to Auburn and Georgia. The 1912 season brought a third-straight loss to Auburn and Georgia (as well as a loss to Sewanee). This was the sixth-straight loss to Auburn, who Tech hadn’t managed to beat since 1906. Every year it was the same old story with Tech. Solid season records, but they can’t beat their most hated rivals. Worse yet, while Tech was struggling with Auburn and Georgia, Vanderbilt, under Dan McGugin, was busy winning Southern championships. One problem was, it required brains to go to Georgia Tech, not brawn. Heisman found his players consistently facing opponents who outweighed them by a significant margin.
He was used to relying on football players who were small and smart, but to win in this conference, he would need size as well. Wilkinson recalled how Heisman utilized his acting prowess to recruit players for the team, "Gentlemen, we are destitute of people,” Heisman once pleaded to students at chapel service. “If you weigh 150 pounds or more, please come out for football."
Things were not perfect off the field either. “In his forties by now, there were growing signs he was not getting along with his wife as well as he did when they had first arrived in Atlanta,” wrote Wiley L. Umphlett in his 1992 book Creating the Big Game. “This situation was probably due to his increased involvement in numerous public relations roles as well as his time-consuming athletic endeavors.” Heisman’s efforts to legalize the forward pass and build permanent stands at Tech's football field (which would officially be known as Grant Field from that point forward) had left little time for home life and other interests. There were also his writing commitments.
The university, meanwhile, was moving forward like a precision-designed collegiate machine. Enrollment was on the rise. The department of agriculture and School of Commerce were added. With a $20,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Library was constructed. President Roosevelt even visited the university, where he spoke to a group of about 500 students. But no matter what was going on, thoughts on campus would rarely drift too far from what was happening on the football field. In 1914, Tech found a way to beat Georgia, but still lose to Auburn, as well as Alabama. The loss to Auburn, the team’s seventh straight, must’ve hurt an awful lot because Heisman and his Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets would not lose again for quite some time after that. A very long while as it turns out.
The fortunes for Heisman’s Georgia Tech football team began to change in 1915. Heisman’s extra efforts to entice able-bodied students to play football were rewarded with an improvement of the overall talent of his teams and the attraction of some truly exceptional players. Everything was coming together for him. In his 12th year as head coach at Tech, he assembled a team of players worthy of a Southern championship. New permanent grandstands were built the season before that could support the growing crowds who wanted to attend the games. The Georgia Tech team responded with an undefeated 7–0–1 record in which they outscored opponents 233 to 24. The only tie came from a 0–0 stalemate with rival Georgia. The Yellow Jackets opened the season with a 52–0 cakewalk against Mercer and went on to big wins against notable southern schools LSU, North Carolina and Alabama.
The quarterback of the team was Froggie Morrison, who was also team captain. Tommy Spence lined up at fullback and Kendall J. “Wooch” Fielder lined up at halfback. Wooch Fielder later became an influential Brigadier General during World War II, serving afterward as a technical advisor to the 1953 film From Here to Eternity and portrayed in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! The varsity team also featured standout linemen Pup Phillips, Bob Lang and Bill “Big Six” Carpenter. There was a small, first year player grabbing the attention of coaches by the name of Everett Strupper.
Despite being two pounds under the requested weight, Strupper was one of the students to answer Heisman’s call for anyone weighing “150 pounds or more” to try out for the team. The undersized, but elusive halfback was also partly deaf and fumbled a punt for an opposing team touchdown his very first time touching the ball against Davidson. The following week he responded with four touchdowns. He would go on to become a two-time All-American and arguably the best runner to ever play for Heisman.
With a late-game touchdown by Strupper against rival Auburn, who had defeated Tech the previous eight seasons, the Yellow Jackets completed the greatest season of the school’s history and the best of Heisman’s career. They easily qualified as the top team in the South, having played a challenging schedule and having not suffered a single loss. Except there would be those who would deny him and his Yellow Jackets their rightful championship.
They were not members of a team, nor did they put on a uniform or wear a whistle around their neck. This particular group of men did their work with a pen and typewriter instead of a ball and helmet. With names like Morgan Blake, Fuzzy Woodruff and Grantland Rice, their job was not to score touchdowns. Their job was to write about them. And while history would regard this group of sportswriters fondly, on this occasion, Coach Heisman didn’t regard them fondly at all.