Cumberland - Chapter 6: The Sportswriters

Nobody in the game of football should be declared a genius.
A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein.
- Joe Theismann, former quarterback

     It would be incomplete to tell the story of the football game between Cumberland and Georgia Tech without including a few words about the sportswriters. They also held some culpability in the calamitous turn of events that transpired to bring about the game. If this game were indeed to be viewed as the terrible wreckage from some historic disaster, then taking a closer look at the writers who covered the sport in those days is imperative in piecing together what happened.

     Central to the whole complicated matter was a discrepancy Coach John Heisman had with the sportswriters over the method they used to select a champion each year in college football. Up until this point, the sportswriters had selected a champion based solely on total points scored. This didn’t sit too well with Heisman for a number of reasons, the main being the inherent flaw in the formula that could easily be exploited by teams wishing to bolster their positioning in the rankings. Heisman argued that inflated scores, achieved by running up point totals against inferior teams, corrupted the process. He even went so far as to suggest the flawed method had cheated his Georgia Tech team out of a championship the previous season.

     Covering sports in the south were top writers and journalists like the immortal Grantland Rice. Sportswriting was one area where the east had nothing on the south. Grantland Rice was the most respected writer of his day. He was known for his heroic writing style that painted athletes as mythical giants, and became known as the “Dean of American Sports Writers.” His career spanned more than half a century in which he wrote more than 67 million words.

     That included “22,000 columns, 7,000 sets of verse, and 1,000 magazine articles,” according to The Grantland Rice Fellowship Fund. The prolific writer was the namesake of the sports and pop-culture blog “Grantland” owned and operated by ESPN from 2011-2015. In his 1993 book Sportswriter: The Life and Times of Grantland Rice, biographer Charles Fountain called him “The most respected writer of his day. Grantland Rice’s All-American football team - published by Collier’s for more than twenty years - was the All-American football team, successor to Walter Camp’s original.”

     His 1908 poem “Alumnus Football” was the inspiration for the well-trodden sports cliché, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game”

Bill Jones had been the shining star upon his college team.
His tackling was ferocious and his bucking was a dream.
When husky William took the ball beneath his brawny arm,
They had two extra men to ring the ambulance alarm. 

Bill hit the line and ran the ends like some mad bull amuck.
The other team would shiver when they saw him start to buck.
And when some rival tackler tried to block his dashing pace,
On waking up, he'd ask, "Who drove that truck across my face?"

Bill had the speed. Bill had the weight. Bill never bucked in vain;
From goal to goal he whizzed along while fragments strewed the plain.
And there had been a standing bet, which no one tried to call,
That he could make his distance through a ten-foot granite wall.

When he wound up his college course, each student's heart was sore.
They wept to think bull-throated Bill would sock the line no more.
Not so with William - in his dreams he saw the Field of Fame,
Where he would buck to glory in the swirl of Life's big game.

Sweet are the dreams of college life, before our faith is nicked -
The world is but a cherry tree that's waiting to be picked;
The world is but an open road - until we find, one day,
How far away the goal posts are that called us to the play.

So, with the sheepskin tucked beneath his arm in football style,
Bill put on steam and dashed into the thickest of the pile.
With eyes ablaze he sprinted where the laureled highway led -
When Bill woke up his scalp hung loose and knots adorned his head.

He tried to run the ends of life, but with rib-crushing toss
A rent collector tackled him and threw him for a loss.
And when he switched his course again and dashed into the line,
The massive Guard named Failure did a toddle on his spine.

Bill tried to punt out of the rut, but ere he turned the trick,
Right Tackle Competition scuttled through and blocked the kick.
And when he tackled at Success in one long, vicious prod,
The Fullback Disappointment steered his features in sod.

Bill was no quitter, so he tried a buck in higher gear,
But Left Guard Envy broke it up and stood him on his ear.
Whereat he aimed a forward pass, but in two vicious bounds
Big Center Greed slipped through a hole and rammed him out of bounds. 

But one day, when across the Field of Fame the goal seemed dim,
The wise old coach, Experience, came up and spoke to him.
"Oh Boy," he said, "the main point now before you win your bout
Is keep on bucking Failure till you've worn the piker out!"

"And, kid, cut out this fancy stuff - go in there, low and hard;
Just keep your eye upon the ball and plug on, yard by yard.
And more than all, when you are thrown or tumbled with a crack,
Don't sit there whining - hustle up and keep on coming back.”

"Keep coming back with all you've got, without an alibi,
If Competition trips you up or lands upon your eye,
Until at last above the din you hear this sentence spilled:
'We might as well let this bird through before we all get killed.'

"You'll find the road is long and rough, with soft spots far apart,
Where only those can make the grade who have the Uphill Heart.
And when they stop you with a thud or halt you with a crack,
Let Courage call the signals as you keep on coming back.

"Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,
Let every game's end find you still upon the battling line;
For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game."

     In what could be considered a tribute to Grantland Rice as well as a nod to the great John Heisman, American cartoonist Bill Watterson immortalized the saying in his daily comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes”. In the strip, Hobbes asks Calvin where the ball was they were just playing with, to which Calvin innocently replies he doesn’t see it. He suggests the tiger look in one direction while he looks in the other. Once the tiger’s back is turned, Calvin runs off toward the end zone with the football hidden up the back of his shirt. With Hobbes visibly upset over being tricked, Calvin obnoxiously proclaims, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s HOW you play the game!”

     Rice is widely regarded as the greatest sportswriter of his generation and his voice defined the Golden Age of sports. Rice elevated sports heroes to almost mythical status in his writing. His style has been described as inspirational and heroic using words to paint larger-than-life images that linger in the minds of readers long after reading. Never was this clearer than in his most famous lead of all time in which he describes the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame:

     Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.

     The Army-Notre Dame rivalry delivered an enormous amount of folklore to the early years of college football right through the golden years. Their first meeting in 1913 introduced the future of passing to the game, and the 1924 meeting made heroes of a historic backfield thanks to the writing of Rice. But the rivalry did not stop there in providing enduring lore to the sport. In his book The Tumult and the Shouting, Grantland Rice recalled a conversation he’d had with coach Knute Rockne the night before the 1928 Army-Notre Dame matchup: 

     “Grant,” he said, “the boys are tucked in for the night. How about coming down and sitting around with Hunk and me here at the hotel?”

     “Better still,” I replied. “Hop in a cab and come up here. Kit wants to see you. We can warm our sides by an open fire, have a spot of Tennessee ‘mil’ and watch the rest of the world go to hell.”

     That evening, sitting by the fire, Rock said he expected to be up against it - but good, next day.

     “You recall Gipp,” said Rock. “He died - practically in my arms -eight years ago next month. He’s been gone a long time but I may have to use him again tomorrow.”

     “You saw Gipp on one of his better days - against Army in 1920,” continued Rock - not in that staccato voice but in a quiet, hushed tone. “He fell sick later that same season. In our final against Northwestern, at Evanston, he climbed out of bed to make the trip. I used him very little that day. We were away and winging - the final was thirty-three to seven. But in the last quarter the stands chanted Gipp’s name so loud and long that I finally sent him in for a few plays - on that ice-covered field with the wind off Lake Michigan cutting us all to the bone. I got him out of there, quick; but after returning to school with a raging fever, Gipp went back to his sick bed. He never got up. Pneumonia had him back to his own goal line. He lived barely two weeks. Shortly before he went, Father Pat Haggerty baptized him into the church. After the little ceremony, I sat with him on his bed. His face seemed thinner than the Communion wafer he’d just taken - and just as white … but his forehead was strangely cool.”

     “Gipp looked up at me and after a moment, he said, ‘Rock, I know I’m going … but I’d like one last request … Someday, Rock, sometime - when the going isn’t so easy, when the odds are against us, ask a Notre Dame team to win a game for me - for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock, but I’ll know about it and I’ll be happy.’ A moment later Gipp was gone.”

     “Grant, I’ve never asked the boys to pull one out for Gipp. Tomorrow I might have to.”

     The following day that ‘28 Army–Notre Dame game played, as always, to an overflow sellout. At the half it was 0-0. The rest is history.

     A sobbing band of fighting Irish raced out for the 3rd quarter. When Notre Dame lined up for the kickoff, I knew they were playing with a 12th man - George Gipp.

     Grantland Rice was not merely a syrupy writer of soaring tales on the playing field. He was also a journalist. In the book Sportswriter: The Life and Times of Grantland Rice, author Charles Fountain revealed how Rice was dragged into the next potential scandal about to sweep the sport of football - ringers:

     In the fall of 1907, Rice’s contacts in Atlanta fed him the information that the University of Georgia had paid three former varsity athletes from Georgetown and one from Syracuse to play for Georgia in their games against Georgia Tech. According to Rice, each man had been paid $150, plus expenses, for their Saturday afternoon toils for Georgia, and confessed as much on their train ride back north.

     Georgia Tech managed to go on to win the game 10-6, but after it was revealed at least four ringers had participated in the game, head coach W. S. Whitney was forced to resign. This was another example of the “Clean, Old Fashioned Hate” that fuels the rivalry between the two teams. It was also another example of the willingness of teams to bend or break the rules in order to gain a competitive advantage. And this was not a one-time occurrence. Rice’s whistle-blowing would continue the following season when the 10-0 LSU team became the subject of similar accusations regarding the hiring of professional players. Wrote Fountain:

     One year later, Rice reported that the Louisiana State University football team, all-of-a-sudden undefeated that autumn after years as a southern also-ran, was also engaged in the scandal of choice for that era - playing ineligible and non-matriculated players.

     Other sportswriters who reported on southern football in those days, like Morgan Blake and Fuzzy Woodruff, also played their part in defining football’s Golden Age. Blake, like Rice, was a Vanderbilt University graduate who had worked for the Nashville Tennessean. He became sports editor for the Atlanta Journal in 1916, the position he held when he covered the game. In addition to first coining the “Golden Tornado” nickname for John Heisman’s Georgia Tech teams, he reportedly gave archrival Georgia their team nickname that’s still used today.

     On November 3, 1920, when discussing the team 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 who has the name.” Blake can be forgiven for overlooking the Cumberland Bulldogs, who were using the nickname at the time of the game. Lorenzo Ferguson “Fuzzy” Woodruff was a sportswriter from the south known for vivid writing defining the Golden Age of sports.

     In 1928, he authored the book A History of Southern Football, 1890-1928 that explored all the great teams from the south during the era. Unfortunately, Fuzzy died one year later at the age of 45. His tombstone was inscribed “Copy All In”.

     The sports writers of the era were writing, what would become, the history of American football. John Heisman simply wanted them to document that history in an accurate manner. As a guardian over the soul of the sport, which he viewed himself as, certainly more so than some glorified stenographers, he saw it as his duty to rectify this wrong. He clearly made efforts to do so, but understanding Heisman’s penchant for satire and his flair for the dramatic, it’s not hard to imagine how his argument may not have been as persuasive as hoped. Heisman spelled out his stance on the matter in the Tech student yearbook: 

     I have often contended that this habit on the part of sports writers of totaling up, from week’s end to week’s end, the number of points each team had amassed in its various games, and comparing them one with another, was a useless thing, for it means nothing whatever in the way of determining which is the better of an evenly grouped set of college teams. Still the writers persisted and some at each season’s end would still presume to hang an argument on what they claimed it showed. 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.

     Heisman certainly had a legitimate bone to pick. In his twelfth season at Georgia Tech, Heisman led his extraordinary Yellow Jackets to an undefeated 7-0-1 record. The only tie game came in a 0-0 defensive thriller on Grant Field against their much-hated rival Georgia. The 1915 season, the greatest in team history up until that point, featured outstanding play from team captain Froggie Morrison at quarterback and the electrifying new runner Everett Strupper at halfback. The remarkable efforts from Georgia Tech to finish the season unbeaten challenged Vanderbilt’s claim for the Southern championship, due in no small part to the Commodore’s non-conference loss to the University of Virginia by the not-exactly-a-nail-biter score of 35-10.

     Although Vanderbilt did not go undefeated, the one thing they did do well was score points. According to Vanderbilt Athletic Communications, the 1915 Vanderbilt football team, led by coach Dan McGugin, scored 514 points in 510 minutes of play to become the only point-a-minute team in the school’s history. Vanderbilt had a small, but dazzling runner of their own in the form of All-American, Irby “Rabbit” Curry. The 130-pound quarterback accounted for 118 of the 514 points Vanderbilt scored during the season. Curry was a John Heisman sort of player. What he lacked in size and strength, he made up for in being shifty and impossible to bring down.

     After a big win against Sewanee, the Nashville Tennessean wrote about Curry: 

     His insides are chilled steel. His heart pure gold. Curry, the incomparable was even more so in the Tiger game. He is the runningest gent who ever floated across the cross marks. Because float is the way the rabbit appears to move. Here, there, everywhere - he seemed to be to the bewildered Tigers. Right at the tips of their fingers he always was. Reaching out to snag the fleeted-hoofed Commodore - the Tiger tacklers, for the better part of the time, grabbed handfuls of thin air.

     While he was impossible to bring down on the field, Curry was so fortunate after graduating from Vanderbilt. The All-American quarterback volunteered for service during World War I and was shot down over France and killed in a firefight on August 18, 1918. Clearing the path for Curry in the aforementioned game against Sewanee and breaking him loose for an “80-yard gallop” after a blocked punt, was the 6-foot 4-inch, 225-pound, Josh Cody. Cody, who possessed all the size of a modern-day fullback and linebacker, dominated on both sides of the ball for the Commodores. He was a three-time All-American and inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1970. Two standout players, the lightning quick Curry and the freakishly menacing Cody, helped Vanderbilt lead the nation in scoring.

     A central point to Heisman taking exception to Vanderbilt being regarded in having played a superior season to Tech, was the schedules of the two teams. Heisman regarded the Commodore’s schedule as having consisted of mostly pushovers, cupcakes and chumps. For the record, Cumberland was one of those pushovers, having not had much in regards to talent the season prior when they had an actual team and coach. Having lost to Virginia 35-10, the only impressive team Vanderbilt had beaten, in the mind of Heisman, was Auburn. And Tech had defeated them as well. They also played tough games against LSU, North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia, not losing a single game.

1915 FOOTBALL RESULTS – VANDERBILT (9-1-0)

September 25

Mid. Tenn. State

W 51–0

October 2

Southwestern

W 47–0

October 9

Georgetown

W 75–0

October 13

Cumberland

W 60–0

October 16

Henderson State

W 100–0

October 23

Ole Miss

W 91–0

October 30

Tennessee

W 35–0

November 5

Virginia

L 10–35

November 13

Auburn

W 20–3

November 20

Sewanee

W 27–3

 

1915 FOOTBALL RESULTS – GEORGIA TECH (7-0-1)

October 2

Mercer

W 52–0

October 9

Davidson

W 27–7

October 16

Transylvania

W 57–0

October 23

L.S.U.

W 36–7

October 30

U. of N. C.

W 23–3

November 6

Alabama

W 21–7

November 13

Georgia

T 0–0

November 25

Auburn

W 7–0

 

     Seven out of eight newspapers voted the SIAA championship to the Commodores. Only the Atlanta Constitution declared it a tie between Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. The Vanderbilt team opened the 1915 season with seven straight shutouts against teams like Middle Tennessee State, Southwestern and Henderson State, six of which were played on their home field. The opening stretch even included a home game against Cumberland in which the Commodores blanked the Bulldogs by the score of 60-0 with four of Vanderbilt’s players out due to injury.

     After the first seven games of the season, Vanderbilt outscored their opponents an unheard of 459-0. “At the end of the 1915 season, the sportswriters once again denied Heisman’s outstanding football team a National Championship,” wrote Jim Paul in the 1983 book “You Dropped It, You Pick It Up!” While seven out of eight newspapers elected to recognize Vanderbilt as champion of the South, Georgia Tech saw things differently at the annual football banquet: 

     When the three hundred athletes, admirers, supporters, and friends of Georgia Tech entered the dining hall, the most spectacular pennant ever seen stared them in the face, forty-five feet long from tip to tip, covering one entire wall of the room. Needless to say, everyone went wild, and it took Mr. Forrest Adair, the Toastmaster of the occasion, fully fifteen minutes to quiet the uproar. The massive banner is even larger than that given the baseball champions of the world. It is made of old goal flag material, bearing the words, "Georgia Tech Football Champions 1915."

     The “Old Gold and White of Tech was the color scheme of the evening,” reported Dick Jemison in the Atlanta Constitution. The ice cream at the event featured a big white “T” in the middle. There were twenty-two lettermen for Tech and toasts were made. The Tech band loudly serenaded the banqueters with “The Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech”.

     According to Jemison, the pennant was a gift of one of the most fanatical of the Tech football supporters and, when he found out the pennant awarded to the winner of the world’s baseball championship was 17-by-35 feet, he ordered one 17-by-45 feet. “This pennant,” said the generous booster, “I present to the best football team in the south.” At Tech, there was no mistaking who they believed was the rightful winner of the Southern title. With an unflinching declaration in the following yearbook that “Tech Wins Southern Football Championship,” the school made the case of which team was the more deserving champion:

     The only other team entitled to put forward any claim to the championship was the strong Vanderbilt eleven, which won all its games save that with Virginia, in which latter contest the Commodores went down to a heavy defeat. Outside of Virginia, however, Vanderbilt met but one team of real strength - Auburn, while an inspection of the games below is sufficient comment of the weight of Tech's schedule and the caliber of the opposition they overcame. If running up big scores on weak teams is the test of a championship team, then Vanderbilt deserves the plum; but Tech at no time tried to run up points. 

     Despite his public condemnation of what Heisman viewed as faulty methodology, the sportswriters had little interest in taking his advice. Heading into the 1916 season, they continued the current approach of selecting a champion based on total points scored. After all, what else were they supposed to base it on, prettiest uniforms? This controversy over selecting a college football champion would not end here. Not by any stretch. The heated debate waged on for the next one hundred years. Even President Barack Obama, sounding himself a bit like Coach Heisman, chimed in on the subject in an interview on 60 Minutes in 2008:

     I think any sensible person would say that if you've got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season, and many of them have one loss or two losses, there's no clear decisive winner, that we should be creating a playoff system. Eight teams. That would be three rounds, to determine a national champion. It would add three extra weeks to the season. You could trim back on the regular season. I don't know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So, I'm gonna throw my weight around a little bit. I think it's the right thing to do.

     ESPN reported on June 27, 2012 that a “four-team playoff for college football” was formally approved by a committee of college presidents that would begin in 2014, exactly ninety-nine seasons after the 1915 coronation of Vanderbilt’s point-a-minute team raised the ire of Heisman and launched his crusade against the championship selection process. Heisman believed simply having more points does not prove the strength or talent of a team and it was his intention to show sportswriters the errors of their ways. After all, if he didn’t do something, a hundred years from then they were liable to still be using the same damned fool system to select a national champion, or at least for the next ninety-eight.

     The 1915 Southern championship that seven out of eight newspapers awarded to Vanderbilt, gave the Commodores eight titles the team either shared or won outright in the twelve seasons Dan McGugin had coached there, including 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1910, 1911, 1912 and now 1915:

1904

Vanderbilt (5-0)

Auburn (5-0)

Texas (2-0)

 

1905

Vanderbilt (6-0)

LSU (2-0)

 

 

1906

Vanderbilt (4-0)

Clemson (4-0-1)

Texas A&M (2-0)

 

1907

Vanderbilt (3-0)

Texas A&M (2-0)

 

 

1908

LSU (3-0)

Auburn (5-1)

 

 

1909

Sewanee (4-0)

 

 

 

1910

Vanderbilt (5-0)

Auburn (6-0)

 

 

1911

Vanderbilt (5-0)

Auburn (4-0-1)

 

 

1912

Vanderbilt (4-0-1)

Texas A&M (2-0)

Auburn (4-0-1)

Kentucky (2-0)

1913

Auburn (8-0)

 

 

 

1914

Tennessee (5-0)

 

 

 

1915

Vanderbilt (4-0)

 

 

 

 

     Not helping things much was the December announcement that Vanderbilt would not be on the Georgia Tech football schedule the following fall. “Should the same conditions claimed for the title by Vanderbilt and Tech prevail at the conclusion of the 1916 football season,” wrote the Atlanta Constitution, “it will be due to the schedule again.” Without a head-to-head matchup between the two teams, the decision could once again come down to which team puts up the most big-point totals that impress the sportswriters.

     Heisman would have certainly agreed with Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Theismann that “Nobody in the game of football should be declared a genius.” Heisman would have extended that sentiment to the sportswriters if it weren’t already implied. To be fair to Theismann, his claim that “A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein” was, according to him, actually about a high school classmate named Norman Einstein who was valedictorian. Oddly enough, a Notre Dame publicity man convinced him to change the pronunciation of his last name from THEES-man to THIGHS-man to rhyme it with “Heisman” since he was at the time a contender for the coveted Heisman Trophy. He wound up losing the Heisman Trophy, famously coming in second. His professional career was ended by the horrific leg breaking by Lawrence Taylor on Monday Night Football.

     Heisman did not want to break the legs of the sportswriters, but he did want to clearly illustrate the shortsighted nature of their methodology for selecting a football champion. In the sportswriters, Heisman had found a new foil. This opponent did not suit up on the gridiron. This one used a pen and typewriter. He would use the pen as well, writing columns in the newspaper and for the university to get his point across. Like legalizing the forward pass, this was for the good of the game. In no way was it going to be an easy fight. Sportswriters are set in their ways when they’re right and even more so when they’re wrong. He needed something to get their attention and shake up how they saw things. The integrity of a sport is corrupted when the method for achieving the ultimate goal is fundamentally flawed.

     Sportswriters like Rice, Blake and Woodruff, and newspapers like the Atlanta Journal, and Nashville Tennessean were sullying the virtue of the game. Heisman would have to disrupt the usual programming with something completely unexpected. He had the perfect remedy in mind. Unfortunately, there would need to be a patsy. Someone would have to take the fall. And he could not think of anyone more deserving. There was one little problem. Word had arrived that Cumberland elected to cancel their football season. He couldn’t allow that to happen. He was setting a trap, a clever rouse. His years performing the works of Shakespeare would be his inspiration. He needed a stage and he needed his players. Once he put all the pieces in motion, the natural-instinct of man would do the rest. The illicit lure came in the form of a “guarantee”. Not that it mattered. He knew a rouse by any other name would still smell as sweet.


Written by Scott Larson
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