Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.
It must have come as quite a surprise to John Heisman, heading into the 1916 season, to find out that Cumberland University had cancelled their football program. After all, in Cumberland, Heisman had the perfect foil to illustrate his point to the regional sportswriters over their thickheaded method of selecting a champion - since words hadn’t achieved their desired effect. The 11-11 tie with the Cumberland Bulldogs in the SIAA conference championship cost his 1903 Clemson team an uncontested ownership of the southern title. Cumberland was also one of the “pushover” teams Vanderbilt had run up scores on to wrestle the southern title away from Heisman’s Yellow Jackets the year before.
There was another reason Heisman wanted Cumberland to be the team he would articulate his point against, a very personal one. And he intended to do so in the arena he could make it best, on the playing field. The mere absence of a football program at Cumberland was not be enough to discourage Heisman. He would have his game. And he would make his point to the sportswriters. Likely, it didn’t take Heisman long to figure out how he would trap Cumberland University into being his unwitting accomplice. Unlike Georgia Tech, whose focus as a college was on engineering, Cumberland was a law school. And if the saying holds true that you can attract more flies with honey, what would one suspect you could attract a bunch of lawyers with?
An offer of $500, plus expenses was made to Cumberland in exchange for them honoring their original contract to travel down to Atlanta and participate in a game against Georgia Tech the second week of the 1916 season. The offer included an all-expense paid trip in a luxurious Pullman train car. This, along with a night in Atlanta, would be an attractive offer to a group of boys from the saloon-deprived town of Lebanon. Heisman was counting on it. And if those Cumberland boys were treated to a wild, drunken night out prior to the game - just as his Clemson scrubs had been treated to a wild, drunken night out fourteen years earlier - so be it.
Meanwhile, back in Lebanon, all of George Allen’s appeals to school officials in regards to their decision to cancel football had fallen on deaf ears. Acting president Homer Hill was proving to be the picture of fiscal responsibility, bringing a biology professor’s proclivity for mundane detail to his newly appointed cost-cutting administrative duties. Allen, nevertheless, would not be deterred. “My youthful spirits were so outraged by this decision,” Allen admitted, “that I determined, if possible, to overrule it.”
What sort of school, after all, was he attending if not a law school? In the mind of Allen, justice was being obliterated by the very institution that professed to teach its merits. And what quality of lawyer would he be, after all, to allow an injustice, such as this one, to go unchallenged? He had to look no further than his school yearbook for inspiration. This “inborn cry” for justice stared up at Allen from the esteemed pages of The Phoenix as he, and his fellow members of the Junior Law Class, set off on their long, academic journey:
The cry of man from the dark ages, down through the passing generations, has been a continuous clamor for life, liberty, and justice. Still rings through the land of every nation that inborn cry, "JUSTICE". Heeding to the voice of man and endeavoring to gratify the civil desires of the coming generations, we have humbly and willingly given our lives to the uplifting of justice in the civil and criminal spheres of our national life.
We gathered together as Juniors of Cumberland Law in the spring of nineteen hundred sixteen; forty-four in number, and representing, in all, thirteen states, from two national governments. Having the honor of being the largest Junior law class of any spring term in the history of our school, and with a national spirit, free from selfish desires and personal motives; disbanded the personal ties of friendship, and initiatively filled every office with one of our most competent and able class members, and began our work in earnestness and sincerity.
Realizing the possibilities of youth and the vast empires of opportunity that lie open before us, we have willingly submitted the molding of our intellects and characters to our honored professors. Dr. A. B. Martin, Judge N. Green, and Judge E. E. Beard, whose lives of consistent principles, public spirit, and private virtue have justly received our admiration and esteem.
We believe that those who aspire to attain the heights of the civil profession must struggle with their subjects, and rise from the low, dusty horizon of suspicion to the star-lit heights of genius, kneeling at the feet of the Ruler of the Universe and studying Nature's laws from divine demonstrators.
With our diligence and sincerity of purpose we are looking forward for January nineteen-hundred-seventeen, when we will complete our course of study, and then, with others, some of whom have attained distinction and nobility, will dwell forever in the peaceful realms of the Alumni of Cumberland Law.
Allen considered the cancellation of football at Cumberland a great travesty. And he would be the one to undo this travesty. He had found his cause, at least a temporary one. The perfect opportunity to exercise, and vocalize, the convictions of his beliefs and right a terrible wrong, like any good lawyer would.
The budgetary cuts Acting-President Hill had been tasked with were inconsequential to Allen. So were the desperate efforts by the Board of Trustees to elicit additional endowments for the school. Like any university student, Allen knew better. He did not want to hear about how the school could not afford a football team. The more important question, in his humble opinion, was how a school like Cumberland could afford not to have a football team?
One hundred years in the future, a popularized phrase in politics is, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. He would not let this crisis go to waste. Not a chance. This was an opportunity for someone who was clever enough to turn lemons into lemonade. And he would be that maker of lemonade. While his lowly grades and unenviable class ranking would not distinguish him from the legions of law graduates heading out into the world, being the one who saved football at Cumberland most certainly would.
The opportunity presented itself in the form of the $500 (plus expenses) offer from Georgia Tech to play the previously scheduled contest on October 7th. In his book Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy, a Cumberland student by the name of J.D. Gauldin recalled “a courier delivering a telegram from Heisman to the fraternity house. The telegram was actually addressed to the school’s athletic director, a position that didn’t exist at the school.”
The telegram reportedly contained the following message:
I hereby offer you the sum of $500.00 and an all-expense paid trip to Atlanta for your football team on the condition that you honor your contract (previously sent) by participating in and completing the Cumberland-Georgia Tech football game scheduled for Oct. 7th. However, if this offer is refused and your team doesn’t appear on the designated date, I shall be forced to demand that your school reimburse the Tech Athletic Dept. in the amount of $3,000.00 for losses from the projected net-gate receipts.
Hoping this offer of $500.00 will be satisfactory to all concerned, I remain,
John W. Heisman,
Head Football Coach
University historian G. Frank Burns, in his official account of the game, explained how it all happened. George Allen had already filled in briefly as student manager of the baseball team the previous spring, when he was asked to take over as student manager of the football team as well. The school needed a replacement for former standout athlete John Burns (who happened to be the uncle of G. Frank Burns) who had taken a job and decided not to return to school. Apparently, the bigwigs and muckety-mucks at the school were impressed enough with the potential Allen showed with the baseball team, they decided to give him a shot at football.
In the meantime, Samuel Coile abruptly stepped down from his position as President of Cumberland University and, to make matters worse, his planned replacement unexpectedly fell through. This double administrative whammy forced the school to turn to biology professor Dr. Homer Hill to serve as acting president. Hill stepped into the position tasked with reducing expenditures at the school and holding an unmistakable bias against sports, in particular, football.
That’s when the axe came down on the football program and Allen’s dreams of being quoted in newspapers and having strangers on the street shouting “Way to go, Fullback!” were forever shattered. To worsen things even more, he was given the undesirable responsibility of writing to the schools with contracts to cancel. He was to explain the financial predicament they were in. Most of the schools they were lined up to play canceled the scheduled games without incident. The schedule was mainly comprised of small-time programs like Cumberland. In regards to canceling the game with Tech, Heisman responded with an alternative solution. Dr. Hill, and the rest of the administration at Cumberland, had made its position perfectly clear in regards to fielding a football team in 1916. Now Allen had five hundred reasons to ignore it.
Five hundred dollars, it should be noted, was no small amount of money in those days. Sugar cost about $.04 a pound. Coffee was about $.15 a pound. The average automobile cost $400. Football had already become big business. Georgia Tech’s matchup with Alabama the previous season reportedly attracted over 5,000 spectators. Schools could rake in a handsome amount of gate revenue if their teams were winning games and putting fans in the seats. Tech had a big new stadium to fill. Best in the south many would say, including Heisman. Paying a visiting team to make the trip was good business.
For more personal reasons this game was worth every penny to Heisman. The $500 guarantee was a small price to pay for glorious vindication and, just as importantly, harsh retribution. If accepting the contractual invitation from Georgia Tech seemed like something that should give Allen pause, he did not admit as much. He saw the opportunity to reinstate football at Cumberland and, in doing so, resist the movement to ban the sport. If he were to at the same time profit in the form of $500 plus team expenses, well, that would just be icing on the cake.
Even with the direct promise of ill-gotten rewards, the biggest draw for Allen was undoubtedly the adventure itself. George W. Allen would go on to do many things in life. He would be a lawyer, albeit briefly. He’d be a hotel entrepreneur. He’d be a millionaire. He’d be a broke former millionaire. He’d be a millionaire again. He’d stumble into politics. And fall right to the top. But more than anything else in life, Allen was a teller of stories. Some may prefer the term “bullshit artist,” but they would just be interjecting their own cynicism. Allen told stories people liked to hear. And the game he was signing a contract to play with Georgia Tech certainly had all the makings of one of those stories.
When they were lying on their deathbeds, were they going to look back and remember that Civil Procedure exam they crammed for? Or reminisce about that Administrative Law lecture they sat through? Hell, no. He could tell them what they would remember. They’d remember the time they and their teammates went down to Atlanta and played sixty minutes of football against those Georgia Tech Engineers. They’d remember those cheers cascading down from the stands. That’s what they were going to remember. Hell, they’d tell their grandkids about it. More likely than not, Allen had most of his amusing anecdote already worked out in his head. Going down to Atlanta to play the game would be more-or-less a formality.
When Allen put his name to the agreement, he set in motion events that would inevitably lead up to what could be called the first genuine sports disaster. This was the perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances that created a nightmare scenario for Cumberland. In the south they say, you can put a cat in an oven, but that doesn’t make it a biscuit. Well, George Allen was being placed in charge of a football team to play a game against the mighty Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and everyone watching was going to discover whether he was a biscuit or not. He’d have to be. Allen was going up against John Heisman, whose reputation as football tactician and inspirer of men had grown to mythical status. And the team Heisman had assembled was, according to Heisman himself, the greatest one he’d ever coached. The previous season, they’d been arguably the best team in the South. This season they were expected to be even better.
George Allen and John Heisman were, each in their own ways, men on a mission. Heisman was playing the role of Mephistopheles, offering a deal with the devil to poor innocent Cumberland. His were diabolical intentions and the offer was not a sincere one. This was not an ordinary game. There were politics behind his motivations. There were secrets. Lies. There were personal grudges. There was a man intent on protecting the soul of an honorable sport, but willing to resort to underhanded means to do so. By sending the offer to Cumberland, Heisman violated his personal code of honor and fair play.
This went beyond trick plays and pushing the boundaries of the rules on the playing field. This was fueled by a personal vendetta. The violation had been a personal affront to Heisman and the integrity of a sport he found sacred. They had somehow sullied the purity of the game. He found that behavior unacceptable and deserving of whatever fallout it may incur. The Shakespeare quote, “If you prick us, do we not bleed … and if you wrong us, do we not revenge?” is apropos. The offer to play the game was a Trojan horse. It was a trick. A trap. It was the noose lying in the leaves waiting for its intended target to step into it. Cumberland was the one who would wind up hanging upside down from a rope.
Although George Allen was the unwitting recipient of Heisman’s illicit offer, he was not innocent in the matter. Allen was willing to go behind the back of the administration and arrange a football game without their knowledge. He was violating the rules of the university and the trust of the administrators. The talkative Allen was a member of the university athletic board. He managed the basketball team and filled in for John Burns, when the former coach abruptly left, coaching the baseball team.
Allen made a good impression on school officials when he filled in for a few games, even delivering some impressive wins that helped re-energize athletics at Cumberland and increase the attendance at school sporting events. For that reason, they had entrusted him with the helm of the coveted football team, a position he would also be taking over for Burns in performing.
John Burns had arguably been the top athlete to put on the maroon and white for the last decade or even longer. He played multiple sports at Cumberland and excelled at all of them. Once he became ineligible as an athlete, he contributed in the capacity of manager and coach, where he also excelled.
Allen admired what Burns brought to the table in regards to talent and knowledge of the sport, but Allen offered something Burns did not: Him. He was the wild card. Allen offered the talent of making something happen because he willed it so. Burns, although a fine athlete and sensible lad, would never ignore the explicit instructions of the school president to play an unsanctioned football game against Georgia Tech. This was all Allen.
Most could not get passed the complete lack of any rational pathway of pulling it off. Not him. You jump and a net will appear. That was the difference between him and everyone else. He did not need to see the net. He just jumped. George Allen was not the sit-around-and-wait-for-permission type. History was written by the bold. He was the lone champion standing up for the future of football at Cumberland. He was the one voice crying out for justice. As the last line of defense between the total loss of sports at his beloved university, he would take his stand in the form of a football game. And, by gawd, there would be a football game.
The news that Cumberland had accepted his Faustian offer must have been music to Heisman’s ears. The stage was set for a spectacle of sports drama almost Shakespearean in its stagecraft. And behind it all was a deep dark secret waiting to come out. A festering grudge sparked by humiliation and driven by ego and righteousness. And the poor clueless saps from Cumberland, just looking for a free trip and some extra pocket money, had absolutely no idea what lay in store for them. By agreeing to play, they would be getting a train ticket to hell. And George Allen would be the one leading them there.