Hopefully you saw a recent post about Bill Chastain’s book about Georgia Tech legend Clint Castleberry. I come to you with another plug for another book about a Tech legend, John Heisman, this one co-written by a friend and former AJC colleague, Mark Schlabach. I confess I read only the parts about Tech, but it provided a lot of information about Heisman that I had no idea about.
Mark wrote it with Heisman’s great nephew John M. Heisman, who had access to the coach’s papers and also interviewed people who had known his great uncle. Mark followed it up with an obviously large amount of research. If you have interest in learning more about the man for whom the most famous American sports award is named, I’d recommend it.
For example, and this is random and probably not terribly flattering, but I learned that the reason he left Tech was because of his divorce. Also, random and again not flattering, but Heisman recruited star Joe Guyon, later to become a pro football hall of famer, to Tech by offering his brother a job on the staff. (I promise the book is not a recitation of unflattering facts about Heisman. I don’t have the book in front of me and those are two I remember off the top of my head. Quite the contrary, the portrait Mark draws is of a principled coach who was ahead of his time.)
You can buy it on Amazon here. Mark, who now is a national college football columnist for ESPN and lives in Madison with his wife Heather and three children, was gracious to answer a few questions for me, included below.
Mark and his co-author, by the way, will sign copies of “Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy” at Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur at 7 p.m. on Thursday. The book store is located on 2076 North Decatur Road and the phone number is 404-486-0307. If you go, I also recommend crossing Clairmont Avenue to the Mediterranean Grill for dinner.
I also suggest asking Mark about the time his dog got onto the field at Sanford Stadium during a game he was covering.
1. How did this opportunity come about?
I was approached about helping John M. Heisman, the coach’s great-nephew, finish a book about 18 months ago. The publisher, Howard Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) also published a couple of my other books over the last few years. John M. Heisman, who inherited the coach’s personal papers and original playbook, had been working on a manuscript for several years. It was really his life’s passion, and I was honored to help him finish the research and writing.
2. In getting to know Heisman through his writings and accounts from the day, what impression did you get?
The most surprising revelation was that Heisman was so much more than a football coach. He also coached baseball at Auburn, Clemson and Georgia Tech, and was briefly president of the Atlanta Crackers, a professional baseball team. He owned an advertising agency and was a syndicated newspaper columnist. While Heisman was coaching at Georgia Tech, he also traveled the country with his summer acting troupe. Although a sportswriter in the early 20th century once quipped that Heisman was “a great football coach but terrible thespian,” he actually was a very accomplished stage actor. He performed throughout the South and even had a couple of nights on Broadway. He cared about acting nearly as much as cared about coaching.
3. A story I found interesting was that he basically had to hire the brother of Joe Guyon (star of the 1917 national champion team and member of the pro football hall of fame) as an assistant coach in order to get Guyon to Tech. If that were to happen today (or, perhaps more accurately, when that happens today), it would obviously raise a lot of eyebrows. How do you place that move in context?
Georgia Tech’s assistant coaches had to persuade Heisman to bring along Guyon’s brother, which certainly would be improper under NCAA rules today and was probably unethical at the time it happened.
Guyon was a Chippewa Indian, who was born at the White Earth Indian reservation in Minnesota, who had played for Pop Warner at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1912 and 1913.
Tech great Chip Robert recalled the incident in the book:
“We gave him a raincoat and a whistle that he hung ’round his neck, and we assigned a manager to keep him far away from Coach Heisman,” Robert recalled. “We wanted him out of sight, out of mind. Every so often, Coach would look down the ranks and see Joe’s brother pacing the sidelines, tooting his whistle and acting the big shot. A small scowl would begin on Coach’s face, but would soon disappear when Joe would break loose for a long run. Then, Coach would seem to almost grin, shake his head, and resume his duties.”
4. What did you learn about the 222-0 win over Cumberland that most fans wouldn’t know?
By 1916, interest in football began to wane on the Cumberland College campus. Cumberland president Samuel A. Coile resigned in the spring of 1916, and the new president, Dr. Homer Hill, eliminated funding for the varsity football team as part of budget cuts.
Heisman scheduled a game against the Bulldogs out of spite more than anything else. The Bulldogs had defeated his Georgia Tech baseball team 22–0 in the spring of 1916, and Heisman was convinced they’d used ringers to do it. He offered Cumberland College $500 to play a football game against the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta. When the Bulldogs tried to back out of the game a few months later, Heisman told them he would impose a $3,000 penalty for breaking the contract. Heisman seemed hell-bent on getting revenge.
Cumberland College manager George A. Allen, who later served under US president Franklin D. Roosevelt and advised two other presidents, Harry S.Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, scoured the Cumberland campus to assemble a team and sent a ragtag bunch to Atlanta, which is why the score was so lopsided.
5. He reads like a disciplinarian, going so far as to putting curfews on players after games. From an overall coaching/team management standpoint, how do you think he’d fare today?
I don’t think his coaching methods would be very effective today, although many of his early innovations (scoreboard, audible “hike” signal, center snap, padding and scripting plays) are still being used in today’s game. Heisman’s best years came in the post-World War I era, when many of his players were military veterans and were accustomed to his demanding style. During his last coaching stop at Rice Institute, his players nearly rebelled against him because his coaching methods were so demanding. He didn’t have much success at Rice and was forced into retirement.
6. Does he remind you of any current or past college coaches?
It’s tough to draw any comparison, but I think Heisman would be along the lines of Kansas State’s Bill Snyder or former Virginia coach George Welsh. He wasn’t much of a motivator and didn’t really believe in rah-rah pregame speeches. He was more concerned about preparations during the week and making sure every detail was covered. I guess in some ways he’s like Alabama’s Nick Saban in that every potential scenario is addressed.
7. Nick Saban in 1912 and John Heisman in 2012 – who does better?
I think Saban probably figures out how to adjust in 1912. For the reasons I stated above, I think Heisman would have a more difficult time adjusting to the 21st century.
Thanks for reading.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog