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The Biggest Sports Mismatch Ever: 222-0
The Origin of the Grudge
Almost exactly a hundred years ago, on a spring day in 1915, a college baseball game was played that would directly influence the most bizarre college football game ever played.
In that particular baseball game, tiny Cumberland University, a school from Lebanon, Tennessee, engaged in a flagrant act of cheating.
Prior to the train ride to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech, George E. Allen, Cumberland’s baseball team director and later a U.S. presidential advisor, had combed the minor leagues of professional baseball and hired a collection of professionals to serve as Cumberland’s team for the game against the larger and better-known school.
The result was predictable. The pros masquerading as Cumberland students routed Georgia Tech’s amateurs by a score of 22-0. The baseball coach of Georgia Tech, a man named John Heisman, was also Tech's football coach as well as an amateur Shakespearean actor.
Heisman's Perfect Scheme
The humiliation on the baseball diamond filled Heisman with Othello-like fury and a Macbeth-like thirst for blood. He wasn’t fooled by Allen’s shenanigans and he immediately decided to turn the tables on his adversary. His pride wounded by the embarrassment, the melodramatic Heisman began plotting how to exact the most flamboyant type of retribution.
Heisman’s football team at Tech, unlike his baseball team, was the best in the nation. In the era before professional football had achieved any sort of national popularity or recognition, college football was the zenith of the sport.
If Heisman’s players at Tech had played a sport that offered them any professional opportunities, many of them would certainly have left college and been paid well for their prowess on the gridiron. But at that time football, unlike baseball, offered no such opportunity.
His rage worked up to a fever, Heisman orchestrated a scheme. He promised Allen, also the director of Cumberland’s football program, a hefty payout of $500 if Allen agreed to play Tech in Atlanta for the second game of the 1916 football season. Allen found the money too much to turn down.
Circumstances Fall in Place
Cumberland had played other large schools in football before—Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana State—and had been competitive. But the scheduled game against Tech turned out to be the perfect storm for Heisman’s wrath.
Circumstances fell into place in ways that exceeded Heisman’s wildest imagination. Prior to the 1916 season, Cumberland dropped its football program completely. When told of this abandonment, the shrewd Heisman informed Allen that if Cumberland did not honor its commitment to play the game it would owe Georgia Tech $3000, a large amount of money for a small school in 1916.
Allen knew that a forfeiture of $3000 would possibly bankrupt the school and end his career as an administrator. In a panic, he began combing the highways and byways of Tennessee for football players who were as good as the baseball players he had hired a year earlier.
But there were no pro football players in the South in 1916, and so Allen was forced to cobble together a group of 14 volunteers, mostly law students and fraternity brothers, to act as Cumberland’s football team. Heisman waited patiently for the date he would unleash his revenge.
The Merciless Execution
The muggy day of October 7, 1916 arrived and Allen’s 14 mismatched lads took the field against Heisman’s juggernaut at Grant Field in Atlanta. Cumberland received the opening kickoff and got flattened its first three plays. It kicked to Georgia Tech, which scored immediately on the next play. Cumberland received the ball again and fumbled the ball to Tech, which scored again. After Tech kicked to Cumberland, a player fumbled again and Tech scored two plays later. Cumberland lost nine yards on its next possession and Tech, after receiving the ball, again took only two plays to score for a fourth time.
After a single quarter Georgia Tech led 63-0. By the half the lead had doubled to 126-0. A gleeful Heisman was in no mood to show mercy yet. At halftime he gave a pep talk to warn his boys of the dangers that might be lurking in the shadows:
“We’re ahead, but you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. They may spring a surprise. Be alert, men!”
The only surprise was that Heisman agreed to reduce the second half to seventeen and a half minutes instead of the originally stipulated twenty-five. It didn’t matter much. A reporter for The Atlanta Journal noted:
“As a general rule, the only thing necessary for a touchdown was to give a Tech back the ball and holler, ‘Here he comes’ and ‘There he goes.’”
Tech added 54 points in the third quarter and 42 in the fourth. The Shakespearean Heisman also had a Swiftian sense of satire. To those reporters who seemed to value margins of victories in their rankings of teams Heisman had a rejoinder with 222 exclamation points by the end of the mismatch.
As the clock ran down on Cumberland’s disaster, Allen paced the sidelines trying to find some way to keep his team’s spirits up.
“Hang in there,” he kept telling his beaten boys. “We need the $500.”
After the game Allen spent most of the $500 entertaining his players with the attractions of Atlanta.
The game resulted in a tally of statistics both fascinating and ridiculous. Neither team made a first down in the entire game. Tech scored every time it had the ball and never took more than three plays to score. Cumberland turned the ball over exactly one third of the time it ran and one third of the time it passed. Cumberland did enjoy one spectacular play in which it completed a pass for a 10-yard gain. However, it was on fourth down with 22 yards to go.
Georgia Tech attempted no passes in the game and rushed for 978 yards on 40 attempts, a whopping average of over 24 yards per carry, a total that would have been higher if Cumberland hadn’t kept turning the ball over a few steps from its own goal line. Cumberland attempted 27 rushes for a total of -42 yards with 9 fumbles lost. The Cumberland quarterback completed 2 passes in 18 attempts for 14 yards and 6 interceptions.
Tech’s only failure was in missing 2 of its 32 attempted extra points. Whether this was intentional or not is subject to debate, as the final score of 222-0 seems almost perfectly tailored to mock the earlier baseball score of 22-0.
Was it beyond Heisman, with his warped sense of poetic justice, to mastermind the exact number of the score in order to fulfill his dream of perfect payback?
Honored for Bad Example
Years later, after the end of Heisman’s coaching career, which ultimately included service at nine different colleges, he became the director of the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. After Heisman’s death of pneumonia at the age of 66 in 1936, the club renamed in his honor the annual trophy it awarded to the best collegiate football player east of the Mississippi River.
The Heisman Trophy, later given to the best player in all of the USA, became the emblem not only of athletic achievement but of sportsmanship. However, the man for whom it is named was guilty, on October 7, 1916, of maybe the most atrocious example of sportsmanship in the history of collegiate competition.
© 2015 James Crawford