John Heisman: The man behind the award and his time at Clemson

Heisman, in the center of the upper row, coached both baseball and football from 1900-04 at Clemson. He earned just $815 for coaching football in 1902. (Photo courtesy Clemson Athletics)

When John Heisman arrived at Clemson in 1900, he was nothing like the image we have of a modern football coach.

Heisman had a passion for the theater and opera. He loved acting, singing and oratory. He was a voracious reader and possessed a law degree. But the Cleveland native also had a passion for the new game of football. He played at Brown and Penn on the way to becoming known for the iconic trophy given annually to the best player in college football. Like today's top coaches, he was a demanding perfectionist. They are characteristics captured in some remaining grainy black-and-white photographs, Heisman stoically staring into the camera, suggesting a no-nonsense approach to his undertakings.

“He was an intense man. Everyone says he was intense,” said Clemson historian Dr. Jerry Reel. “You look at pictures of him and those eyes were just laser-like when they are looking at you from the page.”

Born four years after the close of the Civil War and two Saturdays before the first college football game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, he arrived at Clemson as a mysterious outsider, a 30-year-old, single man from the North, who had spread his enthusiasm for a sport in its infancy at previous coaching stops in Ohio and Alabama.

Everyone knows the award, The Heisman Memorial Trophy, which will be presented today at 8 p.m. (ESPN). But few know the man, who changed the game while changing Clemson.

Walter Riggs founded the football team in 1896 at Clemson College, as it was known then, and coached the team in 1896 and 1899. But by 1900 he had too many responsibilities at the school. He was soon to be the head of the engineering department. He needed to find a coach.

The burgeoning sport was important to Riggs. He played on the first football team at Auburn where he graduated in 1894. He subscribed to the Muscular Christianity movement whose followers, Reel said, held the belief “that a good Christian takes care of his body, he's tough, he fights on, the manly fight.”

Riggs knew where to begin his search.

He was asked to find a coach for the Auburn football team in 1894. Riggs wrote to Carl Williams, the captain of the Penn team in 1894, seeking a recommendation. He might have also been forwarded newspaper accounts of Heisman, who was doing remarkable things at tiny Oberlin (Ohio) College, leading the school to a 7-0 season in 1892.

Wrote The Oberlin Review in 1892: “Mr. Heisman has entirely remade our football. He has taught us scientific football.”

From The Akron (Ohio) Beacon: “Trainer Heisman has shown what can be done with a new man, even in one short month of training. The advancement of the men has been remarkable.”

Riggs tracked down Heisman growing tomatoes and strawberries in Texas for supplemental income in 1894. He offered Heisman $500 to coach football at Auburn. Heisman agreed.

Heisman' creativity was immediately apparent. His early version of the toss sweep and new formations led Auburn to a 12-4-2 mark in five seasons.

Wrote the Montgomery (Ala.)Journal in 1899: “Auburn's play was brainy and full of pluck, and the (pitches), double and triple, were, without exception, like clockwork. Her speed and precision were superb. The ball was snapped from back to back so quickly that you could hardly follow it.”

In 1900, Riggs again reached out to Heisman. He offered him both the football and baseball coaching positions at Clemson. Heisman again accepted.

He led Clemson to a 6-0 season in 1900. In 1902 he was paid $815.11 to coach the football team, which was then just a seasonal occupation.

“They were apparently dazzling teams,” Reel said. “They would come out with crazy formations. It was almost like a circus: who was lining up where, where were they were going? The aficionados were always thrown back on their heels because he was crafty.”

Players at the all-male, all-white, military college soon learned the precise and innovative offense came with a price: trying practices by their taskmaster and professorial head coach.

“He was a good teacher,” Reel said, “a molder of men.”

Heisman is said to have often told his players: “Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.”

College football was in a precarious position in the early 20th century. The game was incredibly violent. Three players were killed on the field in 1905. Some called for football to be banned. President Theodore Roosevelt demanded changes be made to make the game safer.

Early strategies consisted mostly of massed formations ramming straight into each other, players performing with little or no padding.

Heisman began writing to Yale athletic director Walter Camp, whose football rules were accepted as the national standard.

“(Heisman) was most interested in getting the forward pass legalized by the Camp committee,” Reel said. “Heisman continually wrote Camp and said we need to cut down violence and the best way to open the game up is to use the forward pass.”

Heisman is credited with many advancements, including the center snap, signaling in plays from the sidelines — illegal in his time — and dividing the game into quarters. But the forward pass might have saved the game. After the 1905 season, two years after Heisman left Clemson, the forward pass was adopted.

In the offseason, Heisman enjoyed acting in Upstate playhouses and countryside barns. While performing he met the actress Evelyn McCollum Cox, a divorced woman, who had the leading summer stock company. The two were married in 1903.

Cox did not care for life in Clemson as there were no theatres, limiting her professional opportunities.

“When he couldn't find more theaters for her to act in he was approached by Georgia Tech, which essentially offered him a dream job,” Reel said. “It was a coaching job with no other requirements. He was paid $2,000 dollars … and received 30 percent of the gate receipts. (Clemson) didn't have any gate.”

Heisman spent just four years at Clemson, departing after the 1903 season. But he changed the culture.

“He did something for Clemson,” Reel said. “This little, nothing school up in the backwoods of South Carolina, on no one's main track, goes blazing through seasons beating Georgia Tech, Georgia all kinds of teams like that, pretty fair teams, it caught the eye of people. People began associating Clemson with very manly athletics. It became a place where people wanted to send their young men.”

He retired from coaching in 1927 and became the athletic director of New York's Downtown Athletic Club. He died in 1936, a year after the club began presenting an award to the best college player east of the Mississippi. The award was renamed in his honor.