A football game between Georgia Tech and Cumberland College was played on October 7, 1916, and the one thing never in dispute about it was the score. The most devoted Cumberland alumnus was not prepared to holler robbery, for Georgia Tech won 222 to 0. But everything else is still argued morbidly, and Cumberland rooters hate any suggestion that theirs was not the rout of the ages. The game lasted only 45 minutes. Who—Cumberlanders ask haughtily—has ever been beaten more decisively in so short a time?
The myths and facts are not easy to sort out, but something like the following seems to have taken place. Around the turn of the century Cumberland, in Lebanon, Tenn., played formidable football, but by 1916 enthusiasm for the sport had waned until it was little more than a casual pastime for undergraduates and students at the one-year law school. They organized teams and scheduled games haphazardly, meeting prep schools one week and colleges the next. Football schedules in 1916 were more informal than they are today.
Georgia Tech was looking around that fall for an opponent to fatten its prestige, of which it already had a lot. Since Cumberland had humiliated Tech in baseball the preceding spring, football offered a chance to work off the grudge. Tech offered a $500 guarantee, and Cumberland agreed to the game.
Cumberland's coach was a law student named Butch McQueen. He scoured the campus to pick up 16 of the healthiest and most experienced specimens around. One of them was Gentry Dugat, who said recently: "I played once in high school and once in prep school. But they promised me the first Pullman ride of my life and a chance to visit the home of my idol, Henry Grady [the editor of the Atlanta Constitution]."
The Cumberland squad practiced hard and worked up a simple series of set plays to use against Tech. To strengthen the team Cumberland hoped to pick up some "Hessians" from Vanderbilt College when the team's train stopped at Nashville on the trip from Cumberland to Atlanta.
Instead, the first casualties were suffered in Nashville. Three members of the team missed the train after the layover. Worse, additional troops could not be hired, for Vanderbilt had a tough game coming up and did not care to risk its prize specimens against a reportedly strong Georgia Tech team. Shaken but determined, the small Cumberland squad advanced on Atlanta, determined at least to collect the guarantee. They didn't figure to win, but they thought they would put up a good fight.
They reckoned without the character of the Georgia Tech coach, the able and devious John Heisman, one of football's hallowed names. Heisman was a great coach. It was he who got the forward pass legalized, he who originated the hidden-ball trick, he who introduced the center snap and he who invented the scoreboard, which listed downs, yards to go and other data.
Heisman was also a great eccentric. He outlawed soup and hot water for his players on the grounds that it weakened them. He banned from the training table any foods he himself did not like, such as nuts, coffee and apples. He liked raw meat, and the team got lots of that. His creed would have pleased Machiavelli and alarmed Lord Acton. "The coach should be masterful and commanding, even dictatorial," Heisman once said. "He has not the time to say please or mister...he must be severe, arbitrary and little short of a czar."
Shortly before the Cumberland game, Heisman became infuriated with newspaper stories that assigned great value to the margin of victory. Heisman recalled his indignation in murky rhetoric a year after the game. "I have often contended that this habit on the part of sportswriters of totaling up the number of points each team has amassed in its various games and comparing them with one another was a useless thing.... Finding folks are determined to take the crazy thing into consideration, we at Tech determined last year, at the start of the season, to show folks it was no difficult thing to run up a score in one easy game, from which it might perhaps be seen that it could also be done in other-easy games as well."
Unaware that Heisman planned to try out his grisly theory on them, the Cumberland football players marched onto Grant Field in Atlanta. On hand to observe the skirmish were 1,000 spectators.