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Friday, October 7, 2011
The man in Heisman

By Kieran Darcy

The Ivy League produced three Heisman winners back in the day, as we profiled in these pages last week.

But perhaps the most famous product of the Ivies to have his name etched on the trophy is John Heisman himself.

John Heisman
John Heisman develop the snap from center and the accompanying "hike" signal, was instrumental in the legalization of the forward pass and strongly promoted the idea of dividing a game into quarters, instead of halves.
Born in Cleveland in 1869, the bronze's namesake played on the gridiron for Brown and Penn before going on to coach football at several colleges between 1892 and 1927 -- starting at Oberlin, in Ohio, and graduating to Auburn and Clemson.

His longest tenure, however, was at Georgia Tech, where he coached from 1904 to 1919. Heisman's record there was 102-29-7, which included a two-year period when his team went 24-0-2, culminating with a national championship in 1917. The Yellow Jackets ultimately ran off 33 straight games without a loss before the streak ended in 1918, outscoring opponents during that stretch an astounding 1,599 points to 99.

(Many of those points came in a single 1916 tilt during which Heisman's Georgia Tech team beat Cumberland College 222-0, the most one-sided game in college football history. Reportedly, Heisman ran up the score to get revenge after Cumberland's baseball team beat Georgia Tech 22-0 the previous spring.)

Heisman also helped introduce the game we recognize now with a number of key innovations, including the snap from center.

While coaching at Buchtel College (later known as the University of Akron) -- his next stop after Oberlin -- Heisman had a very tall quarterback. In the late 19th century, the center would roll the ball on the ground to the quarterback. But given his quarterback's height, Heisman had his center deliver the ball up through the air and into the quarterback's hands ... and thus the snap was born.

Heisman was instrumental in the legalization of the forward pass in 1906. He invented the familiar "hike" call shouted by a quarterback before each snap. He strongly promoted the idea of dividing a game into quarters, instead of halves.

The legendary coach left Georgia Tech after the 1919 season because he and his wife were divorcing; his spouse wanted to remain in Atlanta, while he had agreed to move away. He finished up his coaching career with short stints at Penn, Washington & Jefferson, and Rice.

After that, Heisman moved to New York City, where he took a job as the athletic director at the Downtown Athletic Club in lower Manhattan. In 1935, the club began honoring its selection as the best college football player in the country with what was then called the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy.

Heisman died from pneumonia on Oct. 3, 1936, at age 66. Two months later, when presented for the second time, the annual award was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy.