Cumberland Rout Revived Football in South
Even though it took place 100 years ago, there is a college football game that continues to be mentioned every year by virtually every sportscaster, sportswriter and sports trivia fan — the 222-0 defeat of Cumberland University by Georgia Tech on Oct. 7, 1916 — the worst thrashing ever recorded in college football.
The coach for Georgia Tech was the legendary John Heisman. One might assume the effect of this game would be disastrous for Cumberland University, a small, private university in Lebanon, Tenn., but instead the game preserved the school, and landed Southern football on the map.
“Until this game was played, nobody paid much attention to football in the South,” said Sam Hatcher, a Cumberland University alumnus and author who recently released the book, Heisman’s First Trophy: The Game that Launched Football in the South.
“Football was identified with the Northeast, and suddenly, news broke of this lopsided game, which took place in Atlanta, and people realized there was credible football being played in the South," Hatcher noted.
The reasons behind Cumberland’s trouncing are intriguing, but one major factor was that Cumberland did not have a football team at the time. A new president of the university had cut football prior to the 1916 season because the school was in dire straits financially.
Football had been part of Cumberland University since 1894, the year when the forerunner to the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences was formed called the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
In the early 1900s, Cumberland had been quite competitive on the gridiron defeating teams such as LSU, Vanderbilt, Tulane and Alabama.Back then, student managers of athletic teams were in charge of scheduling games, qualifying players and generally performing duties assumed today by college athletic directors. George E. Allen (no relation to the later famous coach), who was the student manager of Cumberland’s baseball team, became the newly-appointed student manager of the football team. One of his first primary responsibilities was to cancel the games scheduled for the 1916 season. He did just that except for one team he inadvertently overlooked, Georgia Tech.
John Heisman demanded the game be played and gave Cumberland an ultimatum. Either play as agreed or pay a forfeiting fee of $3,000 ($69,000 in today’s dollars). As an incentive to the struggling team, he reportedly offered Cumberland $500 if they played.
Heisman was also Georgia Tech’s baseball coach, and in the spring of 1916 Cumberland had beaten his nationally ranked baseball team 22-0. The rumor was that Cumberland had filled the team with semi-professional players, and because of that Heisman vowed to get revenge.
Thanks to Allen, Cumberland was able to make good on its original promise to play the game. Since there was no formal team, Allen talked 13 members of his Kappa Sigma fraternity into playing, preaching that it would be a valiant effort to save their beloved school.
Georgia Tech scored on its first play. Cumberland fumbled on the next play, and Tech returned the Bulldogs bobble for a touchdown. Cumberland fumbled again on its first play, and Tech scored two plays later. And so the game continued. At halftime the score was 126-0. There were no first downs in the entire game. According to Hatcher, a Cumberland player hid on the Georgia Tech sideline so he wouldn’t have to go in the game.
The Atlanta Journal published, “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.’ ” Georgia Tech went on to become the 1916 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association champions and the next year won its first national championship.
Paul Stumb, president of Cumberland University, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary, does not shy away from talking about the infamous game.
“It’s part of our 175-year history. There’s a certain amount of pride Cumberland University has in that game. Really, it exemplifies the spirit of Cumberland,” he explained noting that 70 years before the game, the school had encountered and overcome much worse defeats, albeit not on the football field.
“The university was burned down during the Civil War, but was not defeated and was rebuilt. As educators, it is our job to teach, and demonstrate in this case, that you do your best with what you’ve got, and carry on. Learn from your mistakes and do better next time.”
Hatcher believes the backstory of the game will surprise readers, especially about his alma mater’s connection with John Heisman.
“Most people don’t realize that because of this game, Cumberland University should be largely credited with making football in the South relative and certainly with helping Georgia Tech be recognized nationally so it could capture its first national championship,” he reasons.