So just who was John Heisman? It's a fair question, really. It isn't like the Heisman Trophy toils in obscurity. It's one of the most talked about awards in all of college sports, and arguing about which five athletes should be named finalists is one of the biggest hooks in the season after your squad is knocked out of national title contention (or you know, banned for tattoo related offenses). Players who are fortunate enough to win the trophy are enshrined in football lore forever, their achievements immortalized on ESPN Classic, record books, and XBOX games (seriously, Andre Ward in Heisman Mode on NCAA 2012 is unstoppable). Whoever wins this award this season, even in what is considered a bit of a down year, will be rightfully lauded and join a truly elite fraternity of the sport.
But the actual Heisman guy? To the typical college football fan, the namesake of the most prestigious award in college football is more obscure than Chris Weinke and Ty Detmer, and quite frankly, that's ridiculous. Heisman's great nephew John M. Heisman and ESPN's Mark Schlabach agreed, as they teamed up to write Heisman: The Man Behind The Trophy to help bridge that gap.
Like many other great college football coaching pioneers, Heisman comes from Ohio roots, as he was born in Cleveland, and took his first coaching job at tiny Oberlin College, a school perhaps only known to the Buckeye faithful as the last in-state institution to beat the Buckeyes in a football game (the Yeomen won 7-6 back in 1921). The college football landscape was a very different place when Heisman was starting out in 1892. Oberlin was actually the largest school in the state with 1,492 students and football coaches routinely played on the teams they coached, and pulled double duty teaching physical education, or coaching other sports. A world where university athletic department budgets rival the GDPs of Caribbean countries would baffle Heisman today.
One of the really fun parts of Heisman are the constant reminders that while the schools, budgets, and playbooks have changed, so much of the college football landscape hasn't really changed at all. The book explains how like so many big name schools today, Heisman's initial Oberlin squad struggled with an eligibility crisis after two key players ran into offseason trouble with the law. Their offense? Stealing and roasting a chicken from a local chicken coop, and participating in a poker game. College kids, it appears, have always been college kids.
Heisman was no football meathead, devoid of other interests. Like many of the sport's early leading figures, he was educated in the Ivy League (although his most famous coaching exploits occurred in the south), and talked like it too. Heisman was famous for being something of the Anti-Will Muschamp, frequently peppering his phrases with the sort of words that get you 60 points in Scrabble. A famous example, when emphasizing the importance of fundamentals at the beginning of each season, was:
What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.
Schlabach also dedicates an entire chapter to Heisman's love of theater, where he would moonlight as a Shakespearean actor in the offseason. It's a shame that such a Renaissance man took the national stage before the age of Twitter and the Internet , since Heisman had all the makings of a slightly gentler Mike Leach. Could you imagine what Twitter would look like if Les Miles announced he was going to take a month off in the summer to perform Hamlet? Reddit/r/cfb and Tiger Droppings alike would basically explode.
The book is probably strongest when detailing the meat and potatoes of Heisman's coaching career, his stints at Auburn, Clemson, and then finally at Georgia Tech, where he won a national title. Schlabach skillfully alternates between game descriptions (like Tech's famous 220-0 beatdown of Cumberland College, as revenge for their previous year's blowout of Tech's baseball team), and anecdotes, like what Heisman considered a proper diet for his players in 1913. Example: Nearly all vegetables get the stamp of approval except cabbage, which should not be eaten in any form. Damn right coach, damn right.
The book drags a little as the wind is slowly sucked out of Heisman's coaching career, from his less-than-successful return to his alma mater of Penn, and then to stints at tiny Washington & Jefferson and Rice. The book also spends very little time covering Heisman's post coaching career, including his work with the Downtown Athletic Club that would hand out the very trophy baring his name. This is understandable, as his major coaching innovations, like the Heisman Shift, would happen earlier, but even his less famous stops demonstrate how problems like dealing with overzealous boosters or low program enthusiasm haven't changed that much from 1920 to now.
If you're looking for a meatier book on the origins of college football, I may instead recommend something like Stagg's University, or Gridiron University, which give a little more weight to the history and context of the game before WW2. If you're looking for a quicker read, and are curious to know more about the man behind the statue, Heisman is a great read. If we're going to spend hours this offseason picking apart Les Miles or Mike Leach, we owe it to ourselves to spend a little time learning about the original Most Interesting Coach In The World.
You can purchase your own copy of 'Heisman' here.