John Heisman: College football’s first great coach
College football’s highest honor is bestowed upon another deserving young athlete when the 2018 Heisman Trophy Presentation airs Saturday, Dec. 8, on ESPN. There’s plenty of talk about this year’s top candidates, especially Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. But what is known of the man who gives the trophy its namesake?
The Heisman Trophy is named after John Heisman, who spent nearly his entire life involved in football. He was considered a charismatic figure with a deep voice and appeared to be headed for a career on the acting stage. Although he did enjoy some side work as an actor, coaching college athletics became his profession and his eventual legacy. His acting skills were eventually shown in his dramatic team speeches.
Over a career that spanned 35 years, Heisman not only coached football, but also baseball and basketball. Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Rice were among his employers. His legendary status grew, as did his sport, after the turn of the 20th Century. However, football had become violently dangerous, to the point where President Teddy Roosevelt demanded it be made safer. The result was Heisman’s development of the forward pass and later, the jump-shift, both of which evolved to be key elements of the game of football as we know it today.
Heisman’s final job was director of the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City, which in 1935 began offering an award to college football’s most valuable player. After his death in 1936, the trophy was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy. We’ll have a new winner Saturday night.