On October 7, 1916, the powerhouse Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, led by legendary coach and award namesake John Heisman, invited the Cumberland College (now Cumberland University) Bulldogs to their stadium for an afternoon college football matchup. What resulted was an on-the-field massacre, as the Yellow Jackets defeated the Bulldogs, 222-0.
The season prior, Cumberland and Georgia Tech agreed to a meeting on the gridiron. But, due to financial struggles for Cumberland, the new president of the college, Homer Allin Hill, decided to cut all sports programs. Despite the suspension of the football program, student manager George E. Allen, who was in charge of scheduling, forgot to contact Georgia Tech and cancel their scheduled game.
When approached about canceling the game prior to the season, Heisman wouldn’t accept it. If Cumberland were to cancel the game, it would cost the already cash-strapped college a forfeit fee of $3,000 (around $70,000 in today’s money). On the contrary, if the game was played, Georgia Tech would pay Cumberland $500 (around $12,000 today). The school had no choice but to play. In a bind to prepare a team for the game, Allen gathered 13 members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity to make into a ragtag football crew.
As soon as the game started, it didn’t take long to see why Georgia Tech outmatched Cumberland. The Yellow Jackets put up 63 points in the first quarter.
By halftime, Georgia Tech went up, 126-0, and it didn’t end there. Heisman had no plans to let up.
“We’re ahead, but you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves,” reportedly said Heisman to his players at halftime. “They may spring a surprise. Be alert, men.”
In the third quarter, with the quarters shortened from 15 minutes to 12, the Yellow Jackets scored another 54 points to bring the score to 180-0. They would finish the game with 42 points in the fourth quarter for the 222-0 win.
Official NCAA statistics weren’t kept before 1937, so there were no stat sheets from the game. Through accounts from the players, coaches, and newspaper articles from the time, some stats were pieced together, and they were eye-popping:
- Cumberland never completed a first down, whereas Georgia Tech had 20.
- The Yellow Jackets scored on all of their drives, and they put up 32 touchdowns.
- Cumberland committed 15 turnovers: nine fumbles lost and six interceptions.
- Georgia Tech ran only 29 offensive plays, and they were all rushes.
- Georgia Tech had 501 total yards, while Cumberland had negative 28.
- Cumberland’s passing attack went 2-for-18 for 14 yards and 6 interceptions.
- Ninety-seven percent of the game’s plays occurred in Cumberland territory.
- Sixty-four plays occurred in Cumberland’s red zone.
Heisman later recalled that the reason for him not letting up on Cumberland was due to vengeance and retribution. In the spring of 1915, the two colleges met on the baseball diamond, with Cumberland taking the win, 22-0. Heisman believed Cumberland had brought in ringers in the form of professional baseball players to win that game. From there, he vowed he would get revenge on the college in the form of this football game.
The game became the biggest blowout in college football history. It was only one of three games in history where a team scored more than 200 points, and it’s the only game where the winning team later became a Division I program (NCAA divisions weren’t officially organized until 1973).
Both schools encountered long-term effects from the game. Georgia Tech would continue their dominance on the gridiron, culminating in an awarded national championship in 1917. Cumberland, on the other hand, may have saved their college by playing this game. Although this idea is disputed, Cumberland alluded to this idea in a press release from 2016 about the game. They stated, “One might assume the effect of this game would be disastrous for Cumberland University, a small, private university in Lebanon, Tennessee, but instead the game preserved the school, and landed Southern football on the map.”
This was the only football game the Bulldogs played in 1916. The program resumed in 1920, only to conclude after the 1929 season in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression. It returned in 1932, only to be paused during World War II. In 1949, it was disbanded for a third time. Football returned for good on the campus of Cumberland University in 1990, where it has been a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) since.
Memorabilia from the game, such as the game ball, have even taken lives of their own. The football from the game was obtained by sports memorabilia collector Bill Schroeder not long after the game was played. He donated it to a sports museum in Los Angeles opened by the Helms Foundation in the 1930’s.
When the museum moved in the 1980’s, the football was put into storage until it was decided that it was to be auctioned off. In auction, the football fetched $40,388. It was bought by patent attorney and Georgia Tech alum Ryan Schneider in 2014. He donated the ball to the school, to the pleasure of the athletic department.
Mike Bobinski, then-athletic director at Georgia Tech, had plans to bid on the ball, but was outbid early in the process. He couldn’t justify using athletic funds for the amount of money to which the bid had raised. “That’s really the outcome we were hoping for all along,” Bobinski said in response to hearing Schneider’s plans to donate the ball.
The ball is currently on display in the Arthur B. Edge, Jr., Intercollegiate Athletics Center on Georgia Tech’s campus.
This was an unprecedented game that will likely never be seen in sports again. There was a perfect storm of situations, such as Heisman’s revenge and a nationally contending football team going against a group of fraternity brothers, that led to the lopsidedness of the outcome. Today, both schools have embraced the legacy of this game, as its effects are still felt over 100 years later.
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