When the confetti rains on Jan. 8 in Atlanta, the college football national champion will be gloriously clear—no debate, no second-guessing. (Unless you’re UCF, that is.) The winner will have defeated two members of a four-team field chosen with due deliberation. It will all be nice and simple.
A century ago—and two miles north of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta, the host of this year’s title game—Georgia Tech was the national champ, first according to itself, later according to experts. The Rambling Wreck (also known as the Golden Tornado) trailed only once in going 9–0. They scored 491 points—241 more than their rival for the crown, Pittsburgh—and allowed just 17. They won games by 98, 83 and 63 points.
Bowl games, rankings, a College Football Playoff committee, a blizzard of confetti—none of that existed in 1917. There was no process, formal or otherwise, to decide the national champion; it was a free-for-all, with the occasional call for police backup. Teams made their cases on the field, with desperate pleas from a sometimes partisan press and with energetic calls from students seeking distraction as they contemplated fighting in a world war. After a 98–0 victory over Carlisle (Pa.) Industrial Indian School in its penultimate game, Tech issued a statement declaring itself champion. No one put up much argument.
We’re four years into the College Football Playoff, and order reigns. We’ve forgotten about the “Death to the BCS” chants, the imperfect polls, the mid-major darlings. But in the early days of the sport there was chaos—true chaos.
The 1917 champions were an offensive juggernaut, even better than the Georgia Tech team that the previous season beat Cumberland College 222–0, the biggest blowout—still—in college football history. Their backfield featured a deaf running back, Everett Strupper, and a Native American transfer, Joe Guyon. Their coach was a legend who probably would have rather trod the boards than worked the sideline.
Before he took over at Georgia Tech in 1904, John Heisman appeared on Broadway—he was in both Diplomacy and The Ragged Regiment in 1898—and had performed with multiple theater companies during his previous coaching stops. In 1902, before 1,500 people at the Crump Park Stock Company in Macon, Ga., he played Monsieur Derblay in Wife in Name Only. The Macon Telegraph wrote, “His work is easy, calm, impressive, and above the standard, unlike the swaggerish, overdone attempts sometime witnessed.”
Heisman also had very dramatic views about his other profession. “The coach should be masterful and commanding, even dictatorial,” he wrote in his 1922 book, Principles of Football. “He has not the time to say please or mister. ... He must be severe, arbitrary, and a little short of a czar.” He forbade his players from taking hot showers. He encouraged them to eat raw meat. He shared a list of foods to avoid: fresh pork and veal, cabbage, all nuts, pepper and soups. He abhorred apples but did allow for ice cream breaks a few times a week.
Even as the Wreck began to pile up victories—they beat Furman 25–0 and Wake Forest 33–0 on opening day (which is believed to be the only doubleheader in football history)—opponents weren’t sold on their greatness. “Pitt, West Virginia, Washington and Jefferson, the Army and the Navy can put it all over Tech right now,” said Washington and Lee coach Bill Raftery after Tech handed the Generals their worst loss ever. Said the New York Sun, “But before making any definite statement regarding its being the best we would very much like to see [Georgia Tech] tackle Pittsburgh or the Army.”
“Saturday Oct. 6, 1917 will be the first day that Tech’s pre-eminence in football will be permanently marked down in the world of sports,” read The Technique, Georgia Tech’s student paper, in promoting the showdown with Penn. The trip would be the Quakers’ first to the South, and until then, no Southern team had ever beaten a Northern team.
College football is a religion in the South now, but it first took shape in the Northeast during the late 1800s, when the powers were the Big Three: Harvard, Princeton and Yale. The first non–Ivy League team to win a title (awarded retroactively) was Lafayette in 1896, and the first program outside the Northeast to claim a championship was Michigan in 1901—which it shared with Harvard and Yale. Looking back, Georgia Tech’s title in 1917 was the first time a non-Northeast team could claim an unchallenged championship.
That’s not to say that football wasn’t big in the South. The story of Heisman is instructive. In order to woo him to Georgia Tech from Clemson in 1904, 500 students pledged at least $5 to help pay him. Atlanta was a hotbed; Tech rarely played games outside its home stadium because opponents relished the chance to travel to the city. And there was still the presence of boosters. According to Andy Doyle, a historian of the South at Winthrop, boosters in the area gave jobs to players. Some football players received 10% of the purchase price for every Tech student who came to a haberdashery and brought a suit.
The Penn game, which The Charlotte Observer called “one of the most important intersectional games ever played in the south,” was a blowout. Tech won 41–0. And the score got notice in the North. It was, according to Sol Metzger, the coach at Washington and Jefferson in Washington, Pa., “such an unheralded performance that one cannot quite get his breath.”
Strupper was the star, rushing for 173 yards and two scores on only 13 carries. “He is like a phantom in an open field and picks his openings with uncanny skill,” wrote the New York Evening Telegram. Said Bob Folwell, Penn’s coach, “Strupper is, without doubt, the best back who has ever come to my knowledge in years.”
Determining the national champions between 1869 (the first college football season) and 1935 (the last before the AP poll) requires guesswork. The NCAA, in its official record book, lists winners for each season, sometimes multiple ones. But they were effectively awarded retroactively. In 1919 five teams were awarded the championship; Texas A&M decided to claim it in 2012. From 1919 to ’27 a five-way tie happened four times. The nonsystem of the early college football days makes the BCS look rational and the CFP seem like the best thing ever to happen to the sport.
In 1917, after Pitt beat Penn 14–6 in October, the march toward a quasi–national championship game began. In a column titled, “Why Not Decide Football Title of America Nov. 24?” in The Atlanta Constitution, Dick Jemison first proposed the idea: “On this date, Auburn will play Ohio State, the Western Conference champions, at Montgomery. Why cannot Georgia Tech, southern champions, play Pittsburgh, eastern champions, on the same date, either in Atlanta or in New York? To make the game even more attractive, after the expenses of the two teams have been deducted, let all the proceeds go to the Red Cross.” (We must note that despite Jemison’s writing otherwise, there was no such thing as a “Western Conference” or a “Southern champion” or an “Eastern champion.” We can only infer that Jemison was drawing on the consensus about the best teams in each region.)
The notion caught on. Frank Menke in the Pittsburgh Press wrote, “The arguments between the Pitt supporters and those of Georgia Tech are becoming so violent that a roll call for the police is likely to be sounded at any moment. Some of the authorities are so fearful that bloodshed will result that there is a movement afoot to call back a few thousand of our noble militiamen to assist in preserving order.” The Red Cross, sensing a fund-raising opportunity, called for the teams to use the gate toward the war effort, and the organization’s president, Henry P. Davison, called K.G. Matheson, Tech’s president, in a personal appeal. It didn’t work. Matheson declined, saying he was opposed to playing postseason games and more than once away from home. That same day Matheson pledged 1,200 students to President Wilson and the war effort. Pitt, for its part, wasn’t interested in the complexities of scheduling the game.
“Tech is undoubtedly the world’s champion of 1917,” said athletic director John Crenshaw. Heisman, whom Doyle called a “p.r. genius,” called his team the “best I have ever seen,” and wrote to students in The Technique, “Never before have I seen its like, and it may well be that neither you nor I will ever look upon its like again.”
There really wasn’t any pushback to Tech’s declaration. Doyle, the historian, said the 1917 team was truly great, but it’s hard to know for sure without a game against Pitt and with so many players off in Europe. (Many teams lost chunks of their rosters to the war. Tech, with Heisman’s urging, kept most of its players. A few players, including Strupper, failed their physicals.) Tech did decline a chance to prove itself against Navy, turning down a potential postseason game. Navy was close to Tech’s equal on offense, having scored 442 points, but the Midshipmen were shut out by West Virginia in October. Tech’s best win outside of Penn was a 68–7 blowout of Auburn, which the week before had held Ohio State and its All-America halfback, Chic Harley, to a scoreless tie. The argument that Georgia Tech was the best team? It beat Penn, which held its own against Pitt, which struggled to beat Washington and Lee, which lost badly to Tech. Tech beat Auburn, which held another contender, Ohio State, scoreless.
But to call Tech the champion without any reservation or hesitation is, of course, based only on an assumption. Imagine taking Georgia as the champ this year because it beat Oklahoma, which beat Ohio State, which beat Penn State, which beat Washington. It’s flawed and denies a true test for the best team. Georgia Tech fans can never know how the 1917 team would’ve fared in a four-team playoff, but a stone’s throw away from campus, the test will happen on Jan. 8. A true winner will be crowned, with no possible objections and no twisted logic. The early years of college football represent a wildly different sport than the one today, and had there been a playoff, Tech would’ve been a perfect fit. Heisman—ever the showman—would have relished the stage. And had they won the championship, Tech would have been considered amongst the best teams of all time. No second-guessing that.