A football game between Georgia Tech and Cumberland College was played on October 7, 1916, and the one thing never in dispute about it was the score. The most devoted Cumberland alumnus was not prepared to holler robbery, for Georgia Tech won 222 to 0. But everything else is still argued morbidly, and Cumberland rooters hate any suggestion that theirs was not the rout of the ages. The game lasted only 45 minutes. Who—Cumberlanders ask haughtily—has ever been beaten more decisively in so short a time?
The myths and facts are not easy to sort out, but something like the following seems to have taken place. Around the turn of the century Cumberland, in Lebanon, Tenn., played formidable football, but by 1916 enthusiasm for the sport had waned until it was little more than a casual pastime for undergraduates and students at the one-year law school. They organized teams and scheduled games haphazardly, meeting prep schools one week and colleges the next. Football schedules in 1916 were more informal than they are today.
Georgia Tech was looking around that fall for an opponent to fatten its prestige, of which it already had a lot. Since Cumberland had humiliated Tech in baseball the preceding spring, football offered a chance to work off the grudge. Tech offered a $500 guarantee, and Cumberland agreed to the game.
Cumberland's coach was a law student named Butch McQueen. He scoured the campus to pick up 16 of the healthiest and most experienced specimens around. One of them was Gentry Dugat, who said recently: "I played once in high school and once in prep school. But they promised me the first Pullman ride of my life and a chance to visit the home of my idol, Henry Grady [the editor of the Atlanta Constitution]."
The Cumberland squad practiced hard and worked up a simple series of set plays to use against Tech. To strengthen the team Cumberland hoped to pick up some "Hessians" from Vanderbilt College when the team's train stopped at Nashville on the trip from Cumberland to Atlanta.
Instead, the first casualties were suffered in Nashville. Three members of the team missed the train after the layover. Worse, additional troops could not be hired, for Vanderbilt had a tough game coming up and did not care to risk its prize specimens against a reportedly strong Georgia Tech team. Shaken but determined, the small Cumberland squad advanced on Atlanta, determined at least to collect the guarantee. They didn't figure to win, but they thought they would put up a good fight.
They reckoned without the character of the Georgia Tech coach, the able and devious John Heisman, one of football's hallowed names. Heisman was a great coach. It was he who got the forward pass legalized, he who originated the hidden-ball trick, he who introduced the center snap and he who invented the scoreboard, which listed downs, yards to go and other data.
Heisman was also a great eccentric. He outlawed soup and hot water for his players on the grounds that it weakened them. He banned from the training table any foods he himself did not like, such as nuts, coffee and apples. He liked raw meat, and the team got lots of that. His creed would have pleased Machiavelli and alarmed Lord Acton. "The coach should be masterful and commanding, even dictatorial," Heisman once said. "He has not the time to say please or mister...he must be severe, arbitrary and little short of a czar."
Shortly before the Cumberland game, Heisman became infuriated with newspaper stories that assigned great value to the margin of victory. Heisman recalled his indignation in murky rhetoric a year after the game. "I have often contended that this habit on the part of sportswriters of totaling up the number of points each team has amassed in its various games and comparing them with one another was a useless thing.... Finding folks are determined to take the crazy thing into consideration, we at Tech determined last year, at the start of the season, to show folks it was no difficult thing to run up a score in one easy game, from which it might perhaps be seen that it could also be done in other-easy games as well."
Unaware that Heisman planned to try out his grisly theory on them, the Cumberland football players marched onto Grant Field in Atlanta. On hand to observe the skirmish were 1,000 spectators.
Tech won the toss and performed its only act of charity for the afternoon by electing to kick off. Cumberland's Carney received on his 25-yard line and was dropped immediately. Attempting to block for Carney on this play, Quarterback Edwards was knocked senseless and Morris Gouger (later a banker in Robstown, Texas) took over the direction of the team. Gouger went over tackle and gained three yards. It was Cumberland's biggest rushing gain of the day.
When McDonald made no yardage on his try at the line, Cumberland punted. Everett Strupper, a future All-Conference back for Georgia Tech, returned the ball all the way to the Cumberland 20. On Tech's first play Strupper swept left end for a touchdown. Jim Preas kicked the extra point, and Tech led 7-0.
Cumberland returned the ensuing kick-off to its own 10, but on the first play from scrimmage there was a fumble. Tech Halfback Guill scooped up the ball and ran into the end zone for a second touchdown. Preas kicked the extra point.
The pattern continued for two more touchdowns. Georgia Tech would kick off, Cumberland would try futilely to gain, Tech would take over and score with insulting ease. Behind 28-0, Cumberland shifted strategy. Instead of receiving, they would kick off, forcing Georgia Tech deep into its own territory. On the first such attempt the kickoff was returned 70 yards to the Cumberland 10. It took two plays to put the ball across the goal line. The next Cumberland kick-off was returned to Tech's 40. On the first play from scrimmage Everett Strupper went 60 yards for another touchdown, Jim Preas kicked his sixth extra point and Georgia Tech led 42-0. Cumberland kicked off again. Its defenses stiffened, and Georgia Tech needed three plays to move 65 yards to another touchdown.
Cumberland went back to receiving. They failed to gain, punted and watched Strupper return the ball 45 yards for six more points. Cumberland went back to kicking off. Spence returned the kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, and the quarter ended with Georgia Tech leading 63-0.
In the second quarter Cumberland numbly gave up kicking off and took comfort in holding the ball as long as possible between touchdowns. In no case did that interval last very long for Cumberland never made a first down, and Tech never needed more than two plays to reach the Cumberland end zone. Sometimes it took fewer. With Georgia Tech leading 105-0, Preas kicked off to Gouger, who fumbled. Preas picked up the ball, ran for the touchdown and then made the extra point. The half ended with the score 126-0.
Early in the second half Georgia Tech, for the first time during the game, exhibited signs of something other than cold efficiency. J. C. Alexander, a massive Yellow Jacket tackle, had never experienced the thrill of scoring a touchdown. He was handed the ball on the Cumberland 10-yard line and aimed toward the goal but, as a big joke, nobody on Tech blocked. Alexander could get the ball only to the three-yard line. As if shocked by their lack of professionalism, Tech stopped its nonsense and Strupper took the ball over on the next play.
Midway through the third quarter, Strupper rounded right end for yet another touchdown, and the extra point pushed the score to 154-0, which set a world's record. John Heisman still had a point or two, however, to make in his argument with the newspapermen. Georgia Tech continued to bowl along, scoring every time it got the ball.
In the final quarter McDonald of Cumberland completed a pass to Murphy for 10 yards—the biggest Cumberland gain for the afternoon. Since two previous running plays had lost 18 yards, it was not enough for a first down.
By this time the tiny Cumberland squad was nearing exhaustion (Tech was pretty tired, too, but only from running). George Griffin, quarterback for the Engineers (and now dean at the school), recalls a moment when Heisman suddenly discovered a couple of Cumberland players seated on his bench. "He yelled at them to get back to their side of the field. They said, 'Give us a break. Don't make us go back. We'll have to go into the game.' "
Battered as they were, the Cumberland team stuck it out, trying to hold the score down by clinging to the ball. From the bench George E. Allen, the student manager of the team (and later close friend of four U.S. presidents), encouraged the team not to quit, for then they would have to forfeit the game. Over the years Allen has embellished his part in the debacle. He claimed that he was in at fullback when another player fumbled and yelled at Allen to fall on the ball. Allen, with an eye on the onrushing Tech linemen, is supposed to have replied, "Not me. I didn't drop it."
This suggestion of cowardice on the part of any member of the Cumberland team still angers the survivors of the game. "We may have been unskilled and badly beaten," says Gentry Dugat, "but we were not yellow." Another full-time member of the squad added, "George Allen didn't even carry the water bucket for that team, much less play."
The pattern of the game left a permanent mark on one member of the team, punter R. E. Gray. After every unsuccessful attempt to make a first down, the team called for a kick with the signal, "Grey back." It was called so often that the punter has carried through life the nickname Greyback.
Overall, Georgia Tech amassed 528 yards rushing, returned punts 220 yards and kickoffs 220 yards. It threw no passes. Cumberland lost 45 yards rushing, completed two of 11 passes for 14 yards and fumbled nine times.
In spite of the incredible score, the game received no national publicity. Three weeks later The New York Times reported a new scoring record when St. Viator's beat Lane Tech 205-0. Georgia Tech had to wait until 1917 before it was recognized as the nation's top-scoring team.
Forty years later Gentry Dugat, at a reunion of both teams, spoke the Cumberland football epitaph. "Little did we realize we were playing ourselves into immortality that day. We made you of Georgia Tech a great team."