The course of Georgia Tech football was forever altered in 1903 after one of the worst defeats the Yellow Jackets have ever suffered -- a 73-0 loss at the hands of Clemson in Atlanta's Piedmont Park.
Clemson – then known as Clemson College - was led by one of the hottest young coaches in the country, John Heisman. The Ohioan had earned a reputation as a football innovator at Oberlin, Buchtel and Auburn. In six years he had turned one Tiger team into a powerhouse when another Tiger team came calling. He arrived in Clemson in 1900 and promptly led the Tigers to their first undefeated season.
One regular foe for his Clemson squad was Georgia Tech, who, up to that point, had little to boast of in terms of the gridiron. From 1897 to 1900, Tech failed to win a single game. While the Yellow Jacket team turned in a winning 4-0-1 effort in 1901, it proved the exception.
The reason for the disappointing performance on the field wasn’t difficult to discern. Coaching was done "by professors on the school staff, interested townspeople, or by one of the players" according to Georgia Tech records.
Yet the desire for a winning program in Atlanta was growing as the fortunes of intra-state rival Georgia were rising. The regular drubbings by the Clemson team began to convince Georgia Tech fans that Heisman was the solution to their woes.
In 1902, Heisman bested Tech 44-5 using a ruse to trick the Yellow Jackets into complacency. A train of students posing as players arrived in Atlanta the day before the game and proceeded to carouse until late at night. Tech's confidence soared as they believed their squad would face a weary Tiger squad, and was subsequently dashed when Heisman and the actual team arrived shortly before kickoff.
Yet, in 1903 sentiments were again high on the Georgia Tech campus due to a dominant season opener against Mercer. The 46-0 final score was seen as a positive portent for the showdown with Clemson the following week. When word spread that the Tigers star back, Vedder Sitton, would not play due to an injury, Tech fans felt they had a real chance for victory on the afternoon of Oct. 17.
The Atlanta Constitution predicted a "strenuous struggle" at Atlanta's Piedmont Park. It proved an overly optimistic assessment.
The muddy field mired the Tech running attack, and Heisman's tricky offense befuddled the Yellow Jackets defense. It was such an absurd spectacle that the usually humorless Heisman burst out laughing when Georgia Tech halfback Henry Tillman tripped and fell in the open field near the Clemson sideline. Clemson won 73-0.
The lopsided loss gave new life to the efforts at Georgia Tech to hire away the Tigers coach. Frank Turner, a 1899 graduate and later an instructor at Tech, spearheaded the effort to hire Heisman. He organized a committee in 1902 to convince the administration of the need to hire the Clemson coach and, the next year, started a fund drive to finance it.
At one point, the group held a presentation in the campus chapel before the faculty and entire student body to argue the need to hire Heisman. More than $2,000 was pledged for the effort in minutes. Heisman was promised $2,250 a year ($50 more than he made at Clemson) and 30% of the gate from home games.
Georgia Tech president Lyman Hall sent a letter to Heisman that was notably lacking enthusiasm and even spelled the coach's name wrong. Turner wasn't about to leave the fate of Georgia Tech football hanging on a perfunctory piece of correspondence. He made numerous visits to South Carolina to convince the coach to move to Atlanta - a difficult sell given the moribund state of the program and the absence of a playing field.
On Nov. 26, one day after the deadline for Heisman to sign the contract sent by Hall passed, the Clemson coach wired the university and accepted the offer becoming Georgia Tech's first paid football coach. The hiring was made public that afternoon at the Georgia Tech vs. South Carolina game at Piedmont Park when the students unfurled a banner announcing his decision.
Using Heisman's eponymous personnel shift and, when the rules were change to permit it, the forward pass, Georgia Tech became a football powerhouse. Between 1904 and 1919 Georgia Tech reeled off three undefeated seasons and one 32-game undefeated streak. The Yellow Jackets claimed three Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships and one National Championship in that span.
Clemson would endure nearly 36 years of just-better-than-mediocre football until the arrival of Frank Howard in 1940. A dozen coaches roamed the Tiger sideline during that interim, only mustering a .529 winning percentage.
Yet the state of South Carolina would have its revenge on Georgia Tech. The week after Clemson's 1903 victory over Georgia Tech, Heisman beat NC State 24-0 in Colombia, SC. After the game, he married a widow, Evelyn McCollum Cox (nee Barksdale) who was an actress with the leading summer stock troupe in the south.
Sixteen years later, at the conclusion of the 1919 season, the couple divorced, and when Mrs. Heisman chose to stay in Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets coach resigned and left to take over the football program of his alma mater, Penn.