football

I teach and study at the University of Oregon, which has a great football team. I can’t remember the last time our Ducks lost, and we usually outscore the other team 3 or sometimes 4 to 1. We’re so good, in fact, that people on campus complain football games are boring. It was this complaint sticking in my mind that made me take notice of a very bizarre historical anniversary: the strangest college football game in history, where Georgia Tech blew out Cumberland College with the staggering score of 222 to nothing. It happened 97 years ago today, on October 7, 1916.

The story behind this game is quite interesting. Cumberland College was a small school in Tennessee (now Cumberland University). Evidently there was a long-standing sports rivalry between Cumberland and Georgia Tech. In the spring of 1915, Cumberland’s baseball coach secretly recruited pro baseball players to play for a game against Georgia Tech, thus crushing them 22-0. Later, as the college fell on hard times, it discontinued its football program before the 1916 season. However, the word didn’t get to Georgia Tech, who was scheduled to play Cumberland on October 7.

The Georgia Tech coach was the legendary John Heisman, for whom the Heisman Trophy is named. You’d think in this situation he’d just scratch the October 7 game off the schedule–after all, there was nobody to play against. Heisman, however, saw an opportunity to avenge the sneaky baseball blowout. He insisted that Cumberland show for the game and threatened to report the college for breach of contract if they didn’t show, which would have cost the cash-strapped institution $3,000. Thus, to save the bottom line, Cumberland had to get a team together, fast.

george allen

George Allen, who “coached” Cumberland during this horrible game, sits at the far right of this historic photo taken aboard Harry Truman’s Presidential yacht. Click for larger/more detail.

This unenviable task fell to student coordinator George Allen, who would later become a friend and advisor to Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Allen recruited a bunch of frat brothers to travel to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech. They weren’t football players, obviously.

The game itself was embarrassing. Georgia Tech got a touchdown on the first play–and almost every play for the entire game after that. Fumbles and other flubs plagued the Cumberland “team” from the get-go. If you’re the sort of person who likes football statistics, go to this amusing New York Times article and scroll to the end for a run-down of this bizarre game.

Okay, so it’s not even a footnote to history, but you have to admit it’s a weird and funny story. I’m not going to complain about the Ducks running up the score anymore.

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