Oct. 6, 2006
It’s a score that needs no context for football fans. Today is the 90th anniversary of the historic beating that Georgia Tech delivered to Cumberland in Atlanta, and nine decades later, that game still captures the imagination.
Google the score, and you’ll find dozens of references to that mythical game. Accounts of what transpired before and during the game have become an urban legend of sorts, but they all end the same way–a margin of victory never seen before or since.
Cumberland University, founded in 1842, is located in Lebanon, Tennessee, just east of Nashville. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Bulldogs weren’t exactly a pushover. In 1903, the Bulldogs beat the likes of Vanderbilt, Tulane, LSU and Alabama. They also tied a John Heisman-coached Clemson team 11-11.
The 1916 meeting was actually the third time Cumberland had come to Atlanta. The two schools met in 1905 and 1906, and both games ended in modest 18-0 victories for Georgia Tech.
In 1906, Cumberland dropped football for several years before fielding a team again in 1912. They eliminated the program a second time in the spring of 1916 after a new school president made budget cuts. However, the school failed to cancel their contract with Georgia Tech, which insisted that the $500 pact be honored. Had Cumberland failed to show, they reportedly would have owed Tech $3,000.
One reason for Tech’s hard line was related to a baseball game that spring between the two schools. Cumberland had delivered a 22-0 thumping, and Heisman, who came to Tech in 1904 to coach football and baseball, believed that their opponent had used professional players. The story goes that Heisman, along with alumni and students, vowed to exact revenge on the gridiron.
A dozen years into his tenure on The Flats, Heisman has shaped Tech into a formidable program, as they had gone 7-0-1 in 1915. They had displayed offensive explosiveness regularly, including a 105-0 demolition of Mercer in 1914, but no one was expecting what was about to transpire against Cumberland.
According to Cumberland’s web site, the Bulldogs’ coach/manager George Allen assembled about 12-16 players, culled mostly from his Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers, to make good on the agreement. As their train stopped in Nashville, Allen apparently attempted to recruit some Vanderbilt players to reinforce their makeshift squad, but instead they suffered several defections.
Things got only worse when the remnants of the team arrived at Grant Field. Tech won the coin toss but deferred to the second half. However, it took only nine total plays from scrimmage for Tech to take a 21-0 lead. By the end of the first quarter, the Jackets were up 63-0, and their all-Amerincan halfback Everett Stupper already had scored four touchdowns.
The second quarter saw another 63 points on the scoreboard, giving Tech a 126-0 lead. It was at that point that Heisman famously told his team, “You’re doing all right, team, We’re ahead. But you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. They may spring a surprise. Be alert, men! Hit ’em clean, but hit ’em hard!”
However, the lopsided halftime score convinced Heisman to shorten the third and fourth quarters from 15 to 12 minutes. That slowed the offensive onslaught only slightly, as Tech scored 54 more points in the third quarter to make the margin 180-0. In the process, they shattered the previous collegiate mark for scoring, held by Michigan at 153 points.
The fourth quarter saw only 42 points scored despite the fact that Cumberland often would punt back to Tech before fourth down. By the time it was over, the wooden scoreboard barely had enough room to display the 222-0 result.
In addition to Tech’s 32 touchdowns, the final stats included the 978 yards Tech gained on the ground, as the Jackets never attempted a single pass. A record 13 different players scored touchdowns for Tech, let by Strupper’s six and fullback Tommy Spence’s five. Kicker Jim Preas converted 18 extra points.
Amazingly, neither team recorded a first down, as the Tech offense never used more than three plays to find the end zone. Cumberland’s longest gain on the day came on a 10-yard completion on fourth-and-22.
If Tech fans thought the defense and special teams were impressive against Virginia Tech last week, feast on this-the Jackets scored 12 touchdowns on defense and special teams, and they racked up 440 yards on kick returns.
The written accounts of the game heaped praise on Jackets’ prowess but pointed out that their opponent was hardly worthy.
In fact, the Atlanta Journal’s Morgan Blake wrote the following: “The Lebanon boys were absolutely minus any apparent football virtues. They couldn’t run with the ball, they couldn’t block and they couldn’t tackle. At spasmodic intervals they were able to down a runner, but they were decidedly too light and green to be effective at any stage of the game.”
Also in attendance was sportswriter Grantland Rice, who added, “Cumberland’s greatest individual play of the game occurred when fullback Allen circled right for a six-yard loss.”
Georgia Tech went on to finish the 1916 season 8-0-1, but they never scored more than 45 points in a single game after Cumberland. The following season saw Tech win its first national championship.
In October of 1956, a reunion of players from both teams was organized. According to the Georgia Tech Alumni Association, 28 of those that played in 1916 attended the event at the Greater Atlanta Club.
At the gathering, Cumberland quarterback Morris Gouger said that the scored could have even worse. “I called for a quarterback sneak on fourth down late in the final period,” he said. “We needed 25 yards and were deep in our territory. I made it back to the line of scrimmage and saved us from really ignominious defeat. If we had punted, as we should have, Tech would have blocked the kick, made another touchdown and the score would have been 229-0.”
After the game, Heisman declared that his team had played a “fairly good game,” but he subjected his players to a vigorous 30-minute scrimmage. During the game, he had played his first and second team in alternate quarters and promised the squad with the most points would be rewarded with a steak dinner. Fittingly, everyone on the team enjoyed steak that evening.