Few, if any, of the hundreds of Georgia Tech University football fans who filed into Atlanta’s Grant Field on October 7, 1916, expected a nail-biter for that afternoon’s game with tiny Cumberland College. “Local Eleven Should Have Easy Sailing in Today’s Game,” read the headline in the morning edition of the Atlanta Constitution, a prediction that would turn out to be an epic understatement. Fans of the home team envisioned a mauling, but they had no idea just how vicious it would be.
Georgia Tech was coming off a 61-0 romp over Mercer in its first game of the year, while “Cumberland the Martyr,” as the Tampa Tribune called the team, had fallen 107-0 to Sewanee. Up against a Georgia Tech juggernaut, Cumberland’s players fully expected to be sacrificed once again as an offering to the pigskin gods in order to keep open the doors of their small Presbyterian college in Lebanon, Tennessee.
With the school teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, budget cuts forced the elimination of Cumberland’s football program—which only a decade earlier had been a Southern powerhouse that defeated teams such as Georgia and Alabama—on the eve of the 1916 season. When Cumberland informed Georgia Tech just weeks before their scheduled matchup that it would not be fielding a team, legendary Georgia Tech football coach John Heisman would have nothing of it. The man whose name is emblazoned upon the trophy given annually to college football’s most outstanding player reminded Cumberland that their contract called for the payment of a $3,000 forfeit fee (nearly $70,000 in today’s money) if it backed out. The aspiring lawyers enrolled in Cumberland’s renowned law school failed to find a loophole, any loophole, in the contract. The college couldn’t pay the money, so it needed a group of students to pay the price.
The inexperienced 13-member squad—most of them fraternity brothers of the team’s student manager—that Cumberland fielded in Atlanta was an intramural team at best. As an augur of things to come, Cumberland lost the coin toss. After forcing the visitors to punt on their opening possession, Georgia Tech halfback and future College Football Hall of Famer Everett Strupper went around left end for a 30-yard touchdown run in the opening minute. 7-0. Cumberland fumbled on its first play after the ensuing kickoff, and Georgia Tech raced it in for a touchdown. 14-0. On the next possession, the Bulldogs fumbled again on their first play, leading to another touchdown for the home team. 21-0.
After another quick score by the home team, Cumberland switched its strategy and began to punt the football immediately back to Georgia Tech on first down. The first kick was returned 70 yards to set up another touchdown to make it 35-0. By the time the quarter ended, Georgia Tech led 63-0. It was hard to tell who was busier—the Georgia Tech kicker needed to boot extra points or the operator forced to frantically keep pace by hanging shingles with painted numbers on the wooden scoreboard. The home team posted another 63 points in the second quarter and surpassed its previous scoring record of 105 points before halftime.
Up by 18 touchdowns at the half, Heisman implored his team not to relent. “You’re doing all right,” he said in a severe understatement. “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!” If the visitors’ bag of tricks included actually scoring points, however, they never revealed it in the second half.
In spite of his halftime oration, Heisman took pity on his opponent and agreed to shorten the time of the second half, but his offense showed no such mercy as the touchdowns continued at a fast and furious clip. The beatdown took its toll on one Cumberland player who snuck around the field and sat on the Georgia Tech bench with his head buried in a blanket. “Say, you’re on the wrong bench, son,” Georgia Tech assistant coach Bill Alexander said. “Yes, I know. I know,” pleaded the wearied player, “but please don’t tell anybody because if I sit over here I won’t have to go back in the game.”
Georgia Tech tacked on a mere 96 points in the second half to make the final score an absurd 222-0. Grant Field’s scoreboard operator struggled to squeeze three digits into a space normally reserved for only two and left the last digit of the home team’s tally dangling precariously off its edge. Unsatisfied with the quality of his players’ workout, Heisman made his team scrimmage each other for another 30 minutes after the final whistle.
The home team finished with 32 touchdowns and added 30 extra points. Thirteen different Georgia Tech players carried the ball into the end zone, and the team gained a total of 978 yards—all without throwing a single pass. Due to Cumberland’s futility and Georgia Tech’s proficiency in scoring within four downs on every possession, neither team registered a first down. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wasn’t far from the truth when he wrote tongue-in-cheek that “Cumberland’s greatest individual play of the game occurred when Fullback Allen circled right end for a six-yard loss.” The Bulldogs’ biggest gainer was actually a 10-yard pass—one that unfortunately came on fourth-and-22.
So why did Heisman run up a score that would get him flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct by football fans today? Without any college football playoff a century ago, some sportswriters thought the best way to crown a champion was to add up the number of points scored and allowed by the top teams, a concept Heisman disdained. With a team that would eventually end the 1916 season with a tie as its only blemish, the coach wanted to prove a point with Cumberland. “Finding folks are determined to take the crazy thing into consideration,” Heisman said he set out at the start of the 1916 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.” Tiny Cumberland proved to be the easiest of easy marks.
Heisman, who doubled as Georgia Tech’s baseball coach, also reportedly had a more personal reason for running up the score on the Bulldogs. The previous spring Cumberland’s baseball team smoked Georgia Tech 22-0, a victory Heisman believed was aided by several semi-professional players from Nashville and left him burning for revenge on the gridiron.
Cumberland’s players took solace in the fact that the payback was at least accompanied by a paycheck of $500. In addition to the waiver of the forfeit fee, the money helped to keep the college afloat, although the badly beaten players chose to spend some of it on the nightlife of Atlanta, which according to one player, “we saw through swollen eyes.”