Sunday, March 12, 2017

John Heisman - Football Legend from Titusville

Coach John Heisman (center) with his 1909 Georgia Tech team.
The name Heisman has become synonymous with the best in college football, however it is often forgotten that the man behind the trophy found his start right here in Crawford County. John Heisman grew up during the 1870s and 80s in Titusville, PA during the height of the oil boom. The family had originally settled in Cleveland, Ohio, but soon after John was born moved to Titusville to allow Heisman’s father, a cooper, to seek work thanks to the high demand for barrels the oil boom provided. Heisman attended Titusville High School, and graduated a member of the class of 1887 at the age of 17, before attending Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania to study law.

Early Years

Heisman's now famous pose
Football came to Titusville in 1884, and it was then that Heisman was first introduced to the game. There is little surviving information about the beginnings of the football team in Titusville, other than Heisman’s later recollections. From the very beginning, he devoted himself to learning the game, but actual play at this early stage was little more than organized roughhousing. He played on the same field that now houses Carter Field in Titusville where the high school football team plays today.


After his early interactions with football, he developed a love of the game that followed him to Brown, playing both football and baseball while studying there. After three years at Brown, the school temporarily discontinued their football program, prompting him to transfer to the University of Pennsylvania. However, when an accident left him with impaired eyesight and an end his prospective law career, he turned to coaching football.

Coaching Career

Coach Heisman (back row) with Clemson 1903
Undeniably talented as a coach, he led the vast majority of teams he coached to great success. Heisman started as the first head coach for Oberlin College (1892, 1894). From this beginning he moved to a number of different schools, coaching at Auburn (1895-99), Clemson (1900-03), Georgia Tech (1904-19), University of Pennsylvania (1920-22), Washington and Jefferson (1923), and Rice (1924-27). At every stop, Heisman gained a reputation for his discipline and unorthodox means for gaining whatever edges he could over opponents.

During his time at Georgia Tech his coaching career reached a new height as he led the team to an astounding three undefeated seasons in 1915, 1916, and 1917 which would be the year the team would be recognized as National Champs. His incredible coaching career would last another decade until 1927 when he retired at the age of 60. He was indeed legendary, but that was just one segment of all that Heisman brought to football as a sport.

Heisman coached college football's largest defeat, 222 - 0 over Cumberland
Heisman essentially revolutionized the game, and in many ways is a huge part of the reason we have the modern game of football that we know and love. It was Heisman who invented the forward pass, divided the game into quarters, and developed the “hike” vocal command used by quarterbacks among a number of other innovations to game play. While he retired from coaching, that was certainly not the end of his football career, as he continued to have a tremendous impact on the sport for years to come.


Heisman in 1925
Heisman spent much of his retirement working to organize the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City, even becoming its first director. He also developed their touchdown club after visits to other similar athletic organizations.

It was during his time with the athletic club that the modern day Heisman trophy got its start. It was to be awarded to the best college football player in the United States east of the Mississippi river.

After Heisman’s death the trophy was renamed in his honor, and changed to allow players from across the country to be considered. Heisman’s humble beginnings in Crawford County served him well as he went on to leave his impressive mark on football, creating a legacy of hard work and passion for the sport.

Over the course of his football college coaching career, Heisman compiled a record of 187-70-18. He would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.

Heisman at Georgia Tech, 1917


DiMatteo, Adrienne. “John William Heisman.” Pennsylvania Center for the Book Penn State.

Weber, David. “The John Heisman Story: ‘Father of the Forward Pass,’ Titusville’s most noted sports figure.” The Titusville Herald.

About the Author

Ariana Sabatini is a junior at Allegheny College studying History and English. She has grown up around history her entire life, and has deep connections to the Crawford County region and it’s colorful history. A native of Titusville Pennsylvania she has a strong background in the history of the oil region having come from a family that lived and worked in the oil industry. She is excited to be serve as an intern to the Crawford County Historical society this spring, and will be interning at Gettysburg this summer. She hopes to use her time with the historical society to broaden her knowledge of the area’s rich history, and share those findings with the public through her work on the Society’s social media pages.  

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