The Holy Trinity of Georgia Tech Football

 

Courtesy of UserB

Courtesy of UserB

In the 120+-year history of Georgia Tech (Tech) football, three coaches have accounted for nearly 60 percent of the school’s overall wins. From 1904 through 1966, John Heisman, William Alexander, and Bobby Dodd led the program to more than 400 wins and three national championships. For over 60 years, Tech was a football power. Since this era, Tech has produced some very good teams– the most notable being the 1990 national champions–but has not enjoyed the sustained success that these three men engineered. Each man had his own coaching style and personality, but they share a common thread: the ability to win football games. Meet the Holy Trinity of Georgia Tech football.

John Heisman coached Tech from 1904 -1919, compiling a 102-29-7 record. Heisman honed his skills while playing at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in the 1890s. He earned a law degree at Penn but decided coaching football was more satisfying. Heisman started his coaching career at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1892, moved to Buchtel College (now the University of Akron) and then back to Oberlin before heading south to coach the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1895 and Clemson University in 1900. Heisman left Tech after the 1919 season to coach Penn. He and his wife divorced and as part of the settlement, Heisman agreed not to reside in the same city as his wife, who chose to remain in Atlanta. After Penn, Heisman coached at Washington & Jefferson University and Rice University before becoming the director of athletics at the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC) in New York. The DAC began awarding a trophy to the nation’s best college football player in 1935. Upon Heisman’s death in 1936, the trophy became known as the Heisman Memorial Trophy.

Heisman was a demanding perfectionist and keen strategist. He loathed fumbling and would tell his players at the beginning of pre-season practice while holding up a football, “Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.” His teams employed the jump shift,the forerunner to the T and I formations; lateral passes; backward passes; reverses; onside kicks and sweeps with pulling guards. His players did not huddle and the quarterback would shout a play or series of plays at the line of scrimmage. Heisman is also credited with developing the center/quarterback exchange to begin a play and leading the battle to legalize the forward pass.

From 1915-1918, Heisman’s Tech teams were 30-1-2 –the University of Pittsburgh beat Tech in 1918. The 1917 team went 9-0 and won the national championship.

Probably the most memorable contest of Heisman’s Tech coaching career was a game against Cumberland College in 1916. Heisman also coached baseball at Tech and he agreed to take his 1916 baseball team to Nashville to play Cumberland College. Cumberland embarrassed Heisman’s team 22-0, allegedly using pro players against Tech’s college kids. Even though Cumberland had dropped its football program before the 1916 season for economic reasons, Heisman was determined to avenge the baseball loss and demonstrate to sportswriters the folly of awarding the national championship to the highest-scoring team. Heisman offered Cumberland a $500 guarantee and an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlanta if they would honor their agreement to play Tech in football. Cumberland accepted and produced 16 players, mostly members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity with little knowledge of football. The game lasted 45 minutes and Tech scored 32 touchdowns in the 222-0 rout.

Unlike Heisman, William Alexander, also known as Alex, began and ended his coaching career at Tech. Alexander came to Tech to study engineering in 1906 as a 16-year-old boy. He walked on to the Tech football team in 1908 and played sparingly under Heisman. However, Heisman must have seen something in Alexander because he added Alex to the coaching staff after Alex’s senior season. Upon Heisman’s departure to Penn, Alexander became Tech’s head coach, serving from 1920-1944. He compiled a 134-95-15 record, won the 1928 national championship, and was the first coach to place a team in all four of the major bowls of the time: the Rose in 1929, the Orange in 1940, the Cotton in 1943, and the Sugar in 1944.

Alex was regarded as a tough taskmaster and a man of high character who rarely lost his poise. He was a fierce defender of his players. After Tech lost a game to Alabama on a last-minute interception return for a touchdown, an assistant coach began verbally abusing some of the players in the locker room after the game. Upon hearing the assistant’s tirade, Alex told him to leave and declared, “This is your team only when it wins. Now it’s my team. Get out before I throw you out.”

After disappointing seasons in 1929 and 1930, Alexander sought a bright young assistant. In the middle of the 1930 season, Alex sent assistant Mac Tharpe to Knoxville to scout the North Carolina -Tennessee game. Tharpe’s car broke down en route and he did not arrive in Knoxville until after the game. Tharpe hoped to receive an analysis of Carolina from Tennessee head coach Bob Neyland, but Neyland directed Tharpe to quarterback Bobby Dodd. Tharpe reported back to Alexander that, “Dodd’s analysis of Carolina is better than any scouting report that I could have made.”

Alex hired Dodd as an assistant coach in December of 1930. Dodd said of Alexander, “Coach Alex was wonderful to me. He could growl and snap, but when it came to an emergency, he was our guy. He enabled me to purchase the home my family and I lived in so many years. And he did the same thing for our black trainer, Porto Rico.”

Bobby Dodd worked for Alexander as an assistant for 14 years before succeeding him as head coach in 1945. Dodd coached Tech from 1945-1966 and had a record of 165-64-8. He guided Tech to a 31-game winning streak from 1951-53, including a 12-0 season and a national championship in 1952. Also in the 1950s, Dodd engineered an eight-game winning streak against arch rival Georgia, the longest Tech streak in the series. After coaching, he remained at Tech as athletics director until 1976, then as an alumni association consultant until his death in 1988.

Generally, Dodd believed in taking it easy on his players during practices (although, numerous exceptions can be documented). He rarely left his team bruised and battered after practice–some coaches believed this method would toughen the players for the upcoming game. Instead, Dodd left his players physically and mentally piqued to give it their all on Saturday. Instead of being among the players during practice, Dodd stood in a tower overlooking the field while his assistants ran the practices.

Bobby Dodd never graduated from Tennessee, something he deeply regretted. So he constantly preached and demanded education. He provided tutors for players struggling in the classroom and badgered them until they earned their diploma. He also approved of marriage for his players while most coaches frowned on the players being married so young.   Dodd believed that the wives would police their husbands and felt confident that he knew where his married players were every night.

Bobby Dodd was arguably one of the greatest football coaches of all time. Furman Bisher wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Robert Lee Dodd brought a different style to coaching, an emphasis on craftsmanship, finesse, well-rehearsed execution and sideline genius. Many a time have I heard it said, ‘Bobby Dodd was the best sideline coach I ever saw.’”

The Holy Trinity brought football fame and recognition to the Flats for over half a century. Heisman, Alexander, and Dodd are names that will forever be linked to the halcyon days of Georgia Tech football.

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