The Ghost of Heisman?

To fans familiar with college football John W. Heisman is legendary. Each fall the “best” football player in the country receives an award bearing his name. Few, however, know the story about its namesake. Sharing this story is goal of John M. Heisman and Mark Schlabach in their new book Heisman: the Man Behind the Trophy. Hot off the presses published by Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) in October, the book relies heavily on the authorial authority of Heisman’s great nephew and popularity of ESPN columnist Schlabach. Together the authors offer a standard chronological narrative of the famed coach’s life focusing primarily on his various coaching stints.

Heisman was born in 1869 and football was normal part of his youthful existence. He was raised in Pennsylvania and Ohio on the fringes of the sporting landscape before the game’s rules had been standardized. The middle son of a cooper, he and his two brothers initiated neighborhood games and often coming home battered and bruised. It was not until Heisman attended Brown University that he was exposed to real “scientific” football. Although the school did not sponsor a team of its own, he became active on local club teams. Football, however, was not his career ambition. His father pressed him to become a lawyer — a career Brown was ill equipped to prepare him for. So, after two years in Providence he transferred to the University of Penn.

Penn not only had a law school, but also a football team. There the undersized Heisman succeed because of his hard work and grit. Football became his passion and a viable option as a back-up career. When a head injury blurred his vision and threatened his studies, coaching emerged as a clear alternative. Paying coaches, however, was not yet a universally accepted practice in the college sports world. A.A. Stagg became one of the profession’s pioneers in 1890. Heisman followed suit in 1892.

Although Stagg often serves as the model, Heisman’s career looked more like that of Glenn S. “Pop” Warner took his first job in 1895. He also earned a law degree but instead chose coaching. Indeed, while Stagg endured a long tenure at the University of Chicago, Heisman and Warner were peripatetic. The authors devote a chapter to each of Heisman’s coaching stops. These chapters are formulaic, beginning with a description of how/why he was lured to the specific job and then providing a brief overview of his coaching successes. To be sure, they include some interesting anecdotes, such as the brief rivalry between Warner and Heisman when the face off as the coaches Georgia and Auburn. Another interesting tidbit and connection is the tale of Heisman’s recruitment of Joe Guyon — a former Carlisle player and All-American under Warner — who demanded that his older brother be offered a coaching job. Eventually the coach obliged, but he remained reluctant to shady recruitment practices.

Besides a few anecdotes like these, however, the authors rarely dig deeper beyond the surface of Heisman’s X’s and O’s. Instead, he is presented as a venerable disciplinarian with a keen eye for innovation. They quote extensively from many of his published articles citing his demand for order in routine in their dress, diet, and sleep patterns. A great deal of research is present in the text, but rarely do the authors know what to do with it. Several chapters feature half-page long quotes with little to no interrogation or analysis. They accept Heisman’s written work as face value without questioning its authenticity. Indeed, the go as far as to label him a “prolific” writer without explaining the context of the era or looking at contemporary coaches. Heisman’s heyday as a writer coincided with the apex of coach-driven sports narratives. Pop Warner, A.A. Stagg, and Knute Rockne all published serialized autobiographies in Colliers and the Christy Walsh Syndicate. Ghostwriting was common practice. To be fair, Heisman may be unique. The methods and processes of ghostwriting varied among coaches and publications, and the use of personal papers inherited by his Great Nephew may reveal this to be true. Yet, the authors fail to address these concerns or present that argument. They expect readers to take their narrative at face value and trust its authority.

These expectations are not unfair given the book’s target audience. The narrative is interesting and informative as it describes the coach’s life. They share little-known facts such as his Reno divorce in 1919 that caused him to resign from Georgia Tech, and his affinity for the theater. Heisman worked as an actor in the offseason and also managed acting troops. The book is at its best when the authors let Heisman’s personality peek through the words providing a glimpse into the culture of early football. The story of his African American player, Charles West, at Washington and Jefferson highlights his moral high ground and naturally explains many of the regional characteristics that defined the game. Conversely, their descriptions of Heisman’s struggles coaching at academically rigorous schools (UPenn and Rice) leave the reader wanting more. Did he struggle because he was getting older and could no longer relate to players? Was it his authoritative and disciplinarian style? Or could he simply not lure talented players to those schools because of their academic standards? These questions go unanswered.
The authors try to balance their desire to be historically accurate and their overall aim of telling a popular, feel-good story about a coaching icon. These mixed goals are obvious in the haphazard selection and placement of background information. They spend several pages describing the Pennsylvania oil boom of the 1850 and 60s linking it to the John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and John Wilkes Booth when only a few sentences would have sufficed.

Despite this scathing critique, Schlabach and Heisman offer a solid overview of John W. Heisman’s life and football career. The book will be interesting and informative for those unfamiliar with Heisman or early football. It is also useful for its notes and citations. While they rely heavily on an unpublished manuscript penned by Heisman in 1928, this source is balanced with numerous published materials providing a beginning point for future researchers on the life of John W. Heisman, his contemporaries, or early college football.

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