On October 7, 1916 the Georgia Tech football team dismantled the visiting team of Cumberland College 222-0. It is the largest ever margin of victory in a college football game.
The score is probably one of the few things we know for certain about this game between Atlanta’s Georgia Tech and Cumberland, of Lebanon, Tennessee. The rest has become muddled by history with conflicting reports and embellished memories. I’ve tried my best below to scrape an idea of what transpired over a century ago.
We do at least know that this story begins with Cumberland trying to get out of the game by claiming their football team had disbanded. However, a team had already played in 1916; Sewanee routed the school 107-0 the weekend before the scheduled Georgia Tech conflict. There is further proof that Cumberland played several games beforehand, but the exact number is disputed.
Georgia Tech’s head coach John Heisman—whose name now adorns the most prestigious individual trophy in college football—didn’t buy Cumberland’s excuse. He demanded that the school pay $3,000 per the scheduling agreement (the estimated amount Tech would earn at the game’s gate) if no team showed and even offered $500 plus an all-expenses paid trip to Atlanta.
Heisman’s desire likely wasn’t motivated purely by money, but by revenge. In spring 1916, Cumberland thrashed Tech’s baseball team 22-0. Heisman, who also coached the baseball nine, believed the Tennessee school had supplemented their squad with professional players. Heisman, with the backing of alumni and students, vowed to avenge this affront.
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Not wanting to cough up several thousand dollars (equivalent to around $70,000 in today’s money), Cumberland ultimately relented. Student manager-coach George E. Allen, who later befriended several US presidents in the ’30s and ’40s, was tasked with assembling a team.
It’s not exactly clear how many fellows Allen gathered to travel down to Georgia. Some reports indicate 12 or 13, others 16. The most likely scenario is that 19 originally left Lebanon; however, three got lost in Nashville and missed the connecting train, so 16 reached Atlanta (Allen reportedly hoped to recruit some players from Vanderbilt during the stopover in Nashville, but that proved a dud as the Commodores had their own game that weekend).
Whatever number Cumberland brought, it wasn’t enough to stop the Yellow Jacket onslaught, which started fast and early. Per the game’s play-by-play account assembled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Tech scored on their very first play, a 20-yard rush by Everett Strupper. On the next two Cumberland possessions, the visitors fumbled on their first play. Both times, the Yellow Jackets recovered the fumble and scored off the turnover, giving the hosts a quick 21-0 lead.
The early scoring spree may have sprung because the Engineers of Georgia Tech had something extra to compete for beyond revenge: Heisman planned to play his first team in the odd quarters and the second team in the evens. Alumni promised to buy a steak dinner for whichever team scored the most points.
Once things reached 28-0, Cumberland elected to kickoff after Tech touchdowns to pin the hosts deep in their own half. The strategy didn’t work—Buzz Shaver returned the first kick 70 yards to the Cumberland 10-yard line—and the Yellow Jackets were up 63-0 after one quarter. The next period saw Tech put up the same number for a 126-0 lead at the break. Kicker Jim Preas nailed all 18 of his extra-point tries in the half.
In the third quarter, the Georgia Tech engine slowed slightly, but the team continued to score on every possession. By the end of that third frame, the Yellow Jackets had added 54 points to the scoreboard, which now read 180-0.
Once in the fourth quarter, Cumberland was exhausted. Georgia Tech quarterback George Griffin told Sports Illustrated in 1961 about Heisman spotting some Cumberland players sitting on the Tech bench: “He yelled at them to get back to their side of the field. They said, ‘Give us a break. Don’t make us go back. We’ll have to go into the game.’ ”
In another memorable fourth-quarter moment, a Cumberland fullback fumbled the ball towards teammate B.F. “Bird” Patey. The fumbler yelled, “Pick it up, Patey!” Eyeing the Georgia Tech colony beelining towards the ball, Patey, retorted, “Pick it up yourself—you dropped it!”
The plights of Cumberland didn’t draw any mercy from Georgia Tech, which continued its scoring downpour. The fourth quarter may have gone slightly better for Cumberland on the scoreboard, but it was still pretty bad: The hosts scored 42 points to make the final score 222-0.
All told, Cumberland fumbled the ball nine times and threw six interceptions. The quarterbacking duo of Charlie Edwards and Morris Gouger combined to connect on two passes out of 18 attempts for 14 yards. The rushing department fared even worse: Cumberland gained minus-42 yards via the ground.
The men from Lebanon had at least one bright spot, but this quote attributed to famous sportswriter Grantland Rice by a Reader’s Digest article in 1955 suggests otherwise: “Cumberland’s greatest individual play of the game occurred when fullback Allen circled right end for a six-yard loss.”
In my research, I couldn’t find when or where Rice actually wrote this, although he penned in a 1944 syndicated column—perhaps tongue-in-cheek, “[…] George Allen of Cumberland, now a prominent citizen of Washington, D.C., made the star play of the day for his side, losing only nine yards on an attempted end run.” Additionally, Rice is commonly credited as covering the Georgia Tech-Cumberland game; however, he was instead one thousand miles away in Massachusetts reporting on the World Series opener between Boston and Brooklyn.
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Regardless of Rice’s numbers, Cumberland’s shining moment came in the fourth quarter when Gouger completed a 10-yard pass. Unfortunately for the visitors, the completion came on a third-and-22 with the score 208-0.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, garnered over 950 yards between rushes and kick and punt returns. Heisman’s men did not even attempt a pass. Of Tech’s 32 touchdowns, Strupper led the way with six.
Oh, and perhaps the fact that the teams played a shortened game makes everything more amazing. Some accounts indicate Heisman relented at halftime and agreed to let the second half last only 15 minutes instead of 30. In The Atlanta Journal’s report of the game, all four quarters ran 12-and-a-half minutes for a 50-minute contest. Regardless of the exact length, Georgia Tech put up 222 points over the course of a 45- or 50-minute football game.
You’re doing all right team, 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!
The Georgia Tech’s head coach’s halftime speech with the score 126-0 in favor of Tech
Allen noted in the 1955 Reader’s Digest article that the school received the $500 guarantee after the game. Then the team took in Atlanta’s sights. In the words of Cumberland’s Pete Gray, who was one of six Lebanon men to play the entire game, the city tour was seen “through swollen eyes.”
As for Georgia Tech’s prized dinner, Heisman decreed that it had been a “fairly good game” and so every Engineer got some steak. However, the coach still ran his team through a 30-minute scrimmage before the feast.
The game itself received little national recognition outside of local papers in the South. In fact, the Chicago Tribune called a 205-0 game between two Illinois high schools one week later “the world’s record football score”.
Heisman revealed in his season review for the 1917 Blue Print (Georgia Tech’s yearbook) that the decision to run up the score was—at least partially—due to his frustration at the press assigning great value to a team’s total points over the course of a season:
[I have] often contended that this habit on the part of sportswriters of totaling up, from week’s end to week’s end, the number of points each team has amassed in its various games and comparing them with one another was a useless thing. Still the writers persisted, and some at each season’s end would still presume to hang an argument on what they claimed it show. So, finding that folks are determined to take the crazy thing into consideration, we at Tech determined this year, at the start of the season, to show folks it was no very 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.
Georgia Tech finished out the 1916 season with an 8-0-1 record, the lone tie coming against Washington and Lee University on October 28. The Engineers’ 421 points on the year were second in the nation to Georgetown’s 464. An unbeaten mark wasn’t enough for Tech to win the national crown; as counted by the NCAA, the 1916 title was split by Army (9-0) and Pittsburgh (8-0). The Atlanta school did, however, share a piece of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s championship with Tennessee.
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The Engineers wouldn’t have to wait long for national recognition, however. In 1917, Georgia Tech won its first—initially self-proclaimed and then eventually by other institutions—national championship after posting a 9-0 record. The program later won the Rose Bowl (and another national championship) in 1929 under the leadership of William Alexander, who succeeded Heisman as head coach in 1920. The Yellow Jackets have since claimed national titles for the ’52 and ’90 seasons.
Heisman would leave the school after the 1919 season. He later finished up his coaching career in 1927 after stints with Penn, Washington and Jefferson, and Rice. Heisman spent the final years of his life as the first athletic director of the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan, New York. His time there was highlighted in 1935 by the creation of an award for “the most valuable [college] football player in the East”. He passed away less than a year later, and two months after his death, the club renamed the trophy the “Heisman Memorial Trophy”.
Perhaps in part because of the two humiliating losses that totaled zero points for and 329 points against, Cumberland wouldn’t return to the gridiron until 1920. The program then ran without much stoppage (besides a few years during the Great Depression and World War II) until the school dumped the sport in ’49. Football eventually came back to campus in 1990 as a NAIA program.
In October 1956, 28 members of both schools met up for a reunion to celebrate the game’s 40th anniversary. Cumberland’s Gentry Dugat, who had only played football twice before college, had this to say: “Little did we realize we were playing ourselves into immortality that day. We made you of Georgia Tech a great team.”
The most recent development regarding the 222-0 game came in 2014. In August that year, Georgia Tech alumnus and football season-ticket holder Ryan Schneider bought the game ball for $40,388 in a 19-day online auction conducted by the California-based SCP Auctions. The patent lawyer later donated the ball to his alma mater and it now lives inside the school’s Arthur B. Edge Intercollegiate Athletics Center.
Each player was named for a vegetable. If I wanted to send the right half-back through left tackle, I’d call “Turnip over Cabbage!” Or a pass from the quarterback to left end, “Tomato to Carrot!” The trouble was that Tech made vegetable stew out of us!
Cumberland’s quarterback on the team’s “classy set of signals” devised for the game
Two images from the game’s action have made it to the digital age. This first image (which is clearly the better one) was taken at the end of a play. Because both teams wore dark uniforms, it’s difficult to discern which side is which:
This image, from further away, shows both teams lined up before the snap. Georgia Tech is on the left side:
There’s also a third image of the final scoreboard:
Finally, due to the ball’s historical significance, this image of the game ball is worth sharing, too:
We took a glorious licking! It was positively the worst football game ever played!
George E. Allen
Cumberland’s student manager-coach and future political crony
- As part of a scheduling agreement and under threat of a $3,000 fine, Cumberland was forced to play a football game against Georgia Tech in 1916.
- In the game, Georgia Tech scored 32 touchdowns and gained over 950 yards en route to a 220-0 victory. Cumberland netted minus-28 yards of offense.
- The Yellow Jackets finished the year 8-0-1 and won the national championship the next season. Cumberland’s football team didn’t play again until 1920.
As a general rule the only thing necessary for a touchdown was to give a Tech back the ball and holler, “Here he comes” and “There he goes.”
An Atlanta Journal sportswriter in his game report
- Football Bowl Subdivision Records, via NCAA.org
- Reader’s Digest, October 1955, pages 53-57
- The Atlanta Constitution, October 8, 1916 via Newspapers.com
- The Atlanta Constitution, October 15, 1916 via Newspapers.com
- The Chicago Sunday Tribune, October 15, 1916 via Newspapers.com
- Nashville Tennessean, October 1, 1916 via Newspapers.com
- The New York Times, November 14, 1935 via TimesMachine
- The Sun (New York City), December 3, 1916 via the Library of Congress
- The Blue Print, “Athletics”, 1917, via the Georgia Tech Library
- “How Atlanta Journal covered Tech’s 222-0 win”, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
- “The Game of the Century”, Cumberland University via the Internet Archive
- “History”, Cumberland University Athletics
- “A Monumental Victory”, Georgia Tech Athletics
- “Big Score for Georgia Tech, After Alumnus Wins Bid for a Relic”, The New York Times
- “In 1916, a Blowout for the Ages”, The New York Times
- “College Football Playoff Controversy Is 100 Years Old—Just Ask Georgia Tech”, Sports Illustrated
- “Football’s Glorious Slaughter”, Sports Illustrated