Revisiting Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0 and how it may have saved the school
It's suggested that Cumberland wouldn't be around today had it not been crushed in 1916
One hundred years ago Friday, a theatrical performance masquerading as a college football game was played. Because of it, Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0 lives on in infamy.
Thanks to Georgia Tech coach John Heisman -- yes, that Heisman -- running up the score against Cumberland fraternity members, the game remains a novelty that transcends sports by even appearing on Trivial Pursuit cards.
But now on the 100th anniversary, Cumberland is pushing a slightly different story rarely discussed about the massacre: Cumberland says playing the game saved the school from getting shut down.
"The hard thing on Cumberland's side is not being able to tell the whole story," said Cumberland board of trustee member Sam Hatcher, a former journalist who wrote a book this year, "Heisman's First Trophy," about the 222-0 game. "I think it hurts our feelings when Kirk Herbstreit may say every year, 'This is the day Georgia Tech walloped Cumberland 222-0,' and there's no explanation of it. These 14 guys at Cumberland went to Georgia Tech to save the university."
Many basic facts about why Cumberland and Georgia Tech played are well established through old press clippings, research by historians and Heisman's own words. In 1916, Heisman wrote that he wanted the game to get even for a Cumberland baseball team filled with pro players that trounced Georgia Tech 22-0. It's likely no coincidence that Heisman settled on 222 points in the football game.
But when Cumberland started experiencing financial difficulties in 1916, its new president ended funding for all sports teams, including football. One problem: Student manager George E. Allen neglected to cancel the Georgia Tech football game.
Cumberland tried to back out, but Heisman demanded the game be played or the school pay $3,000 to forfeit (about $70,000 today). So Allen, a law school student at Cumberland, rounded up 13 members of his Kappa Sigma fraternity to play in Atlanta for a $500 fee to the school from Heisman.
"If the lawsuit was successful, Cumberland probably would have closed its doors and couldn't have paid the damages," Hatcher said. "So George Allen, feeling the weight on his shoulders, got 13 others to hop on a train to play Georgia Tech in order to save their university. It's sort of a romantic story in a way. It frustrates me when you say you're associated with Cumberland University and people say, 'That's the school that got beat by Georgia Tech 222-0.'"
In a press release this year, Cumberland also suggested the school could have shut down by writing this: "One might assume the effect of this game would be disastrous for Cumberland University, a small, private university in Lebanon, Tenn., but instead the game preserved the school, and landed Southern football on the map."
But it's not entirely clear that Heisman could have contractually forced Cumberland to pay, nor is it known for certain if Cumberland would have needed to shut down if it had to pay $3,000.
Marilyn Somers, director of the Georgia Tech Living History program, has closely studied and written articles about the Cumberland-Georgia Tech game.
"I've never heard that before," Somers said of Cumberland having to shut down if the game wasn't played. "It sounds like it might be an exaggeration. It's not in [Heisman's] book. But would he put something like that in the book? I didn't see that on [Cumberland's] website to see what they have to say about all of it."
When Cumberland reinstated football in 1990, the Chicago Tribune published a lengthy story about the 222-0 game. There's no mention that Cumberland would have had to close its doors without playing.
Hatcher's book offers this disclaimer: "This is a work of fiction. Critical events in this story took place and individuals who participated are portrayed as may be imagined. Efforts have been to made to provide an interesting story that correctly presents critical facts surrounding the game, and the role of the colorful cast of characters who participated in the event."
Hatcher said most of his research about the game came via accounts from The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as well as a written history about the university by journalism professor Frank Burns. When pressed on how he knows Cumberland would have shut down, Hatcher said the $3,000 "could" have resulted in the school missing payrolls.
"Where Heisman got off saying the fee would be $3,000, I don't know," Somers said. "That was an astronomical amount of money at the time. Whether he even had the authority to do that, I don't know."
Hatcher claims he encountered an unpleasant experience when he visited Georgia Tech last January to take a picture of the 222-0 football for his book cover. According to Hatcher, a Georgia Tech sports information department staff member abruptly told him, "I don't care who you are. I don't care you've driven all the way from Atlanta. We're not going to play Cumberland in football, we're not going to play Cumberland in baseball and we'd just as soon forget the 222-0 game." (Hatcher was able to get a photo of the ball.)
A Georgia Tech athletic department spokesman said he couldn't speak to whether the January encounter with Hatcher occurred because the spokesman wasn't at the school then. Somers said she plans to write an apology note to Hatcher on behalf of Georgia Tech.
"That's inexcusable," Somers said. "I'd love to know who told him that. That's pretty awful anybody would do that."
Cumberland is in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), so it's not clear why a Georgia Tech official would tell Hatcher the Yellow Jackets won't schedule games against Cumberland.
Cumberland applied in 2014 to become an NCAA Division II member. The NCAA decided that Cumberland was not prepared to enter the Division II membership process. Cumberland appealed the decision and another NCAA committee upheld the original decision. Cumberland athletic director Ron Pavan declined to discuss details about what happened.
Today, Cumberland has a $7 million athletic department budget and is 2-3 in football this season after a 4-6 record in 2015. The football team's last conference championship came in 2008. The athletic department, led by a successful baseball program, has won five NAIA national championships in the past eight years.
Yet still, 222-0 lives on. Pavan said he periodically hears the score mentioned at home football games. As Cumberland celebrates its 175th anniversary, the school keeps remembering the game as a symbol of persistence. Cumberland once burned down during the Civil War and rebuilt, the reason its nickname is the Phoenix.
"I'm not ashamed of the game. It gets our name out," Pavan said. "You could say, 'Why would you want someone to know that you got trounced?' Look, I'm very competitive. But if it meant I would have all of these generations getting their degrees at Cumberland because of some young people saving the school, I mean, it's a movie. Who does that?"
Somers, the Georgia Tech historian, said it's worth noting that Heisman's major source of income came from acting in the theater, not through coaching. In that sense, Cumberland-Georgia Tech was a theatrical performance. The Yellow Jackets compiled 978 yards for 32 touchdowns, forced 15 turnovers and held Cumberland to minus-28 yards of offense.
Perhaps Cumberland really would have needed to shut down its university by paying a forfeiture fee to Heisman. But on the 100th anniversary of 222-0, it's hard not to wonder if Cumberland is exaggerating a few details to sell its own theatrical act.
"I think when people hear that score they hear, 'Wow, what a coach, what a football game,' without realizing it really was a farce," Somers said. "Heisman was creating a farce that would amuse everybody. I think we should all treat it with a little bit of jest. It's long gone. Everybody is dead and buried, and there shouldn't be any hard feelings."
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