Most college football fans know the names of various small-school programs: Div. III UChicago was an early banner-carrier for the Big Ten, produced the first Heisman Trophy winner, and competed for championships in the game’s early days. Sewanee, also Div. III, was a charter member of the SEC.
NAIA Cumberland’s similarly known today, though it’s fame is more infamy. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the single-most unbreakable record in college football history,
The story behind the historic #BeatEmDown is well known, but for the uninitiated, the below is Frank Litsky’s recap for The New York Times on the game’s 90th anniversary:
In the spring of 1915, Cumberland College of Lebanon, Tenn., was indiscreet. Its baseball team, fortified with professionals, routed Georgia Tech, 22-0.
The Georgia Tech coach, John Heisman (yes, that Heisman), vowed revenge…Cumberland discontinued football before the 1916 season, but forgot to tell Georgia Tech.
Heisman insisted that the game go on. If it did not, he said, he would hold Cumberland to a forfeit fee of $3,000, a large sum then.
So there’s the backstory. No surprise that the largest rout in football history would be a coach’s receipt for his feeling wronged. Cumberland fielding a “team” for the express purpose of playing Georgia Tech also explains such a lopsided score. A roster with even minimal experience practicing and playing together wouldn’t lose by 222 points.
Yes, the game itself and the build-up to it are well established. It exists in the annals of college football history as a footnote; an interesting stat that gets trotted out never now and again when an SEC team pummels a late-November paycheck opponent by 60 points.
However, it’s implications may be far greater. Such is the belief of Sam Hatcher, a Cumberland alum and author, whose book Heisman’s First Trophy: The Game That Launched Football in the South, as told to RealClearSports’ Stephanie Ferrell:
“Football was identified with the Northeast, and suddenly, news broke of this lopsided game, which took place in Atlanta, and people realized there was credible football being played in the South.”
Considering the South is now the center of the college football universe, Cumberland’s impact is pretty profound. Meanwhile, the celestial body of that universe is the SEC. Georgia Tech, which continued to grow into a powerhouse in the decades after destroying Cumberland, was a charter member of the Southeastern Conference.
Georgia Tech’s move away from the SEC under legendary Bobby Dodd first took the Ramblin’ Wreck independent, but eventually led Tech to the Atlantic Coast Conference. With charter member Clemson, Georgia Tech and the addition of Florida State in 1991, the South gained a second, true power conference.
A century later, the ACC hosts a national title contender with a Heisman Trophy caliber quarterback; the front-runner to win the award named for Georgia Tech’s engineer of the Cumberland beatdown; and one of the most decorated programs of the last 25 years.
As for Cumberland, the program was resurrected shortly after the Oct. 7 rout. It exists today as an NAIA program. It’s past before Oct. 7, 1916 is fascinating, though.
While Georgia Tech went on almost two decades later to help found the SEC, Cumberland was actually a member of the precursor to the conference.
The former Bulldogs, now Phoenix, won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship in 1903, and a portion of the mythical Southern national championship. Cumberland split the mythical title with Sewanee, coincidentally, the only team to beat the Bulldogs on the campaign.
Before you declare the 1903 Cumberland Bulldogs ain’t played nobody, Paul!, note two of their wins included 44-0 and 41-0 blowouts of Alabama and LSU.
Imagine an alternate reality with Cumberland continuing its pre-forward pass success throughout the 20th century and holding the banner for the SEC.