The Akron Zips football team has not had an overwhelming amount of success since it joined the FBS in 1987, winning just one MAC Championship and one bowl game in 36 seasons. Since then, the Zips have had just seven winning seasons total. These unfortunate statistics may lead us to forget about the school’s 19th century football success that included one of the most important seasons in all of college football history.
130 years ago Akron — then Buchtel College — struck gold when it hired John Heisman as its second head coach. The hire meant the first winning season in team history as Heisman used his football prowess to power the 1893 squad to five wins in a seven-game season. Because Heisman was constantly innovating while coaching, the 1893 season proved to play a big role in shaping the sport of football into what it is today.
Heisman, a Cleveland native who played at Brown and Penn in his college days, only had one year of coaching under his belt before he joined Buchtel — but it was a pretty good one. At 23 years old, he led Oberlin College to an undefeated 7-0 record in 1892. The tremendous season included a blowout win over a team in central Ohio that now calls themselves the Buckeyes and a close victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Despite being younger than many of today’s fifth and sixth-year seniors, Heisman had already built up such a name for himself as a coach in the blossoming world of American football, his arrival in the Rubber City was major headline news. The Akron Beacon Journal at the time reported “a great rejoicing among students” following the announcement that he’d become the school’s football and baseball coach in January 1893.
Even after a subpar baseball season in the spring of that year, the hype around Heisman’s football brilliance only increased by the time fall rolled around.
Buchtel’s new coach not only emphasized physical conditioning but also instilling creativity with moving the ball around.
In an era when many teams relied on sheer physical force to win, Heisman wanted to get weird and outsmart opponents with intricate plays. He was credited with the invention of a number of lateral and pass-based plays throughout his coaching career, including the double-pass, where the quarterback throws a backwards screen across to a receiver who then throws it downfield.
Heisman was also known to have strict rules for the behavior of his players. He was said to prescribe his Buchtel squad a healthy diet, saw that they went to bed early, and prohibited smoking and drinking. The original Johnny Football was a firm believer that off-the-field actions have consequences.
All of Heisman’s preseason preparation of the 1893 Buchtel team — mostly made up of local Akron kids — paid off when it took on Hiram College in the season opener in October. The newspaper recap of the 54-2 win suggested the Buchtel boys could have won by an even larger margin if only they “worked according to [Heisman’s] standard.”
One of Heisman’s most notable football contributions may have come in that Hiram game. The Beacon Journal wrote, “Heisman diffused a snap into the game it didn’t have before.” This likely references the introduction of the direct snap in football which Heisman has been credited for inventing in 1893. Previously, the centers would roll the ball on the ground to the quarterback to start a play.
While Heisman injected energy into the young program, it wouldn’t have been an Akron football season without a bad loss.
In its second game of the year, Buchtel was stomped 36-0 by Case School of Applied Science — now known as Case Western Reserve University. Heisman expressed frustration with the lack of a second squad of eleven for his team to practice against which he felt was the reason his team couldn’t keep up with Case.
(He would have salivated over the Zips’ current roster of over 100 names.)
Buchtel bounced back the next game and crushed Massillon Athletic Club 52-4 playing Heisman’s “scientific” brand of football. After most of Buchtel’s wins this season, newspapers would emphasize the technical skill and strategy gaps between Buchtel and its opponent.
For a reason which was never followed up on properly by newspapers of the time, Heisman left Akron for a few days in early November to travel with Oberlin’s team on their two-game road trip to Illinois — which led him to miss Buchtel’s matchup against Western Reserve University.
Buchtel easily prevailed by a score of 66-4, even without his assistance. Halfback James Gardner, whose name showed up often in 1893 for gashing defenses and making his home in the end zone finished with five touchdowns.
Heisman returned for his squad’s big matchup at Ohio State. Buchtel was said to have fought hard and kept the game competitive, but it looked like big school favoritism by officials was in play as Ohio State was said to be given unfair opportunities. Newspapers at the time reported Buchtel “complain[ed] bitterly of rank injustice done them in rough playing” after the match.
In what would be an absolute scandal in modern-day games, Butchel alleged the first half was 17 minutes too long, which allowed the Scarlet and Grey to score two extra touchdowns.
The game finished 32-18 in favor of Ohio State.
Although Heisman was not a student, the eligibility rules in college football were cloudy enough that he got away with entering the game as a player several times for Buchtel. In a 46-4 November win over Ohio Wesleyan he reportedly rushed for three touchdowns and even successfully converted a two-point kick that was customary following the four-point touchdowns back then.
Heisman’s squad finished off the season with yet another blowout win this time over future D-III powerhouse Mount Union to push their record to 5-2.
Heisman’s final game as the leader of the Buchelites would be played on the first weekend of September 1894, in a matchup against Ohio State at the State Fair in Columbus. The starting 11, with “a large number of enthusiasts” accomanying them to the state capital, would wrap the Heisman era up by avenging the “rank injustice” suffered 10 months prior, taking down the Buckeyes 12-6 — with Heisman himself under center.
Heisman departed Akron after one-plus season of service, returning to Oberlin— the program he departed the year prior— in July 1894. but it was a season which left a great impact upon the Ohio football scene— and college football as a whole, as his innovations perfected at both Oberlin and Butchel would be both translated and improved upon in the southern football scene at bigger programs.
University of Clemson historian Dr. James Reel noted that Clemson, Heisman’s second southern coaching stop, caught the football fever in his tenure, per The Charleston [SC] Post-Courier:
“This little, nothing school up in the backwoods of South Carolina, on no one’s main track, goes blazing through seasons beating Georgia Tech, Georgia all kinds of teams like that, pretty fair teams, it caught the eye of people,” Reel told the Post-Courier’s Travis Sawchick in 2012. “People began associating Clemson with very manly athletics. It became a place where people wanted to send their young men.”
His aura was impressive; the former high school salutatorian whose first love was the theatrical arts, Heisman carried two Ivy League degrees (Brown and Penn) and varsity letters to go with them, and a uniquely scientific approach to an otherwise barbaric game.
His teams would ultimately take on that tactician’s personality. The Montgomery [AL] Journal described Heisman’s 1899 Tigers unit as “brainy and full of pluck”, who performed “without, exception, like clockwork.”
Glomerata, Auburn University’s yearbook, was even more effusive in its praising their newly-obtained football coach as a person in 1897, describing the Ohio-born and bred Heisman as “not only the best football coach the South has ever seen, but also the perfect gentleman, and we love him for all he’s worth.”
Heisman might have ultimately been gifted the title of “the pioneer of Southern football” by his coaching and media peers, but it is undeniable his roots were firmly in the Midwest, playing a big role in the Midwest catching the college football fever that MAC football fans have today.
Heisman’s love of football and his unique innovations, first formulated in Oberlin and Butchel, can still be felt in the game as we know it today, where strategy and creativity are just as important as strength and speed.