Georgia Tech Football: A look back at the South’s first national title

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 12: A general view of Bobby Dodd Stadium during the game between the of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Tulane Green Wave on September 12, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 12: A general view of Bobby Dodd Stadium during the game between the of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Tulane Green Wave on September 12, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) /

As the national title game is being played blocks away on Monday night, the beginnings of Southern college football dominance can be found at Georgia Tech.

The year was 1917, and what was then known as the Georgia School of Technology had a bit of a journeyman coaching its football and baseball teams. Starting in 1904, John Heisman began what would be his longest tenure at any of the eight schools he’d coached at by career’s end.

The Golden Tornados had been playing football since 1892, and had been a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association since the 1894 season. The SIAA is the grandfather to today’s Southeastern Conference and the father to today’s (now FCS) Southern Conference.

Now thought of as the most dominant alliance in college football, in 1917 not only had the SIAA never had a national powerhouse… no team in the Southeast had ever won a title.

Aside: The 1899 Suwanee Tigers may have a legitimate beef with my statement that no team in the South had won a title by 1917, but I digress. Before we continue, you are encouraged to pause reading this and search “1899 Suwanee football train trip.” You’ll thank me later. Now back to our regularly scheduled program…

Just two years before leaving for Ivy League Penn, John Heisman led Georgia Tech to an undefeated season and a national title in his 14th season in Atlanta. The Golden Tornados would finish the 1917 season as SIAA and consensus national champions with a record of 9-0, and 4-0 in conference play.

Georgia Tech would become the first team in the South to be crowned kings of the college football world. This was the early beginnings of a football program that would become a national power and opened the door for the rise of southern dominance in the sport that had seen only champions from the Northeast and Midwest.

The 1917 Golden Tornados defense managed shutouts in seven of their nine games and only surrendered 17 points total the entire season. For the year, Georgia Tech outscored its opponents 491-17. That’s an average of nearly 55 points-per-game on offense and less than two points allowed defensively. The season started with two of those shutouts being played ON THE SAME DAY. This is still the only known case of a major football program playing a double header in the regular season… ever.

Here’s what the schedule looked like for the ’17 Tornados:

9/29 – Furman –  W 25-0

9/29 – Wake Forest – W 33-0

10/6 – Penn – W 41-0

10/13 – Davidson – W 32-10

10/20 – Washington & Lee – W 63-0

11/3 – Vanderbilt – W 83-0

11/10 – at Tulane – W 48-0

11/17 – Carlisle – W 98-0

11/29 – Auburn – W 68-7

Yes, this was a season exactly 100 years ago, but the crowds weren’t bad, even by today’s standards. Though attendance wasn’t kept as well as it is today, it’s clear that several of these games drew tens of thousands of people to the same field where today’s Yellow Jackets play. It’s thought that more than 20 thousand fans turned out for the season finale against Auburn.

The team featured All-American captain Walter Carpenter at tackle, Albert Hill at quarterback and future College Football Hall of Fame players in halfback/tackle Joe Guyon, halfback Everette Strupper, end/tackle Bill Fincher, and halfback Buck Flowers. That’s a whopping four players from the same team making up Georgia Tech’s 13 player college hall of fame list. That’s a total of six hall of fame inductees from the 1917 squad, if head coach John Heisman and assistant coach William Alexander are counted.

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It is noteworthy that Joe Guyon was a Native American from the Ojibwa tribe in Minnesota, which at the time would make the Golden Tornados a racially integrated football team. Guyon went on to have a long professional career, winning an NFL Championship and being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Along with Billy Shaw, Guyon remains one of only two Tech players enshrined in Canton.

That season, Strupper ran for 1,150 yards and 20 touchdowns in only nine games. Meanwhile, Hill and Guyton ran for well over 600 yards each and accounted for another 37 touchdowns between them. As a team, the Tornados put up 2,886 rushing yards for 72 touchdowns. Again.. that was in nine games. Fincher kicked 49 of Tech’s 59 extra points that year.

Notre Dame later had their 1924 “Four Horseman,” but it’d be hard to beat John Heisman’s backfield from seven seasons earlier to be among the best in the era.

Heisman, who at one point coached football, basketball and baseball at Georgia Tech, would eventually have college football’s most prized award named in his honor and has a statue outside the very field where he won his first and only national title as a head coach.

“I consider the 1917 Tech team the best football I have ever coached”, Heisman said of his Golden Tornados. “It’s the best team I have seen in my long career as a coach. I was lucky in having under me a team whose members possessed much natural ability and who played the game intelligently. I have never seen a team that, as a whole, was so fast in the composite.”

Without the 1917 Georgia Tech football team, it’s possible there is no Heisman Trophy. Without the dominance of those Golden Tornados, it’s possible that college football’s popularity in the Southeast doesn’t catch on quiet as fast, or gain as much notoriety so early on in the sport’s history. The team remains one of the most dominant in the history of college football.

Next: Paul Johnson’s coaching tree had a solid 2017

Two years after Georgia Tech’s first of four national titles, Texas A&M would claim a share of the 1919 championship. In 1925, the Alabama Crimson Tide traveled to the Rose Bowl and won a share of their first college football crown. This year, as the FBS national title game is played less than two miles away at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the ghosts of the South’s first set of college football champions will be running the old jump shift offense at Grant Field on the Flats.