After an alert reader asked a good question about John Heisman (which I still don’t know the answer to, by the way), I began to get curious about the entire Heisman episode at Rice. As with almost everything in the archives, there turns out to be far more to this than first meets the eye. I’ve found a stack of telegrams to President Lovett from William Ward Watkin, the Rice professor of architecture who also chaired the powerful Committee on Outdoor Sports, sent as Watkin traveled in the east looking for a new coach. I haven’t had time to sort all this out yet, but I did get a chance to look at the Thresher’s coverage of Heisman’s arrival at Rice.
The students were really pretty excited. The Thresher put out a special Extra Edition, printed on red paper. I think “giddy” would be a fair description of their response. If you click and zoom in on the small box at the bottom right of the page, there is a charming call for football recruits. Heisman can’t do it on his own, they declare. He will need “real honest-to-God he-men” who are willing to work hard and are “NOT ON PROBATION.” By the time Heisman actually made it to Houston, the members of the R Association were just as excited. He spoke to them the day of his arrival and the account of his remarks was glowing. Expectations were sky high.
A few weeks later, another story appeared in the Thresher, so small I almost missed it. The headline here is misleading. The story isn’t really about how lucky Rice was to have Heisman, although that is mentioned. Rather, it’s about how Heisman blew out of his last coaching job (at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania) with no warning, leaving that school reeling.
Now this is interesting. I just ordered a ridiculously expensive book about the history of football at Washington and Jefferson to see if I can find out what this was all about. If nothing else, I’ll learn something about the extremely impressive athletic accomplishments of this tiny school near Pittsburgh, which managed to be a national football powerhouse for many years with an enrollment of about 500.