A Heisman Legacy: Franklin & Marshall's Heisman Trophy Connection

LANCASTER, PA -- On Saturday, December 13, the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City, in conjunction with the American Suzuki Motor Corporation, will present the 2003 Heisman Trophy to the Most Outstanding College Football Player at the Yale Club NYC.

An award annually presented to a Division I player, the 13-inch tall trophy has its roots in Division III as on December 9, 1935, the Downtown Athletic Club presented the University of Chicago's Jay Berwanger, a triple-threat cyclone in Chicago's backfield, with the inaugural trophy. At the time, there were no divisions in NCAA sports, as the University of Chicago and other small colleges like Franklin & Marshall, Gettysburg and the University of Rochester competed versus schools like Penn State, Yale, Michigan, Ohio State, Syracuse and Fordham on an equal level.

For Franklin & Marshall, which never fielded a Heisman recipient as the University of Chicago is the only non-Division I school to ever yield the stiff-arming trophy, the Heisman Trophy plays a minor role in the program's nickname.

In 1935, the Nevonians (as F&M sports teams were then known) were among the elite small college programs in the United States. Coming off an 8-1 record in 1934 (a 6-0 loss at Ursinus spoiling the team's quest for a perfect season) in which the team blanked Rutgers and Lafayette by 7-0 and 14-0 scores, respectively, Franklin & Marshall was the toast of Southeastern Pennsylvania college football.

Led by brash coach Al Holman, F&M started the year in the land of Giants by travelling to New York City to face the Fordham Rams in the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants professional baseball team.

How big was the game? Consider that Fordham's offensive and defensive lines, under head coach "Sleepy" Jim Crowley, one of Notre Dame's legendary "Four Horseman", were known as the "The Seven Blocks of Granite". On the line looking across at the experienced team from Lancaster were a pair of future National Football League Hall-of-Fame players in Alex Wojciechowicz and a sophomore by the name of Vince Lombardi.

The Diplomats, as they would be called following the game, entered the contest with all 11 starters either seniors or juniors.

According to the newspapers of the time, F&M was a bump in the road for Fordham which was acknowledged as one of the best college football teams in the nation and a sure bet to advance to the only post-season game around in 1935 - the Rose Bowl.

"All the newspapers said we would have stiff necks looking at the buildings," said left end and F&M Hall-of-Famer George "Whitey" Pew in an interview with the Lancaster New Era in 1985. "They thought we were a bunch of hicks."

To get to the game, the 33-member F&M team took the railroad to New York, including a young center by the name of Solomon Woodrow "Woody" Sponaugle.

Sponaugle, who coached F&M's football team from 1948 to 1962 and led the program to a record of 59-58-6, got the Diplomats on the board first blocking and recovering a punt as the team's left the field at halftime with the upstart Nevonians leading 7-0.

What happened next changed at least the image of the football program and the name of F&M athletics.

"The Diplomats' downfall could be traced indirectly to their penchant for oratory, conference, or just plain gas in the clubhouse, a failing customary in the diplomatic services of both hemispheres. An uncommon penalty was revoked against F&M for remaining too long in its dressing room between halves, and it never recovered from the blow," noted New York sportswriter Arthur Dailey.

Fordham came back to win the game 14-7, but Franklin & Marshall College had a new mascot and respect as a power in college football earning the title of "greatest small-time college team" from Fordham's Crowley.

So, how does this tie into the Heisman Trophy? It is the invitation of assisting in the awards creation offered to Fordham and Crowley following the game that moderately links Franklin & Marshall and the Heisman.

The Heisman website (www.heisman.com) states, "Prior to the 1935 season, the Downtown Athletic Club further evidenced its devotion to sports by creating an annual award to the Outstanding College Football Player in the United States. It was decided to make the first award presentation at the close of the 1935 football season. Before that, however, a great deal of preparatory work had to be done. First, the trophy itself - what style should it be, how big. And what style of design? The traditional cup or bowl seemed too commonplace, lacked distinction and was in no way emblematic of the athletic talent to be honored and immortalized.

The Club Trophy Committee decided after deliberation that the trophy should be the replica, in bronze, of a muscular gridder driving for yardage. To create this trophy, a well-known sculptor and National Academy prizewinner, Frank Eliscu, was engaged. He set to work at once selecting Ed Smith, a leading player on the 1934 New York University football team, as his model. In due course, Eliscu prepared a rough clay model. It was approved by the DAC Committee and sent uptown to Fordhamn's Crowley for his inspection. He showed the replica to his 1935 players who took various positions on the field to illustrate and verify the sidestep, the forward drive and the strong arm thrust of the right arm." A picture of Fordham running back Warren Mulrey posing in the "Heisman" stance for Crowley at Rose Hill Field has appeared in multiple places connected with the award.

Sculptor Eliscu closely observed these action sequences and modified his clay prototype to correspond. The result was a truly lifelike simulation of player action. It was then converted into a plaster cast, a step preliminary to ultimate production in bronze.

Before the time came to select the top collegiate gridiron star for the next year (1936) the DAC Trophy was accorded a special dedication and a new name.

In 1930, John W. Heisman became the first Athletic Director of the Downtown Athletic Club. He was singularly qualified for this position by virtue of an outstanding athletic career. He played varsity football at Brown and Penn and then moved on to a success and stature in coaching comparable with such immortals as Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner, Bob Zuppke, Percy Haughton, Clark Shaughnessy, Hurry-Up Yost and Knute Rockne. His coaching career spanned 36 years from 1892 through Oberlin (1892), Akron (1893-94), Auburn (1895-99), Clemson (1900-03), Georgia Tech (1904-19), Pennsylvania (1920-22), Washington & Jefferson (1923) and Rice (1924-27).

During his tenure at Penn, Franklin & Marshall went 0-2 against the famed coach falling 20-0 in 1921 and 14-0 in 1922 in Philadelphia. Heisman left Penn after 1923 to take over a Washington & Jefferson program which had tied the University of California 0-0 in the 1921 Rose Bowl.

After seven years as Director of Athletics at the Downtown Athletic Club, John W. Heisman on October 3, 1936 succumbed to bronchial pneumonia. As a tribute to his memory, the DAC Trophy was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy and awarded in 1936, and each subsequent year, to the outstanding gridiron star. In 1968, the Heisman Trophy Committee voted to award two trophies each year - to the winner and to the college or university he represents. It was decided that coaches would not vote on the Heisman trophy because they might be prejudiced toward their own teams and might reflect, in the evaluations and voting, traditional or regional bias. Thus, sportswriters on radio and television seemed the most logical choice to make up a nationwide panel of informed and competent judges.

Today, Franklin & Marshall continues its connection to John Heisman as the Diplomats have opened the season for the last three years versus Oberlin College of Ohio, an institution with which Heisman started his coaching career and experienced some success.

In 1892, he led the Yeomen football team to a perfect 7-0 record. In those days of high-powered football, the '92 Oberlin grid squad defeated both Ohio State and Michigan and was ranked with Minnesota and Purdue as one of the three best teams west of the Allegheny Mountains.

As testament to Oberlin's strength and dominance within the state of Ohio, the Yeomen defeated Ohio State twice in 1892, by the lopsided scores of 40-0 and 50-0. The second defeat was so humiliating that to this day the Buckeye Department of Athletics refuses to recognize this game in their records as an official contest.

Fast forward 110 years and in three meetings versus Oberlin, the Diplomats are a perfect 3-0 as Franklin & Marshall has knocked off the Yeomen by scores of 26-14, 13-6 and 30-6 since 2001.

The current Diplomats have another Heisman connection in their head coach, Shawn Halloran.

Halloran first came to national prominence as a member of the Boston College football team from 1982-1987 where he served two years as the back-up quarterback to 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, before earning the starting job in 1985.

Among a litany of superb passers in B.C. history, he ranks third behind Flutie and Glenn Foley in Boston College's all-time passing yardage statistics, with 5,252 yards. Both Flutie and Foley exceeded the 10,000-yard mark, but each had almost a full four years of play to accomplish the feat. Three times Halloran threw for more than 400 yards in a game, and three times he tossed four touchdown passes in a single contest.

He ranks fifth all-time in touchdown passes with 30, second to Mike Kruczek in completion percentage (57.5%) and third in career completions with 416, his individual season and game marks include most attempts (423), and completions (234) in a season; and a tie with Red Harris for most attempts in a game (57).

The Diplomat with the most connections and near misses to the trophy is Hall of Fame coach Tom Gilburg.

The head coach of the Diplomats from 1975-2002, Gilburg was a member of the 1959 AP and UPI National Champion Syracuse Orangemen. A three-year letterwinner at Syracuse, he was a blocking tightend and linebacker his sophomore and junior seasons before moving to tackle and noseguard as a senior while serving as the team's punter.

While at tackle, he blocked for classmate and 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis who shattered 1956 Heisman fifth runner-up Jim Brown's career records in rushing (2,386 yards), yards gained all ways (3,414), scoring (220 points) and touchdowns (35) at Syracuse.

However, Gilburg's near miss of being connected second-hand to the trophy as a professional is also notable as 1954 Heisman winner Alan Ameche of Wisconsin retired from the Baltimore Colts following the 1960 season, only months before Gilburg was selected by the Colts in the second round of the 1961 National Football League draft.

So, on December 13 when the Downtown Athletic Club presents the next Heisman Trophy, think of Franklin & Marshall's Halloran, Gilburg, Sponaugle and teams of old that have a connection (second hand or otherwise) to the 25-lbs. trophy and the legacy of success and excellence which it represents.