Georgia Tech's great 1917 backfield:
(left to right) halfback Everett Strupper, fullback Judy Harlan,
halfback Joe Guyon, and quarterback Albert Hill. This quartet makes the
short list for greatest single platoon backfield of all time, joining
Carlisle 1912, Notre Dame 1924, and Army 1945. Interestingly, Joe Guyon
also started in that 1912 Carlisle backfield.
Called the "Golden
Tornado" at the time, 9-0 Georgia Tech blew away every opponent,
outscoring them 491-17, but the big win came 41-0 over 9-2 Penn, whom
10-0 Pittsburgh only beat 14-6. Georgia Tech was hailed far and
wide as the best team of 1917, and time has done nothing to dim that
because they are a unanimous choice for 1917 national champion amongst
organizations and computer programs listed in the NCAA Records Book,
all of whom made the selection long after 1917. In fact, this Georgia
Tech team is widely considered one of the best teams of all time.
However, while there's no doubt that Georgia Tech belongs on the
mythical throne for 1917, it is still worth taking a look at 10-0 Pitt,
the consensus mythical national champion (MNC) the year before and the
year after this, to see if they deserve a share of the 1917 MNC as
well. After all, Georgia Tech played just one team that would have
finished in an AP poll's top 25 in 1917, while Pitt played 4, and 2 of
them would have been top 5. And in 1918, the two teams did play each other, and Pitt handed Georgia Tech
their only loss 32-0. Those are our only contenders for 1917, but 8-0-1 Ohio State
made a serious run at it until they were derailed in a shocking upset
at season's end. Led by superstar halfback Chic Harley, OSU had routed
all their conference opponents, and the Western Conference (Big 10) was
very strong this season. A New York paper rated 4 of them in their
national top 13, and I believe 6 of them would have made a national AP
poll's top 25. Then Ohio State played a charity game against 6-2-1 Auburn in
Montgomery, and Auburn tied them 0-0. Ohio State lost because Chic Harley
uncharacteristically missed on a couple of field goal attempts, but for
a little perspective, Georgia Tech beat Auburn 68-7 just five days later.
So was the Big 10 overrated and the South underrated? I doubt it.
3-2-1 Chicago beat 5-3 Vanderbilt 48-0. Auburn lost 21-7 to Davidson,
who lost 27-6 to 7-1 Navy. Davidson was also edged out by 6-2-1
Virginia Tech and 6-2-1 North Carolina State, who took their losses to
Washington & Lee, West Virginia, and Georgetown, all in routs.
Outside of Georgia Tech, the South was weak as usual this season.
Meanwhile, 4-2-1 Wisconsin tied 6-1-1 Notre Dame, who beat 7-1 Army.
5-2-1 Illinois beat 6-2 Kansas, and 5-2 Northwestern beat 8-2 Michigan
(who was not in the Big 10 at this time). The Big 10 went 23-3-2
against nonconference foes, all 3 losses taken by last place Iowa. All
of which makes Auburn's
tie of Ohio State all the more remarkable.
As usual, the
Southwest produced an unbeaten and untied team this year. It had been 8-0 Texas
in 1914, 10-0 Oklahoma in 1915, 10-0 Tulsa in 1916, and this time it
was 8-0 Texas A&M's turn. The region's championship came down to
the finale, as 7-0 Texas A&M visited 7-0 Rice and prevailed 10-0.
The Southwest would continue to produce teams with perfect records for
the following 3 seasons as well: 9-0 Texas and 6-0 Oklahoma in 1918, 10-0 Texas A&M in 1919, and 9-0 Texas in 1920.
The final team worth mention here, if barely, is Rocky Mountain
champion Denver, who staggered their way to 9-0 in a series of close
wins over weak opponents. Least impressive of these was a 20-19 decision at 0-8-1
I summarized previous Pittsburgh teams in my national championship
articles for 1904, 1910, 1915, and 1916,
and I covered their Hall of Fame coach, Pop Warner, in the 1915 piece.
This was not at all the same Pitt team as the 1916 MNC edition, because
they lost all 5 of their All Americans from the previous season:
center Bob Peck, end Pat Herron, tackle Tiny Thornhill, and halfbacks
Andy Hastings and James DeHart. The losses of Peck and Hastings were
most keenly felt. Peck was probably the best center of this decade, a
man that could block multiple defenders, and who had been the defensive
star as well. Hastings had been the team's leading scorer for 3
straight years, and Pitt found no replacement this season for either
his open field running or his kicking. In fact, Pitt did not
successfully kick a single field goal in any of their games that
mattered this year.
2 consensus All Americans this season, guards Dale Sies and Jock
Sutherland. Sies was also the punter, and Sutherland later became a
Hall of Fame coach at Lafayette and Pitt, winning as many as 5 national
championships. Two more players were nonconsensus AA, end Clifford
Carlson and fullback George "Tank" McLaren
(pictured). Carlson was the captain, earned 4 letters each in football,
basketball, and baseball, and later became a Hall of Fame basketball
coach at Pitt. McLaren would be consensus AA in 1918, and he is in the Hall of Fame as a player.
Katy Easterday would be a nonconsensus AA in 1918, but he had little
impact on the offense this season, especially compared to the previous
season's star halfback, Andy Hastings. As such, the 1917 Pitt offense
depended almost entirely on fullback Tank McLaren (pictured), at least
in the games that mattered. A strict line plunger, McLaren pounded his
way to 782 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, the highlight being a
91 yard touchdown against Syracuse that is still Pitt's school record
for longest run-- and this is the school where Tony Dorsett played.
10-0 Pitt outscored their opponents 260-31, and though their defense
performed as well as ever, their offense scored about a touchdown less
per game than it had the previous 2 seasons, and they found themselves
in a couple of very close games, whereas they had only been threatened
once in 1916.
With all the new
faces, it is surprising that Pitt chose to forego the usual opening day
patsy, but forego they did, launching their season with a road trip to
play a good West Virginia team instead. The Pitt offense consisted
almost entirely of Tank McLaren line plunges, and he scored 2
touchdowns for a 14-0 halftime lead. But they must have tired him out,
because Pitt produced little offense and no scoring threats in the
second half. West Virginia had trouble moving the ball themselves, but
they fought back into contention with breaks in the kicking game,
knocking a Pitt punt returner back into the end zone for a safety in
the 3rd quarter and blocking a punt for a touchdown in the 4th. That
closed the gap to 14-9, and late in the game, they finally mounted a
promising drive, but time was called as they were marching toward the
Pitt goal, leaving them close but cigarless.
West Virginia finished 6-3-1, but they were surprisingly strong
against a very tough schedule this year, beating 7-1 Navy, 6-2-1
Virginia Tech, 7-3 Washington & Jefferson, and 6-2-1 North Carolina
State, and they tied highly esteemed 7-1-1 Rutgers. They would have
finished around #21-25 in an AP poll this season. The heart of Pittsburgh's season was a pair of consecutive games
against top 5 caliber opponents in late October. First up was a home
date with Syracuse, whom they had beaten 30-0 the previous season, and
they nearly matched that this year with a 28-0 win, scoring a touchdown
in each quarter. McLaren scored the first 3, and Pitt added a fumble
return touchdown in the 4th. Despite the ease with which Pitt won,
Syracuse was quite powerful this season, going 8-1-1 and beating 7-1-1
Rutgers, 8-2 Brown, 4-2 Colgate, and 5-2 Nebraska. They would have
finished 4th or 5th in an AP poll.
was a trip to rival Penn, who had already lost at Georgia Tech 41-0.
Pop Warner and his team were thus well aware that their outcome against
Penn would be compared to Georgia Tech's, and that the comparison would
figure prominently in the public's perception of the nation's best team
at season's end. The pressure was on for Pitt to not only win, but to
dominate. However, it was Penn that dominated in the first half,
threatening the goal line 3 times to Pitt's once. But all threats came
up empty, and it was 0-0 at the half. Pitt took control of the game in
the 3rd quarter on 2 big plays:
Clifford Carlson caught a long touchdown pass to break the scoreless
tie, and soon thereafter Pitt blocked a punt and recovered the
ball at the Penn 2, setting up a McLaren touchdown. Pitt dominated the
2nd half, and by game's end they had greatly outrushed Penn, but Penn
intercepted a late McLaren pass and returned it to the Pitt 8, setting
up a touchdown with 3 minutes to go to avoid a shutout and close the
scoring at 14-6.
Penn won out to finish 9-2, including a 16-0 win over 8-2 Michigan, and they would have ranked 4th or 5th in an AP poll.
schedule eased up quite a bit after that, but they found themselves in
a dogfight 2 weeks later against Washington & Jefferson, a game
that resembled their opener at West Virginia. W&J kicked a field
goal for an early 3-0 advantage, but Pitt quarterback Foxy Miller
responded with a 15 yard touchdown run to take the lead, then McLaren
added another touchdown in the 2nd quarter to make it 13-3 at halftime.
However, W&J outplayed Pitt the rest of the way. They scored a
touchdown early in the 3rd quarter, set up by a 55 yard run, and the
extra point closed the gap to 13-10. Later they lined up for a 28 yard
field goal to tie, but the kick fell just under the crossbar, and that
was that. Pitt drove to the W&J 1 yard line in the 4th quarter,
where they lost the ball on downs.
Washington & Jefferson
finished 7-3, and would have ranked #21-25 in an AP poll. Pitt was
unchallenged in the rest of their games.
above is part of a mid-December 1917 New York Times article declaring
9-0 Georgia Tech the best team in the country. The "Golden Tornado" was
developed by Hall of Fame head coach John Heisman. Of all the great coaches from before WWI, Heisman's name is the
best known today because of the famous trophy that still bears it.
Johnny Heisman, as he was known then, had played at Brown, then Penn
1887-1891. After coaching stints at Auburn and Clemson, he took the
wheel at Georgia Tech in 1904, the same year hall of famers Dan McGugin
and Mike Donahue started coaching at Vanderbilt and Auburn, but it took
Heisman a long time to catch up with those 2, as he was 0-3 against
Vanderbilt and 1-9 against Auburn, as well as 3-5-1 against Southern
power Sewanee, in his first 11 years at Georgia Tech.
But things took off in his 12th year at the helm, and though he
coached for 37 years at 8 schools, Johnny Heisman's great fame was
really built on just a 4 year window 1915-1918, during which Georgia
Tech went 30-1-2 and ran up massive scores, including the college
football record of 222 against Cumberland in 1916. They went 7-0-1 in
1915 and 8-0-1 in 1916 before busting through for 9-0 in 1917 by huge
scores in every game. In 1918, they were winning by even huger scores,
including 118-0, 123-0, and 128-0, but they accepted a challenge
to come play in late November at Pittsburgh, who also had not lost
since 1914, and the Golden Tornado was humiliated 32-0 to end their
run. Pittsburgh's run would end the following week.
John Heisman went 102-29-7 at Georgia Tech 1904-1919, and 186-70-18
in his long career. He invented the center snap and was an early
proponent of legalizing the forward pass. The famous "jump shift"
offense he developed at Georgia Tech, responsible for their sudden
surge 1915-1918, was a more complex version of the shift invented by
Henry Williams at Minnesota, and it had a big influence on college
football offenses post-WWI.
Georgia Tech's Team
Tech was loaded this year, but the star was Hall of Fame halfback
Everett Strupper. Strupper was the team's
only consensus All American, a good example of the bias of the
selectors at the time (Eastern champion Pitt and Western champion Ohio
State each had 2 consensus AA). He had been nonconsensus AA in
1916, scoring 8 touchdowns in that 222-0 annihilation of Cumberland. He
was deaf, and so called the signals since he couldn't hear them from
someone else. He was also rather small, and though accounts vary as to
his size, his coach asserted in later years that he was 5' 7" and
weighed 148 pounds. But he was very difficult to catch hold of in the
field. College football historian Bernie McCarty combed through various
sources to piece together Strupper's game stats, and found them for 7
of GT's 9 games:
99 carries for 1002 yards (10.1 average). He totaled 20 touchdowns for
the season. Georgia Tech was 24-0-2 during Strupper's years, 1915-1917.
other halfback, Joe Guyon, is also in the Hall of Fame, and more than
anything else, it was his arrival in 1917 that pushed Georgia Tech from
best in the South to best in the nation. Guyon had played for
Pittsburgh coach Pop Warner at Carlisle in 1912, alongside Jim Thorpe,
and in 1913, when he was a nonconsensus AA. He was the best man at Jim
Thorpe's wedding. He scored 15 touchdowns for Georgia Tech this season,
but he was more than another great runner. Much bigger than Strupper at
5' 11" and 190 pounds, Guyon was incredibly versatile-- a powerful
runner, tremendous blocker, and great passer. He also handled the
punting, and in 1918 he even played the tackle position as well as
occasional turns at halfback, and in fact he was selected as a
consensus AA at tackle that season. Guyon played pro football for 9
years, joining his old Carlisle teammate Jim Thorpe with the Canton
Bulldogs in 1919 and 1920 and winning an NFL title with the New
York Giants in 1927, and he is in the pro as well as college football Hall of Fame.
Quarterback Albert "Buster" Hill was Georgia
Tech's line plunger, so he got the most carries and piled up 22
short-yardage touchdowns to lead the nation. There was little left for
freshman fullback Judy Harlan to do in this loaded backfield except
block, but he was an excellent defensive back, returning a couple of
interceptions for touchdowns. He joined the Navy after this season, and
played for the Cleveland Naval Reserves team that gave Pitt their only
loss in 1918-- a week after Pitt did the same to Georgia Tech. After
the war, he returned to Tech and eventually became team captain in
1921, making 3rd team on Walter Camp's AA list.
Golden Tornado's pair of Hall of Fame halfbacks were a pair of Hall of
Fame tackles, Bill Fincher and Walker "Big Six" Carpenter. Fincher
would move to end the next season, and was selected as a consensus AA
in 1918 and 1920. He had a false eye that he had to take out before
each game. Carpenter is not actually in the National Football
Foundation Hall of Fame, which is the one we all know today, and the
one I generally mean when I refer to players and coaches being Hall of
Famers. But he was inducted into the now defunct Helms Foundation Hall
of Fame. A nonconsensus AA this season, he was the team captain, and
played at end as well as tackle.
Center George "Pup" Phillips would move to guard in later years, and was selected as a nonconsensus AA in 1919.
Tech defeated their opponents by an average score of 55-2, the closest
game a 32-10 win over Davidson, the only team to score a touchdown on
Tech and to hold all of their backs under 100 yards. But GT still
totaled 236 yards on 55 carries, and Judy Harlan returned an
interception 40 yards for a touchdown.
Although they only finished 6-4, Davidson was the 2nd best team in the
South this season, beating 6-2-1 Auburn 21-7. Davidson lost close games
to mid-Atlantic teams 6-2-1 Virginia Tech and 6-2-1 North Carolina
State, and they were routed 27-6 by 7-1 Navy.
But the only
game that mattered this season took place a week earlier, against
Heisman's alma mater, Eastern power Penn. The largest crowd to ever see
a game in the South was on hand:
20-25 thousand, including 3000 soldiers from nearby training camps.
Penn players came into the game speaking of it as a "practice" match
for the "important" games later in the season, and they were taken
completely by surprise, overwhelmed by Georgia Tech's "jump shift"
offense from the start. Everett Strupper had a 70 yard touchdown run
early, and Tech led 20-0 at half, outgaining Penn 276 yards to 11. For
the game, Strupper totaled 173 yards on 13 carries, scoring 2
touchdowns. Line plunger Buster Hill churned out 104 yards on 27
carries, scoring 3 touchdowns, and Harlan returned an interception 66
yards for another touchdown. The final score of 41-0 widened eyes
across the country.
This game was
crucial, because Penn was the only top 25 caliber opponent Georgia Tech
played this season. And Penn was more than top 25 caliber. They
finished 9-2, losing to 10-0 Pitt by only 14-6, and would have ranked
4th or 5th in an AP poll this season. The
magnitude of the victory may go to explain the "lackluster" 22 point
win over Davidson the next week. Georgia Tech proceeded to beat
Washington & Lee (4-3) 63-0, Vanderbilt (5-3) 83-0, and Auburn
(6-2-1) 68-7, all decent teams that would have ranked about #31-40. And
Auburn, of course, had tied Western champion 8-0-1 Ohio State the week
before the Golden Tornado blew them away.
vs. Georgia Tech
significant games for the 2 contenders in 1917. The opponent
rankings are the
approximate ratings those opponents would have achieved had there been
an AP poll in 1917. Click on the links in the table headers to see
Pittsburgh or Georgia Tech's full schedule at the
Football Data Warehouse.
Pittsburgh defeated their other opponents by an average of 31-0, while Georgia Tech defeated the rest of theirs by an
average of 51-0.
Obviously Georgia Tech vastly outperformed Pitt, and should be #1
in any competent ranking of the top teams of 1917. However, Pitt went
10-0 against a far tougher
schedule, and they did beat Georgia Tech 32-0 in 1918, and that Tech
team looked even more impressive than this one, winning the rest of
their games by an average score of 78-0. Should Pitt be considered a
co-champion for 1917?
What Happened in 1918
Of course, what happened in 1918, stays in 1918.
I would find Pitt's big win over Georgia Tech in 1918 fairly compelling
if both teams had practically the same lineups as they did in 1917. But
they were not even close. Tech returned just 2 starters in 1918
(Fincher and Guyon), so they were not at all the same team. And Pitt
added a hall of fame halfback, Tom Davies, to the mix in 1918, giving
them 3 things they sorely lacked in 1917:
a dangerous open field runner to complement their great fullback
McLaren, a field goal kicker, and an ace kick returner. In the 1918
game, Georgia Tech stopped McLaren's line plunges cold-- and that was
nearly all the offense Pitt had in 1917. But Tom Davies was around in
1918 to score 2 touchdowns on punt returns and throw for 2 more.
Still... 32-0. Georgia Tech had been putting up gigantic scores on
everyone for 4 years, including all their other games in 1918. This
wasn't just Pitt beating Georgia Tech. It was Pop Warner solving and
stifling John Heisman's "jump shift" offensive system. And the coaches were the same in 1918 as they had been in 1917. So I won't call the 1918 game meaningless... just nearly meaningless.
The big thing
for national championship selectors, then and now, is the fact that
Georgia Tech beat Penn 41-0, while Pitt only beat them 14-6. However,
those games were not quite equitable. For one thing, Tech played Penn
at home, while Pitt played them on the road. And Penn simply did not
take Georgia Tech seriously, whereas they expected Pitt to be their
toughest opponent: Penn had
been pointing at their game with Pitt all year. The performance
difference between Tech and Pitt in their games against Penn was
massive, but if this was the only difference between the 2 teams, I'd
definitely split the mythical national championship (MNC) between them.
The bigger problem for Pitt, I think, is those very close games
against West Virginia and Washington & Jefferson, 2 teams that were
good, but not at all top 10 caliber. West Virginia beat Carlisle 21-0,
and Georgia Tech beat Carlisle 98-0. But West Virginia was another road
game for Pitt (Georgia Tech did not play a strong team on the road),
and it was also their opener, so I suppose a close game there might be
However, the Washington & Jefferson game is the final nail in
Pitt 1917's coffin. That game came late in the season, at home, and
with games against patsies before and after it. Yet Pitt only won
because W&J just missed on a late 28 yard field goal try.
Washington & Jefferson beat Washington & Lee 12-0, and Georgia
Tech beat Washington & Lee 63-0.
comparative scores aren't really the issue here. It's the fact that
Pitt barely survived against a pair of #21-25 type teams, something no
one believes could possibly have happened to this year's Georgia Tech
team. The comparative scores are just hella convincing icing on the
vs. Georgia Tech Conclusion
unbeaten and untied, and they defeated 4 top 25 caliber teams and another 2 who
were close, including 2 top 5 teams they beat by more than a
touchdown each, giving one of them their only loss 28-0. That
definitely sounds like a national championship season, and would
qualify practically every year. But the MNC is a moving target, and
Georgia Tech set the bar very high this season. In many years, a team
could take a loss or tie (or both) and still win an MNC;
in 2007, a team won it all with 2 losses. In many other years, a loss
ends contention. And a high jumper can win one track meet with a best
jump of 7 feet, then lose the next with the same best jump.
Georgia Tech was
perfect, and playing a tougher schedule, Pitt just needed to be close
to perfect. But West Virginia was strike 1, Penn was strike 2, and
Washington & Jefferson was strike 3 looking at a fat 70 mph pitch
right through the middle of the strike zone. Pitt's out.
are the awards I have been handing out for each season, except seasons
when there are no contenders. For this purpose, what I mean by a
contender is a team that I think is very close to being worthy of
sharing the national championship. A team that you could make an
argument for, even if that argument is weak. But the contenders are
teams that I myself do not see as national champions.
Pitt was close, but as they say, "Close only counts in horseshoes."
And when the other team has a ringer, close doesn't even count there.
have been grading the NCAA Records Book's selectors for each season,
and keeping a grade point average, so we can see who is relatively good
at selecting national champions and who is not. And although I do not
consider computer ratings to be legitimate national championship
selectors, I have been including them in this section as well,
just for comparison's sake. I am
grading on a scale of 0-5 (5 being the best).
Parke Davis did not select a team for 1917 or 1918,
presumably because of the effect of WWI on college football. Harvard
suspended football in 1917, and Princeton and Yale played 5 games
total, none against real opponents. And for some, college football just
wasn't college football without the Big Three.