During this year’s Homecoming celebration, Penn was presented with a football honor that no other university has ever received—a Heisman Trophy not for a single player’s actions on the field, but for Penn’s special connection with the man for whom the award is named.
“We’ve never done that before,” says Michael Comerford, one of the Heisman Trophy Trustees, adding that the idea of displaying a trophy at the University came from Penn alumnus George A. Weiss.
As part of the dedication of the new Weiss Pavilion at Franklin Field, one of the iconic Heisman trophies was given to the University in honor of football legend John William Heisman, whose Penn athletic career included stints as both a student-athlete and coach. An 1892 graduate of Penn Law School, Heisman was a two-time letter winner for the Quakers in 1890 and 1891. He coached at Penn from 1920 to 1922.
Weiss approached the Trust and brought up the idea of housing a trophy at Penn, Comerford explains. “Of course we want to preserve the integrity and tradition of the award, and there was some discussion, but in this instance giving a Heisman to Penn made sense because of the personal connection and because Penn fits perfectly with the view of the Heisman as a symbol of excellence.”
The trophy, a 25-pound bronze sculpture of a football player sidestepping and straight-arming his way down the field, will go on display inside the atrium of the Weiss Pavilion, says Penn’s Director of Athletics Steve Bilsky. But, he adds, not until the right exhibition space is constructed.
“We want to create an appropriate display area for the trophy,” Bilsky says. “We are going to work with the architect to develop that in the atrium room. The Heisman will be the centerpiece, and we might have other trophies and sculptures.”
Perhaps the best-known trophy in all of college sports, the Heisman is given to the top college player in America each year. Known originally as the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, the award was first presented to Jay Berwagner of the University of Chicago in 1935. But when John Heisman died a year later, the award was renamed in his memory.
According to the Penn Archives, Heisman was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1869, and grew up near Titusville, Pa. He entered college at Brown University in 1887, where he played football. After two years at Brown, he came to Penn to attend law school, and played on the 1890 and 1891 varsity football teams as guard, center and tackle.
Although Heisman graduated with a degree in law in 1892, he never worked as an attorney, choosing instead to focus on football. He began his coaching career at Oberlin College, and coached for 36 years at various universities including Georgia Tech, Rice, Washington & Jefferson, Auburn, and of course, Penn.
Considered a pioneer in the creation of modern-day football, Heisman invented the center snap and introduced the use of the word “hike” to initiate a play. He is often credited with inventing the forward pass, for promoting the use of a scoreboard at games and for leading the movement to divide play into four quarters instead of only two halves.
Heisman was also one of the first to promote the use of shoulder and hip pads among players and is thought to be one of the first to use sports psychology to motivate players in the locker room and on the field.
“It just seemed like a natural to bring John Heisman home to Penn,” Bilsky says. “We're pleased and honored the Heisman Trustees are allowing us to display college sports’ most recognized award.”