Eighty years ago, the legendary John W. Wilce was preparing for what would be his final season at head football coach at Ohio State.
Wilce had coached the Buckeyes since 1913 and brought the program its first glory. During his tenure, OSU had beaten archrival Michigan for the first time, achieved its first-ever unblemished season and captured its first conference championship. His 17 years of service as head coach was by far a school record at the time – no one else had served more than five seasons – and Wilce finished with a record of 78-33-9.
Sam Willaman, Wilce’s right-hand man for the previous three seasons, was named his successor as head coach in a move everyone thought was a foregone conclusion. In fact, at the end of the 1928 season, several Columbus newspapers called “a mere formality” the announcement of Willaman as the new head coach.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne was already a legend by 1928, having piloted the Fighting Irish since 1918 and compiling an 81-8-5 record in the process. Even with all of that success, Rockne was grossly underpaid and had repeatedly tried in vain to negotiate a better contract in South Bend.
Rockne finally decided to look elsewhere and let Ohio State officials know that he might be persuaded to make a change. He discussed particulars with OSU athletic Lynn St. John at the American Football Coaches Association meeting in January 1929 and reportedly agreed to terms. The agreement was contingent, however, on Notre Dame releasing Rockne from his current contract.
The rest, of course, is history. Notre Dame came up with enough money to keep Rockne in South Bend and Ohio State named Willaman as its new head coach. Neither man would be able to savor his accomplishment for very long.
Rockne coached at Notre Dame through the 1930 season and was killed in a plane crash on March 31, 1931. He was 43.
Willaman, an Ohio native and Ohio State alum, lasted five seasons with the Buckeyes, posting a 26-10-5 record. But the stress of the job got to him. Despite recruiting several All-America players, including Wes Fesler and Sid Gillman, Ohio State never won a conference title under his tutelage. Making matters worse was a 2-3 record against Michigan.
Willman resigned under pressure following the 1933 season, accepting the head coaching job at Western Reserve. Less than two years later, he died following emergency intestinal surgery. He was 44.
MORE ON WILLAMAN
Willaman had an interesting football career before his untimely death.
Born in Salem, Ohio, he played end, halfback and tailback for the Buckeyes from 1911-13. After graduation, he became a high school head coach at Cleveland East Tech. During this time, he also played pro football and in 1917 joined the Canton Bulldogs, playing alongside the legendary Jim Thorpe. That season, the Bulldogs finished the season with a 9-1 record and were named champions of professional football.
In 1922, Willaman accepted the head coaching job at Iowa State and immediately became an innovator. He brought with him six of his players from East Tech, including lineman Jack Trice, the first African-American player at ISU and one of the first to play college football in that region of the country.
One year later, while the Cyclones were playing at Minnesota, Trice broke his collarbone on the second play of the game. Trice reportedly insisted he was all right and returned to the game. In the third quarter, while attempting to tackle a ball-carrier by throwing a roll block, Trice was trampled by three Minnesota players in what many observers believed was a racially-motivated ploy.
Trice was removed from the game and sent to a Minneapolis hospital. Doctors there declared him fit to travel and he returned by train to the Iowa State campus with his teammates. Two days later, on Oct. 8, 1923, Trice died from hemorrhaged lungs and internal bleeding as a result of the injuries sustained during the game.
In 1997, Iowa State changed the name of Cyclone Stadium to Jack Trice Stadium in his honor.
Willaman compiled a 14-15-3 record in four seasons at Iowa State and left following the 1925 season to become top assistant on Wilce’s staff at Ohio State.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO
Keeping with the historical theme of this entry, here is what was happening 25 years ago in Ohio State athletics.
Graduation had left a couple of holes on the offensive line. Scott Zalenski was slated to move from left guard to right guard in place of senior Joe Lukens. And since the Buckeyes needed a replacement on the left side, head coach Earle Bruce had decided to try a relatively untested junior by the name of Jim Lachey.
Fifth-year senior Kelvin Lindsay had finally overcome academic and injury problems to secure the No. 1 tailback position heading into fall camp. Nipping at his heels, though, was a hungry sophomore named Keith Byars.
Men’s basketball coach Eldon Miller lost seven-year assistant Gerry Sears to the head coaching job at Ashland College. Sears’ replacement on Miller’s staff was a familiar face to OSU fans – former Buckeye Jim Cleamons, who played for Fred Taylor from 1969-71 and then had a 10-year career in the NBA with the Lakers, Cavaliers and Knicks.
The first-ever Jesse Owens Track and Field Classic was held at Ohio Stadium and drew a huge number of world-class athletes including high jumper Dwight Stones and sprinter/long jumper Carl Lewis, who won the 100 meters at the event with a time of 10.26 seconds.
Oh, yeah … and a gallon of gas cost less than a buck and a half.
Birthday wishes today go out to billionaire businessman Kirk Kerkorian, Four Tops lead vocalist Levi Stubbs, ex-tennis star Bjorn Borg, former Saturday Night Live comic Colin Quinn, guitar player Steve Vai, ice hockey whiz Cam Neely, actor Paul Giamatti, sometimes Cincinnati Reds pitcher Matt Belisle and actor Robert Englund, the guy who portrayed Freddy Krueger in all those “Nightmare On Elm Street” movies.
June 6 is also a day when a number of luminaries from the past have died, including U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968. Others who have passed into history on this day include musician Billy Preston, actress Anne Bancroft, jazz man Stan Getz, actor Jack Haley (the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”), gazillionaire J. Paul Getty, famed psychiatrist Carl Jung, automotive pioneer Louis Chevrolet and American Revolutionary War figure Patrick Henry.
** As promised (or threatened), I watched portions of the opening game of the NBA Finals last night. It was entertaining enough with the Celtics winning and Kobe missing a crucial three down the stretch. Then I made the mistake of flipping through the channels and stumbling upon ESPN immediately after the game. Stuart Scott was literally screaming himself hoarse during the highlights, giving new meaning to the word hype. There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the so-called Worldwide Leader, but I’d rank the self-important Scott at the top of the list.
** Oakland signed No. 4 pick Darren McFadden yesterday to a nice, fat (or is that phat?) six-year contract worth up to $60 million with $26 million of that guaranteed. Meanwhile in New York, the Jets announced they have begun negotiations with No. 6 pick Vernon Gholston. Last year’s No. 6 selection, strong safety LaRon Landry of LSU, got a five-year deal worth $41.5 million from Washington.
** By the way, did you know that Gholston was barred from participating in the Jets’ OTAs (organized team activities)? It’s because of an arcane rule that prohibits rookies from participating in more than one mini-camp before their college class is finished with all of its course work for the quarter regardless of whether the rookie is still enrolled or not. Since Ohio State doesn’t have graduation until Sunday, Gholston cannot officially join his new team for OTAs under Monday.
** Does anyone know that they’re in the middle of the French Open? Does anyone care about professional tennis any more?
** Just wondering: If you’re a vegetarian, is it OK to eat animal crackers?