Did You Know? Ohio State Coaches

Yesterday’s entry about Earle Bruce and the FBI got me to wondering what other things we may not know (or have simply forgotten) about Ohio State’s football coaches. So, I did some digging and unearthed some nuggets about each of them.

Alexander S. Lilley (1890-1891) – In 1890, Ohio State senior George Cole took up a collection from fellow students to purchase a regulation football and a book of football rules from the Spaulding Athletic Supply Co. That was the beginning of the football program at The Ohio State University. Cole later asked his friend Lilley, who had played organized football at Princeton – to serve as coach without pay. Lilley agreed, riding a pony to practice each day. The Buckeyes won their first game, beating Ohio Wesleyan by a 20-14 score on May 4. But that was their only win in their inaugural season. They lost their final three contests to Wooster, Denison and Kenyon by a combined score of 96-0.

Jack Ryder (1892-1895, 1898 ) – Born Frederick Bushnell Ryder in Oberlin, Ohio, Ryder was Ohio State’s first paid head coach. In his first season, he was paid the handsome sum of $15 per week. He led the Buckeyes to their first winning season in history, a 5-3 mark in 1892, and is credited with being the first coach to hold closed practice sessions. Ryder eventually left the coaching profession and became a sportswriter, first at the old Ohio Journal in Columbus and later at the Cincinnati Enquirer. During his tenure at the Enquirer, he was the first to call University of Cincinnati sports teams “the Bearcats.” Ryder died of a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 64.

Charles A. Hickey (1896) – Hickey was hired after the 1896 season began and took over for interim coach Sid Farrer, a medical student who had played college football at Princeton. Hickey was only one year removed from his own college playing career, having been captain of the Williams College team in 1895. The team finished 5-5-1 in Hickey’s only season and he was dismissed by the university. It didn’t seem to matter to him, though. He had already left town and had to be informed of the school’s decision by telegram.

David F. Edwards (1897) – Another Princeton graduate became head coach when Edwards took over the job. But he got it only when Fielding Yost – yes, the same one who went on to legendary status at Michigan – had a less-than-sterling interview for the position. Yost, who had been head coach at Ohio Wesleyan, wanted to coach at Ohio State, but during a visit to campus was a little overzealous. It seems that he showed a couple of his patented plays to a student and a faculty member, knocking both to the ground. The Buckeyes selected Edwards over Yost, then proceeded to turn in one of the program’s poorest records at 1-7-1. Even the lone victory was tainted – Ohio Medical was leading by a touchdown but left the field after protesting an OSU touchdown. Officials later awarded the win by forfeit to the Buckeyes.

John B. Eckstorm (1899-1901) – Eckstorm was the first “professional” coach to pilot the Buckeyes and his approach to the game produced the program’s first undefeated season. The team posted a 9-0-1 mark, outscoring its opponents by a 184-5 margin. All nine wins were shutouts and the only blemish on the season was a 5-5 tie against Case. After the season, Eckstorm was rewarded with another program first. The university rehired him for the next two years, making him the first Ohio State coach in history to sign a multiyear contract.

Perry Hale (1902-1903) – Hale, a former star player at Yale, took over the program when critics were calling for its abolishment. During the 1901 season, OSU center John Sigrist suffered a neck injury during a 6-5 win over Western Reserve and died two days later. A resolution to cancel the rest of the season and abolish the program was defeated by an 18-8 vote of the Athletic Board. Hale brought several innovations to the Buckeyes, innovations that were seen as “safer” than traditional methods although the coach perfected the “flying wedge”

E.R. Sweetland (1904-1905) – Edwin Regur Sweetland was a native New Yorker who coached football, basketball, track and rowing and nine different colleges and universities during his career. He was a graduate of Cornell, where he played football for legendary head coach Glenn “Pop” Warner. During his first season with the Buckeyes in 1904, the team achieved a program first when it finally scored points against archrival Michigan. (In five previous games, U-M had outscored Ohio State by a lopsided 177-0.) The 1904 score came on a 50-yard fumble return by Bill Marquardt and was the only bright spot for OSU in a 31-6 defeat to the Wolverines. Sweetland left coaching after the 1918 season and went into politics. He died in 1950 at the age of 75.

A.E. Herrnstein (1906-1909) – A native of Chillicothe, Ohio, Herrnstein presided over the first Ohio State team to play an entire season without giving up a touchdown. In finishing 8-1, the Buckeyes recorded six shutouts, surrendered only two field goals (worth four points in those days) during a 12-8 win over Ohio Medical, and lost a 6-0 verdict to Michigan when the Wolverines scored on a field goal and a safety. The Buckeyes also attempted their first forward pass during the 1906 season, and Herrnstein became the only Michigan graduate ever to serve as Ohio State head coach.

Howard Jones (1910) – Born in Middletown, Ohio, Jones was a college football star at Yale when the Bulldogs won three straight national championships from 1905-07. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be a coach, though. He spent one-year stints at Syracuse, Yale and Ohio State, going 6-1-3 with the Buckeyes before deciding to go into private business. Jones returned to coaching six years later and enjoyed success at both Iowa and Southern Cal. He won back-to-back Big Ten titles with the Hawkeyes in 1921-22, the only time in history Iowa has won consecutive league crowns. Later, Jones captured seven conference championships and went a perfect 5 for 5 in Rose Bowl appearances in 16 seasons with the Trojans. He retired following the 1940 season and died at the age of 55 the following summer. In 1951, ten years after his death, Jones was included in the inaugural class of inductees in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Harry Vaughn (1911) – Vaughn, who had no previous coaching experience, was another former player from Yale and he got the Ohio State job solely on Jones’ recommendation. But he didn’t seem too interested in the job. He guided the Buckeyes to a 5-3-2 record but left after the season to resume his law studies at Yale. OSU was rapidly getting the reputation for being unable to hold onto its coaches, searching for its 11th different head coach in just 23 seasons of organized football.

John R. Richards (1912) – Richards packed a bunch of firsts into his only season as head coach. Hired also as the university’s first-ever director of athletics, he did away with closed practice sessions, encouraging fans to attend and even suggest plays. It helped usher in a new era of enthusiasm for the program, enthusiasm that spiked even more when Richards installed lights on the practice field for nighttime drills. Unfortunately, after a 6-3 record, Richards abruptly resigned following the 1912 season. In retrospect, he might have done Ohio State a favor. His resignation led to the hiring of Lynn St. John as athletic director and John W. Wilce as head football coach.

John W. Wilce (1913-1928 ) – John Woodworth Wilce was a native of Rochester, N.Y., who lettered in three sports at Wisconsin. Ohio State, however, was the school that gave Wilce his first chance to be a head football coach and he stayed in Columbus for 16 seasons, the second-longest tenure in program history. During his tenure, the Buckeyes earned their first conference championship (1916), received their first-ever invitation to play in the Rose Bowl (1920) and began play in Ohio Stadium (1922). Wilce retired following the 1928 season and became a professor of preventive medicine at the Ohio State College of Medicine, specializing in research and treatment of heart diseases. He also served as director of Student Health Services from 1934 to 1958. Wilce died in 1963 just five days after his 75th birthday.

Sam Willaman (1929-1933) – If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know that Willaman played pro football for the Canton Bulldogs alongside Jim Thorpe. Perhaps you didn’t know, however, just how talented Willaman was. In 1921, he was selected as second-team halfback on Ohio State’s all-time team just behind Chic Harley. Willaman was also Thorpe’s backup with the Bulldogs. Also, Willaman hired one of his former players as an assistant coach in 1931. He was Richard Larkins, the same guy who would succeed St. John as Ohio State athletic director in 1947 and serve in that position until 1970.

Francis A. Schmidt (1934-1940) – Schmidt may have had one of the most unique nicknames ever in college football history. Because most of his teams were known for high scoring, newspapers began calling him “Close the Gates of Mercy” Schmidt. He is, of course, known for beginning the Gold Pants tradition at Ohio State – each member of the program receives a small gold pants charm for beating Michigan. It came about by accident, however, when asked in his first season at OSU about playing the Wolverines. Despite the fact the Buckeyes had won only six of the previous 30 games with their archrivals, Schmidt replied, “Those fellows put their pants on one leg at a time, same as everyone else.” OSU beat Michigan 34-0 in Columbus that year and shut the Wolverines out in each of the next two years, making Schmidt the first – and still only – coach in school history to beat Michigan in each of his first three tries.

Paul Brown (1941-1943) – It’s hard to uncover much about a guy who is credited with changing the way football is played today. However, here are a couple of things you may not have known. Brown played quarterback in high school at Massillon, following Harry Stuhldreher, who went on to become one of Notre Dame’s legendary “Four Horsemen.” Brown later played his college football at Miami (Ohio) but not before first enrolling at Ohio State. As a 145-pound freshman quarterback for the Buckeyes, he soon found out his body couldn’t take the pounding of a Western Conference schedule and Brown transferred to Miami. He graduated there in 1930 with an undergraduate degree in education, then got his master’s a decade later from OSU. Finally, let’s dispel the myth that the Cleveland Browns are named after Paul Brown. In reality, they are named after former heavyweight boxing champion Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis. The team was originally named the Brown Bombers, which was later shortened to simply the Browns.

Carroll C. Widdoes (1944-1945) – Widdoes was Brown’s hand-picked successor at Ohio State with the understanding he would simply hold the job while Brown served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. But two things conspired against Widdoes – first was his easy-going, soft-spoken nature; second was the fact he simply wasn’t Brown. After the Buckeyes went 9-0 in his first season, they slipped to 7-2 in 1945 and the natives weren’t happy. Widdoes abruptly resigned and didn’t coach again until four years later when he resurfaced at Ohio University. He stayed in Athens for nine seasons, going 42-36-5 with the Bobcats and winning the Mid-American Conference championship in 1953.

Paul O. Bixler (1946) – Bixler is the sixth head coach in Ohio State history to serve only one season and – so far – the most recent. His brief tenure was marred by a 4-3-2 record that included a 58-6 thrashing at the hands of Michigan. Bixler resigned after the ’46 season, citing pressure of the job as the major reason. The Mount Union graduate landed on his feet, though. He later spent five seasons as head coach at Colgate, then followed Brown to the NFL and served several years as director of player personnel for the Cleveland Browns.

Wesley E. Fesler (1947-1950) – One of the finest all-around athletes the Youngstown area has ever produced – and it has produced more than its share – Fesler was a three-time, first-team All-America end for the Buckeyes from 1928-30, and also starred on the OSU baseball and basketball teams. He was good enough in basketball that he became that program’s first consensus first-team All-America selection in 1930. Despite overtures from the NFL to continue his playing career, Fesler wanted to coach and began as an assistant on Willaman’s staff in 1931. He later coached at Harvard, Princeton (where he was also head basketball coach) and Pittsburgh before returning to his alma mater in 1947. Fesler would last only four seasons with the Buckeyes, though, resigning under pressure after a 9-3 loss to Michigan in the 1950 Snow Bowl. He resurfaced the following year at Minnesota before leaving coaching and pursuing a career in real estate. Fesler died of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease in California in 1989 at the age of 81.

Woody Hayes (1951-1978 ) – Think you know everything there is to know about Woody? How about this? He wasn’t only a student of military history, he lived it. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in July 1941, six months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Hayes commanded two different Navy ships – submarine chaser PC-1251 during the Palau Islands invasion and destroyer-escort USS Rinehart, which served in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. If you insist that your nuggets be restricted to football, ask your buddies if they know who succeeded Woody at Miami (Ohio) when he became head coach of the Buckeyes. The answer is Ara Parseghian. If you’d like to see snippets of Woody’s commencement speech in 1986, click here.

Earle Bruce (1979-1987) – When Bruce was recruited by Penn State during his senior season of high school in Cumberland, Md., Nittany Lions head coach Joe Bedenk sent an assistant coach to make first contact. That assistant’s name – believe it or not – was Earl Bruce. Bedenk was head coach at Penn State for only the 1949 season after which he requested to return to his old position as line coach. Bruce (the one without the “e” at the end of his first name) served as interim coach for spring practice until new head coach Rip Engel was hired away from Brown. Engel, of course, brought with him to Happy Valley a young assistant coach named Joe Paterno.

John Cooper (1988-2000) – It seems like Cooper spent all of his life in the coaching profession beginning as a college assistant in 1962 and serving at eight different schools over the next 39 years. Before that, he was a gritty running back and safety at Iowa State. After graduating from high school and spending two years serving in the U.S. Army, Cooper enrolled at Iowa State on a football scholarship and quickly became one of the Cyclones’ best players. He played both offense and defense and was a member of the school’s famed “Dirty Thirty,” the 1959 squad that finished 7-3 including upsets of Nebraska and Colorado. Cooper was a sophomore on that team, and went on to captain the 1961 team most remembered for beating Oklahoma in Norman, the Cyclones’ first win there in 30 years.

Jim Tressel (2001-present) – Like Hayes, it’s difficult to come up with anything about Tressel that isn’t already well-known. But … Did you know Tressel graduated cum laude from Baldwin Wallace with a degree in education? Did you know that during his tenure at Youngstown State he shifted a game against Akron to Friday night one season when it was originally scheduled for the same day as the OSU-Michigan game? Did you know that his boyhood idol was Rex Kern? And did you know that Lee and Jim Tressel make up the only father-son combination ever to win NCAA national championships?


Among those celebrating birthdays today include U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, actors Gene Wilder and Hugh Laurie (“House”), former race car driver Jackie Stewart, ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, 2006 U.S. Open champion golfer Geoff Ogilvy, former Connecticut and current WNBA star Diana Taurasi, New York Mets shortstop José Reyes and current movie heartthrob Shia LeBeouf.

June 11 also marks the birthday of Vince Lombardi, considered one of the greatest football coaches of all-time. Lombardi was born Vincent Thomas Lombardi in Brooklyn and considered the priesthood as a teenager. But after two years in a secondary program to become a priest, Lombardi transferred to St. Francis Prep where he became a star football player.

He played college ball at Fordham University where he was one of the fabled “Seven Blocks of Granite,” and in 1939 got his first coaching job as an assistant at Englewood (N.J.) St. Cecilia High School. He later held college coaching jobs at Fordham and West Point before joining the New York Giants’ staff in 1954. Five years later, he became head coach for the Green Bay Packers and guided the team to five NFL titles in the seven-year span between 1961 and 1967.

Lombardi stepped down as Packers head coach following the 1967 season but stayed with the franchise through 1968 as general manager. The following year, he returned to coaching with the Washington Redskins and guided that team to its first winning season in 14 years.

It was to be his only season with the Redskins, however. In June 1970, Lombardi was diagnosed with an aggressive form of intestinal cancer and he died just 10 weeks later on Sept. 3, 1970, at the age of 57.


** Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow insists jockey Kent Desormeaux is to blame for the horse finishing last in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. Desormeaux, who eased up Big Brown with a quarter-mile to go, has said that he “had no horse. He was empty.” So, who to believe? Dutrow, whose racing success dates back only to 2004? Or Desormeaux, who is a Hall of Fame jockey with nearly 5,000 victories in thoroughbred races? We’ll probably never know because Big Brown isn’t talking.

** Longtime Pacific 10 commissioner Tom Hansen has announced that he will retire next summer after 26 years on the job. Hansen started working for the conference in the early 1960s when it was known as the Big Five and had only five teams – California, Stanford, Washington, UCLA and USC. Coupled with the announced retirement of Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is seeing a couple of his allies against a Division I-A playoff begin to disappear.

** Did you know that NFL Films founder Ed Sabol was a three-year letterman at Ohio State in swimming? It’s true. Sabol, who set a world high school record in the 100-yard freestyle at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., competed for the Buckeyes and legendary swim coach Mike Peppe from 1935-37, and was a member of the 1937 Big Ten championship team in the 400 relay. After graduation, he had a brief career as a Broadway actor, served in World War II and worked as a clothing salesman out of his father’s factory. In 1962, Sabol founded Blair Motion Pictures, a company that two years later became NFL Films.

** In honor of what would have been Lombardi’s 95th birthday, I leave you with one of his most notable quotations: “The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.”