Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most outstanding all-around athletes Ohio State ever produced.
Wes Fesler was a three-time All-American for the Buckeyes in football, a consensus first-team All-American in basketball and a three-time letterman in baseball in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Two decades later, he returned to Columbus as head football coach and directed OSU to its first Rose Bowl victory in history.
Born June 29, 1908, in Youngstown, Ohio, Wesley Eugene Fesler was a superlative high school athlete who excelled in nearly every athletic endeavor he undertook. When he reached Ohio State as a freshman in 1927, head coach John W. Wilce allowed him to practice with the varsity even though freshmen were not eligible to play.
The following year, Fesler started for the Buckeyes at fullback on offense and manned an end position on defense. While he was an excellent running back and powerful blocker, it was on the defensive side of the ball that Fesler really excelled. He earned three straight first-team All-America honors at end, becoming only the second OSU player in history to become a three-time All-American. (Chic Harley was the first in 1916-17, ’19.)
In 1930, Fesler also became Ohio State’s first winner of the Silver Football Award, symbolic of the Big Ten’s most valuable player. Nine years later, legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice put Fesler at one of the end positions on his all-time college football team.
Fesler’s exploits were not limited to the gridiron – he won a total of nine varsity letters during his college career. In basketball, he was an All-Big Ten guard in 1931 and became the program’s first consensus All-America honoree that same season. On the baseball diamond, Fesler was good enough to be offered a professional contract by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Football was his first love, however, and after graduation from Ohio State, Fesler decided to spurn several offers from NFL teams to begin a coaching career. He spent two seasons working as an assistant on Ohio State head coach Sam Willaman’s staff before accepting an offer from Harvard to become backfield coach of the football team and head coach of the men’s basketball squad.
Fesler stayed in Cambridge for nine years before returning to his native Buckeye State to take over the head football coaching job at Ohio Wesleyan. Unfortunately, the school suspended its football program because of World War II and Fesler returned to the Ivy League, taking over the men’s basketball program at Princeton. He was also an assistant coach on the Tigers’ football team.
In 1946, he finally got his chance to be a head football coach when he took a job at Pittsburgh. That lasted only one season, during which the Panthers posted a 3-5-1 season, before he returned to his alma mater. Ohio State head coach Paul Bixler had resigned following the 1946 season, and Fesler eagerly jumped at the chance to return to the Ohio Stadium sidelines.
The Buckeyes struggled during Fesler’s first season, going 2-6-1 and finishing in ninth place in the Big Ten standings. But they made improvement the following year and, in 1949, tied for the conference championship and earned an invitation to the Rose Bowl. In Pasadena, Fesler guided his team to a 17-14 victory over California, marking Ohio State’s first-ever win in “The Granddaddy of ’Em All.”
Rose Bowl euphoria gave way to acrimony between Fesler and the rabid OSU fan base in 1950 when the Buckeyes lost their season opener by a 32-27 margin to Southern Methodist. The team righted itself, though, and reeled off six straight victories before losing 16-7 at Illinois and 9-3 at home to Michigan in what has become known as the “Snow Bowl.”
Two weeks after that game, Fesler resigned and joined a real estate firm in Columbus. That career change was short-lived as just 47 days later, he accepted the head coaching position at Minnesota. He stayed with the Gophers for only three seasons, retiring following the 1953 season. By that time, the man who had excelled for so much of his life on the gridiron, hardcourt and diamond seemed to have lost his interest in athletics. Fesler left his sporting life behind and never looked back.
He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, and was a member of the inaugural class of inductees to the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977. But Fesler rarely returned to Columbus in later life. He settled in California and joined a brokerage firm, working there until his retirement in the 1970s.
Fesler died June 30, 1989, at Palm Terrace Rest Home in Laguna Hills, Calif., after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for about a year. He was 81.
SKLADANY’S BIRTHDAY, TOO
Fesler isn’t the only former Buckeye born on June 29. Thomas Edward Skladany was born June 29, 1955, in Bethel Park, Pa., and became one of the finest kicking specialists the Buckeyes have ever produced.
Skladany was the first kicking specialist ever offered a full scholarship by Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes after a stellar prep career for head coach Rudy Andabaker at Bethel Park High School. Not that Hayes wanted to “waste” a scholarship on a kicker. During his official visit to OSU, the coach told Skladany, “We’re probably not going to give you a scholarship, but I hear you kick pretty good, and if you come here and if you do what (everybody) thinks you can do, you may end up getting a scholarship.”
Those were not exactly the words Skladany wanted to hear. He liked Ohio State, but Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State were all offering full rides. He told Hayes that he wasn’t coming.
Then shortly before his final visit, a trip to Penn State, the OSU coach called him and made the offer. Skladany told him about the visit to Happy Valley, to which Hayes replied simply, “Are you coming here or not?” Skladany took the trip to Penn State but wound up telling head coach Joe Paterno that he was going to sign with the Buckeyes.
The 6-0, 192-pounder was immediately installed as the team’s punter during his freshman season and also handled kickoffs as a freshman and sophomore.
When he was a junior, Skladany added field goals and PATs to his duties and became one of college football’s top kicking specialists. He led the nation in punting in 1974 and ’75, and was named a consensus first-team All-American three times. Only six other Buckeyes (and no other kickers) have earned that distinction in program history.
Skladany still holds several OSU records despite the fact his scarlet and gray career ended more than 30 years ago. Among those are the single-game mark for best punting average (52.3 against Michigan State in 1976) and the longest field goal ever by a Buckeye (59 yards at Illinois in 1975).
After his four-year career at OSU, which produced a record of 40-5-2 and four Big Ten titles or co-titles, Skladany was a second-round selection (46th overall) by Cleveland in the 1977 NFL draft. However, Skladany and the Browns could never agree on contract terms. On the advice of agent Howard Slusher, Skladany sat out the 1977 season and signed with Detroit the following year.
Skladany spent five seasons with the Lions between 1978 and ’82, and remains among the career top 10 in most of the team’s punting records. His best season was in 1981 when he averaged a career-high 43.5 yards per kick and made his only Pro Bowl. That season, Skladany also completed 3 of 3 pass attempts on fake punts for a total of 43 yards.
He finished his pro career appearing in four games with Philadelphia in 1983 before leg injuries caused him to retire. Skladany’s career stats included an average of 42.1 yards on 295 punts.
After retiring from football, Skladany returned to the Columbus area and opened a successful printing business. Today, he remains president and CEO of Skladany Enterprises.
He was inducted into the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991.
Other luminaries celebrating birthdays today are film producer Robert Evans (“The Godfather,” “Chinatown,” “Urban Cowboy”); Baseball Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew; whacked-out actor Gary Busey; former Sri Lanka president Chandrika Kumaratunga; comedian, actor and Ohio State alum Richard Lewis; actress Sharon Lawrence (“NYPD Blue”); Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice; former NASA astronaut Charles Precourt; Scottish actor Michael Carter (Bib Fortuna in “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi”); former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and current UNICEF executive director Ann Veneman; disco era diva Evelyn “Champagne” King (“Shame”); NASCAR driver Jeff Burton; and Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson.
** It may be the NFL offseason but former Ohio State receiver Terry Glenn has been a busy, busy man. In just the past month or so, Glenn fired his agent, missed all of the Dallas Cowboys’ mandatory and volunteer workouts because he wouldn’t sign an injury waiver, rehired his agent, angered Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, told the team to release him, was informed by doctors he needed microfracture surgery on his knee, underwent an MRI that revealed his knee was fine and reached out to Jones to tell him he wants to return in 2008. Glenn, of course, has 1.74 million reasons why he doesn’t want to make so many waves – that’s his base salary. He can make even more through incentives.
** A couple of draft day moves by the Milwaukee Bucks may give Michael Redd reason for pause. The Bucks selected small forward Joe Alexander of West Virginia and then traded for prolific scorer Richard Jefferson. Those moves seem to make sense until you realize Alexander and Jefferson normally play the same position. Of course, Jefferson has played the shooting guard position in the past – but that’s Redd’s position. It seems unlikely the Bucks will be able to afford both Redd (three more years at $51 million) and Jefferson, who has three more years remaining on a $42.4 million deal he signed with New Jersey.
** Good news and bad news for fans (if there are any) of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. On Friday night, Betty Lennox of the Dream scored a career-high 44 points, tying her for the third-highest single-game point total in league history. The bad news? It came in a 109-101 overtime loss to Connecticut, giving Atlanta a 0-14 record and breaking the WNBA record for most losses to begin a season.
** Why have the Cincinnati Reds seemingly lost the ability to compete in Major League Baseball? It can’t possibly be the old complaint about being a small-market franchise. The Minnesota Twins have won 10 of their last 11 games, Tampa Bay is 16 games over .500 and challenging Boston for the lead in the American League East, and even Kansas City – which lost 106 games only three seasons ago – has won 11 of its last 13 games.
** Oh well. At least the Reds showed some signs of life last night in a 5-0 win over Cleveland. If Cincinnati can somehow find a way to beat the Tribe again today, the Reds would return home on the heels of a 5-4 road trip. The team has posted exactly one winning road trip out of its past 21.
** Did you hear that Indiana State has accepted a letter of intent from high school quarterback Calvin Schmidtke? This is the guy who threw for 2,724 yards and 37 TDs as a senior last year but was dropped by Washington State because of 11 citations from law enforcement over an 18-month period ending in May. Why would the Sycamores take a chance on Schmidtke when nearly every other I-A and I-AA program in the country took a pass? It might have something to do with the fact that Indiana State has lost 31 of its last 32 games, and the only win was tainted because ISU used an ineligible player.