Woody Hayes had a love-hate relationship with most of the young men who played for him at Ohio State. It has often been described that 10 percent of the players loved him unconditionally, 10 percent thought he was a raving lunatic and the other 80 percent fell somewhere in between.
So it was with Jim Otis, the junior fullback on the Buckeyes’ 1968 national championship team.
Unlike many of his teammates, Otis was exposed to Hayes at a very young age – his father and the legendary head coach were roommates at Denison University. When Hayes got the head coaching job at Ohio State, his old roommate began boasting about his son would play for him someday.
When young Jim was only 7, his father took him to an Ohio State game to watch the Buckeyes and their star halfback, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady. After the game, the Otises went into the locker room to visit Hayes and Jim wound up having his photo taken with Cassady. The photo later adorned the Otis living room for many years.
As Jim’s college recruiting neared, Hayes admitted some trepidation about signing him at Ohio State. But it had nothing to do with Otis’ ability.
“Jim played on an outstanding high school team and as his college career approached, I became hesitant about his coming to Ohio State because of my close personal relationship with the family,” Hayes wrote in his famous book “You Win With People.”
“In fairness to him, I told him I thought we were getting another fullback who was bigger and perhaps a little better than he. His answer to that was, ‘We’ll find out if he is better.’ This attitude typifies Jim, for he was truly a great competitor. He was always at his best when things weren’t going well. In our loss at Michigan in 1969, I believe if we had run him ten or fifteen more times, we would have come closer to winning.”
The feeling wasn’t always so strong for Hayes. During Otis’ sophomore year, the Buckeyes got off to a 2-2 start. On the heels of a 1966 season that had produced a 4-5 record – only the second losing season in Hayes’ tenure at Ohio State – an uneven start in 1967 had soured the coach’s already-dour mood. Airplanes flying over Ohio Stadium on game day with banners that read, “Goodbye Woody!” didn’t improve his disposition.
In the fifth game of that season, the Buckeyes hosted Illinois, and things turned from bad to worse – especially for Otis. The fullback fumbled twice in the first half, and when the team was in the locker room at intermission, Hayes became so agitated that he actually jumped over two rows of players and tried to take a swing at Otis. Cooler heads prevailed before the coach could reach his fullback, but the point had been made. The Buckeyes went on to lose that game, 17-13, and Hayes supplanted backup Paul Huff into the fullback spot.
The following week, Huff started in Otis’ place and won Midwestern Back of the Week honors as Ohio State knocked off Michigan State in East Lansing. That triggered a four-game winning streak to finish the 1967 season, topped off by a 24-14 win at Michigan – with Otis back in the starting lineup. That winning streak, along with an infusion of a superlative sophomore class the next season, helped fuel the Buckeyes to an undefeated season in 1968 and the national championship.
Hayes had a number of fullbacks who carried his team to countless victories in the 1950s and ’60s, and despite their differences on that one afternoon in 1967, the coach always had a special affinity for Otis.
“He was without question,” Hayes once remarked, “the best short-yardage back I have ever seen.”
MY TOP TEN BUCKEYE FULLBACKS
Otis was one of a long line of fullbacks that helped define Ohio State football tradition. The fullback position has evolved over the years, beginning with being the leading blocker in a full-house backfield of the 1930s and 40s.
In the Split-T formation, the primary alignment utilized by Hayes when his team won national championships of one form or another in 1954, ’57, ’61 and ’68, the fullback was the primary ground-gainer in a clock-eating offense designed to keep mistakes to a bare minimum.
In recent years, especially with the proliferation of wide-open attacks and the spread offense, the fullback has either been relegated to extra protection for the quarterback or the position has been eliminated altogether in favor of an extra receiver.
Nevertheless, some of the greatest Buckeyes ever to wear scarlet and gray have earned their greatest recognition at the fullback position. Here is my top 10 of all-time.
1. Pete Johnson (1973-76) – Everyone remembers that Archie Griffin ran behind a huge offensive line during his back-to-back Heisman seasons. What some tend to forget, however, is that Johnson was the guy leading Griffin into the holes and clearing out whatever resistance remained. But Johnson was far from just a blocking back. He had a 1,000-yard season in 1975, and whenever the Buckeyes got close to the goal line, he was the one whose number got called in the huddle. In his second Heisman year, Griffin scored exactly four touchdowns while Johnson tallied 26. That remains the OSU single-season record.
2. Bob Ferguson (1959-61) – Ferguson was a tailback in a fullback’s body. To say Hayes relied on him during the 1961 season would be an understatement. The Buckeyes ran the ball about 75 percent of the time that year and Ferguson was the one who carried the mail the lion’s share of the time. He carried 202 times for 938 yards in ’61 and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting as the Buckeyes won the Big Ten and earned the National Football Writers Association of America’s version of the national championship.
3. Jim Otis (1967-69) – We’ve already mentioned that Hayes felt Otis was the best short-yardage back he had ever seen. Well, Otis was also pretty good when he got into the open field. Not many people know this, but the 6-0, 220-pounder from Celina, Ohio, was the first Ohio State running back ever to turn in a 1,000-yard season when he rushed for 1,027 yards in 1969. Otis was also an excellent blocker and receiver, and parlayed his variety of skills into a productive nine-year NFL career with New Orleans, Kansas City and the old St. Louis Cardinals.
4. John Brockington (1968-70) – Brock would likely be higher on this list if he hadn’t been forced to play behind Otis for his first two varsity seasons. Still a valuable backup in 1968 and ’69, Brockington made up for lost time when he became a starter for his senior season. He rambled for 1,142 yards on 261 carries – both new single-season marks at the time – and then went with the ninth overall selection of the first round of the 1971 NFL draft to the Green Bay Packers for whom he became NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and a three-time Pro Bowler.
5. Ollie Cline (1944-45, ’47) – Cline’s legacy has largely been lost in recent years and that’s a shame because the guy known as “The Blond Bomber” was one tough hombre. He rushed for 936 yards during his junior season in 1945, a total that set a new season record at Ohio State and one that stood for a decade until Cassady broke it in 1955. The total is still the fifth-best among fullbacks in program history – not bad for a guy who played his final game for the Buckeyes more than 60 years ago. Cline also holds the distinction of being the first running back in program history to crack the 200-yard mark in a single game. He piled up 229 yards against Pittsburgh in 1945, a single-game standard that stood until Griffin broke it 27 years later in 1972 with 239 against North Carolina.
6. Vaughn Broadnax (1980-83) – Broadnax had a career during which he ran the ball well when called upon to do so. But he mostly blocked for the likes of Tim Spencer and Keith Byars, each of whom enjoyed 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Broadnax’s lasting legacy, however, is the block he threw late in the 1981 Michigan game at Ann Arbor. On a chilly November day, the sophomore fullback wiped out three Wolverine defenders on a single play to spring quarterback Art Schlichter for the winning touchdown run in a 14-9 OSU victory.
7. Bob White (1957-59) – White was a do-everything player for the Buckeyes in the late 1950s, playing mostly at linebacker before Hayes called upon him to take some snaps at fullback. He became so valuable that he supplanted team co-captain Galen Cisco at the position midway through the 1957 season and helped lead Ohio State to the national championship that season. White’s best game that season came against No. 5 Iowa when he carried on nearly every play of a late 80-yard touchdown drive as the Buckeyes came from behind for a 17-13 victory.
8. Harold “Champ” Henson (1972-74) – Before Johnson got his chance to block for Griffin, Henson was the main battering ram in the OSU backfield. He made the most of his chances to carry the ball, too. During a 1972 contest against Northwestern, Henson piled up 153 yards on an amazing 44 carries. That established a new school record for a single game, a mark that still stands today. Serious knee problems plague Henson for the remainder of his OSU career, but he is still deserving of a place on this list.
9. Gene Fekete (1942) – One can only imagine what kind of career Fekete might have had. As a sophomore in 1942, he led the Big Ten in scoring with 92 points and helped the Buckeyes to their first-ever national championship. Unfortunately, World War II was waging in Europe and the Pacific and Fekete did what most young men his age did in 1942 – he enlisted in the military and never returned to what was a promising football career.
10. Nicky Sualua (1994-95) – Of the fullbacks who have recently played for the Buckeyes, fans have their own favorites among Jeff Cothran, Matt Calhoun, Matt Keller and Jamar Martin. Each were excellent players in their own right, but I’ll go with Sualua, who was part of an OSU starting backfield in 1994 and ’95 that featured quarterback Bobby Hoying and Heisman-winning tailback Eddie George. Sualua was a tough-nosed kid who accepted his role and provided plenty of protection for both Hoying and George to break a host of school offensive records. If he had been able to stay in school academically, Sualua would likely have been even higher on this list.
If you would like to take a look at my other top 10 Ohio State players by position, click these links:
Today’s Buckeye birthday is former defensive back David Brown, who was born July 7, 1966. Brown is probably best remembered for his third-quarter interception during the 1987 Michigan game, a turnover that led to an Ohio State touchdown and a 20-13 lead. The Buckeyes went on to win the game, 23-20, in Earle Bruce’s final game at OSU. You can see Brown’s interception by clicking on this link: 1987 Ohio State-Michigan Game.
Among the others celebrating birthdays on Seven-Seven are fashion designer Pierre Cardin; former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen; Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough (“John Adams”); actress Shelley Duvall; former televangelist paramour and Playboy model Jessica Hahn; singer Vonda Shepard; comic actress Mo Collins (“MADtv”); actress Jorja Fox (Sara Sidle on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”); WNBA star Lisa Leslie; championship figure skater Michelle Kwan; and rock and roll drummer Richard Starkey, who of course is better known as Ringo Starr.
ONE HUNDRED FORTY-THREE YEARS AGO TODAY
While the Fourth of July holiday always brings about a huge sense of patriotic pride, three days after the celebration in 1865, the nation attempted to eradicate itself from a black cloud that had hovered over Washington since the middle of April.
Shortly after 1 p.m. on July 7, 1865, a procession including George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Paine and Mary Surratt made it way to a hastily constructed scaffold in the courtyard of the old Washington Arsenal Penitentiary. Less than a half-hour later, the four were hanged as convicted conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Surratt, whose role in the conspiracy has always been suspect, was the first woman to be hanged by the United States government.
The four bodies were buried in the courtyard until claimed by members of their families with the exception of Paine, whose real name was Lewis Powell. His body was not claimed until 1871, and then it was without its head. The skull had been removed by the undertaker and stored in the Army Medical Museum at Ford’s Theatre. In May 1898, the skull was given to the Smithsonian Anthropology Department where it remained until January 1992. The Smithsonian released Powell’s skull to a relative, and in November 1994, his skull was buried with the rest of his remains in a cemetery in Geneva, Fla.
Today, Fort Lesley McNair occupies the grounds of the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary where the hangings took place. The building in which the accused were tried still stands and serves as the officers quarters at Fort McNair. The scaffold where the executions took place would today stand near the back of the tennis courts.
** Tough to imagine how Eugene Clifford continues his athletic career at Ohio State if the latest allegations against him are true. First a marijuana citation in March 2007, then suspension from the team for January’s national title game, and now an assault charge stemming from a Friday night fight in a Cincinnati-area bar. Innocent until proven guilty, of course, but if the charges are true, wouldn’t that be three strikes on Clifford?
** Did you see where Charlie Weis said that he envisions anywhere from nine to 12 victories for this year’s Notre Dame team? Last year’s Irish team wasn’t just bad in the win-loss column – it was not competitive in several games. It was 1-9 before “salvaging” a three-win season with wins over Duke and Stanford, teams that combined last year to win exactly five of 24 ballgames. Notre Dame is going to win between nine and 12 games this year? Yeah … and I’m the Pope.
** Three guesses as to one of the hottest teams in the National League. Would you believe the Cincinnati Reds? Coming off a four-game sweep of the hapless Washington Nationals, the Reds have now won seven of their last 10 to escape the basement of the NL Central Division. That is record over the past week and a half that only Los Angeles (also 7-3 over its last 10 games) can match in the National League.
** Speaking of the Reds, righthander Edinson Volquez ran his record to 11-3 yesterday with a victory over the Nats. If Volquez can somehow keep up his first-half performance and win 20 or more games this season, he would be the first Cincinnati pitcher to reach that milestone since Danny Jackson won 23 in 1988.
** As far as some pundits who have been wondering about Volquez’s candidacy for Rookie of the Year honors, they can forget it. He doesn’t qualify for the award. To be considered for ROY honors, a pitcher cannot have thrown 50 or more innings in the major leagues and cannot have spent 45 or more days on an active MLB roster (excluding time on the disabled list or after the Sept. 1 call-ups). Before this season, Volquez had appeared in 20 games and pitched 80 innings over parts of three seasons with Texas. This may be Volquez’s first full season in the majors, but technically, he’s not a rookie.
** Volquez could however be in the running for the NL Cy Young Award. Through yesterday’s games, he was leading the league with a 2.36 ERA, second in strikeouts with 113 and tied for second with 11 victories. How many Cy Youngs have Reds pitchers won since the award’s inception in 1956? That would be exactly zero.
** This year’s Tour de France began over the weekend. I report this only on the off-chance that you care even a little bit.