Today marks the 121st anniversary of the birth of the man who was the driving force behind Ohio State as it became a college football power.
John Woodworth Wilce was born March 12, 1888, in Rochester, N.Y., and got his first taste of the Western Conference (later the Big Ten) when he became a three-sport letterman at the University of Wisconsin. Wilce earned all-conference honors as a fullback with the Badgers in 1909, and then went into coaching.
Following his graduation from Wisconsin, he took over the program at La Crosse High School before returning to his alma mater as an assistant professor of physical education and an assistant football coach. The Badgers were one of the country’s top programs at the time and had won the 1912 Western Conference title with an undefeated record.
Meanwhile, Ohio State was struggling to get traction with its program. The Buckeyes had been playing football since 1890, and had enjoyed some success playing mostly instate rivals. But that was about to change when the school was invited to join the Western Conference beginning with the 1913 football season.
Not only was OSU taking a step up in competition, the university also needed some stability at the head coaching position. Eleven men had served as head of the program in just 23 years and none had stayed longer than four seasons. In fact, in 1913, the Buckeyes were in search of a fourth new head coach in as many years.
Enter Wilce, who at the young age of 25 was given the task of building Ohio State football from what was largely a club sport into an intercollegiate program capable of competing with stronger, more established teams.
During that initial season in 1913, the Buckeyes turned in a 4-2-1 overall record including a 58-0 win over Northwestern in the season finale. That represented the team’s first conference victory, and it wound up with a 1-2 league record and sixth-place finish.
Wilce saw incremental improvement the next two years as Ohio State finished in a fourth-place tie in 1914 and a third-place tie in 1915 before the program’s breakout season came in 1916. Wilce had recruited one of the country’s top prospects from East High School in Columbus, and Chic Harley led the Buckeyes to their first-ever Western Conference championship as a sophomore. OSU set a host of school records that season, including a 128-0 win over Ohio Wesleyan – the most points ever scored by the Buckeyes in a single game.
The Wilce-Harley combination also produced Ohio State’s first-ever win over archrival Michigan. The 13-3 victory in Ann Arbor in 1919 ended a previous 0-13-2 drought against the Wolverines.
Wilce would guide Ohio State to two more conference titles in 1917 and 1920 and three runner-up finishes in 1919, 1921 and 1926. He also coached 10 All-Americans, a pretty fair accomplishment in an age when former coach and famed sportswriter Walter Camp annually chose the only acknowledged All-America team.
During Wilce’s tenure, the Buckeyes were transformed from a team with only a regional following into a national force that played its home games in cavernous Ohio Stadium. And while coaches such as Knute Rockne, Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg are more renowned today for the impact they had on football’s early days, Wilce doesn’t receiver nearly enough credit for being one of the game’s top tacticians of his time.
His teams played tenacious defense, and Wilce was one of the first coaches ever to adopt the strategy of rushing the passer. He is also believed to be the first ever to utilize the five-man defensive line, unveiling it during a game at Princeton in 1927.
In addition to his innovative pass defense, Wilce also specializing in a wide-open passing attack. While most teams played ball-control with their triple option formations, Wilce allowed his players to throw extensively throughout the game. During the 1920 season, the Buckeyes defeated Illinois and won the conference title by throwing the football. In that game, quarterback Harry “Hoge” Workman passed to Cyril “Truck” Myers for the winning touchdown on the final play of the game, giving the Buckeyes a 7-0 win.
Earlier that season, Ohio State had come from behind to beat Wisconsin when Workman threw two late touchdown passes to All-American Gaylord “Pete” Stinchcomb. Camp was in attendance and later wrote that the game was the “most thrilling I have ever seen.”
Wilce also tried to marry the physical and mental aspects of the sport. He was constantly trying to reform the speech of the way his players talked on and off the field, and he is credited with coining the phrase “intestinal fortitude.” He first used the term in 1916 while lecturing to his team on anatomy and physiology.
Wilce coached at Ohio State for 16 seasons, a record that wouldn’t be surpassed until Woody Hayes spent 28 seasons in Columbus from 1951-78. After the 1928 season, Wilce resigned, citing a personal struggle of trying to balance the ideals of athletics with the increasing financial requirements needed to field a team that could compete annually for national honors.
“I figured football was becoming more and more of a business proposition than I wanted to go into,” Wilce said years later. “I saw the game being taken away from the boys. I was a faculty-type coach. I had always stressed educational aspects of the sport. This, to me, was far more important than winning the game.
“I don’t want to give the impression that I’m critical of football the way it is played today. It came about through no one’s fault in particular. It followed the normal trend of things and was brought about by the public’s demand. I just didn’t want to become an active part of that type of football, so I quit.”
Wilce could have ridden off into the sunset with his legacy intact. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954 and wrote several books on football, many of which became primers for coaches who followed him into the profession. He was an honorary life member of the American Football Coaches Association, served as the group’s first secretary, and received the Stagg Award in 1959, the association’s highest honor for “perpetuating the example and influence of the great coach in football.”
But Wilce went on to another career and had as much success – if not more – than he enjoyed on the gridiron.
He had continued his studies of medicine at Ohio State while serving as head coach and received his medical degree in 1919. After his resignation, Wilce took postgraduate classes at Columbia and Harvard as well as the National Hospital for Diseases of the Heart in London, and then returned to Ohio State in the 1930s to become a professor of preventive medicine at the university’s College of Medicine. Wilce later became one of the country’s leading heart specialists, and he also served as director of Student Health Services at OSU from 1934 to 1958. The John W. Wilce Student Health Center, built in 1969, is named for him.
Wilce retired to his Westerville home in 1958 and continued to remain active in numerous Columbus charitable organizations until he suffered a stroke in 1962. He was hospitalized twice over the next several months, and then died at home on May 17, 1963, just five days after his 75th birthday.
Wilce’s legacy lived on through his grandchildren. Anne Krause was one of Colorado’s best-loved sports and outdoor photographers until her death of pancreatic cancer in 2006. And Dr. James M. Wilce Jr. is one of the world’s top linguistic anthropologists and is currently a professor at Northern Arizona University.
STATUE GETS A RETRO-FIT
One day after John Wilce died in 1963 at the age of 75, 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis lost his battle with leukemia. He was only 23.
Davis led Syracuse to the national championship as a sophomore in 1959, and in his junior season averaged a hefty 7.8 yards per carry. As a senior, the 6-2, 212-pounder led the Orangemen in rushing, receiving and scoring, and won the Heisman by a scant 53 votes over Ohio State fullback Bob Ferguson. He was the first African-American to win college football’s most prestigious individual award.
When Davis finished his career, he held all of Syracuse’s records in rushing, all-purpose yardage, touchdowns and overall scoring.
The Washington Redskins drafted Davis in the first round of the 1962 NFL draft, but traded his rights to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for receiver Bobby Mitchell. Cleveland head coach Paul Brown envisioned a backfield of Davis and Jim Brown punishing NFL defenses for many years to come, and the Browns signed Davis to a then astronomical salary of $80,000 per year.
Unfortunately, things did not work out how Brown had planned. Mitchell went on to an All-Pro career with the Redskins and was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983. Brown was fired by Cleveland owner Art Modell following the 1962 season. And a few days after a College All-Star Game in the spring of 1962, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia. He never played in a professional game and he died May 18, 1963.
The Browns honored his memory by retiring his jersey No. 45 (even though he had worn it only in practice), and in 1979, Davis was inducted into the College Football of Fame. In 2005, Syracuse retired jersey No. 44, which was worn by Jim Brown, Davis and Floyd Little.
Late last year, Syracuse unveiled a life-sized statue of Davis on campus. Unfortunately, sculptor Bruno Luchessi got some things wrong from an historical standpoint. Davis was depicted holding a modern football in his right hand and a modern-style helmet tucked under his left arm. He was also wearing shoes with the Nike swoosh logo even though that company was formed nearly a decade after Davis died.
On Tuesday, the university unveiled a revamped statue of Davis. Luchessi spent five months correcting the inaccuracies and painstakingly removed the football, helmet and cleats, replacing them with equipment circa 1961.
Today’s other Buckeye birthday belongs to former quarterback Bret Powers.
Bret Christopher Powers was born March 12, 1971, in Glendale, Ariz., and earned recognition as an all-state performer in both football and basketball at Cactus High School. Football was his first love, however, and Powers signed with hometown Arizona State after throwing for 1,629 yards and 12 TDs as a senior. After redshirting for the Sun Devils in 1989, he played in 13 games, including nine starts, over the next two seasons and completed passes worth 1,777 yards and eight scores. A shoulder problem sidelined him for several games during the 1991 season, and when it appeared he would lose the starting job the following spring, Powers transferred to Ohio State. He was forced to sit out the ’92 season before backing up sophomore Bobby Hoying in 1993 for the Buckeyes. Powers played in 10 games that year, and completed 45 of 77 attempts for 721 yards and seven TDs. He earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in 1993, his only season in the Big Ten. Powers is currently living in the Los Angeles, Calif., area and is an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine.
Among the worldwide luminaries celebrating birthdays this 12th day of March: legendary female pro wrestler Mae Young is 86; three-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edward Albee is 81; former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Vern Law is 79; Southwest Airlines co-founder and former CEO Herb Kelleher is 78; Sixties TV actress Barbara Feldon (Agent 99 on the original “Get Smart”) is 77; former civil rights activist and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young is 77; three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford is 71; Grammy winning singer Al Jarreau is 69; former MLB slugger Jimmy Wynn is 67; gangster-turned-FBI-informant Sammy “The Bull” Gravano is 64; Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Oscar winning entertainer Liza Minnelli is 63; former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is 62; Grammy winning singer/songwriter James Taylor is 61; U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is 61; action film director Rob Cohen (“XXX” and “The Fast and the Furious”) is 60; actor Jon Provost (he played Timmy in the original “Lassie”) is 59; journalist/novelist Carl Hiaasen is 56; Iron Maiden bassist Steve Harris is 53; two-time National League MVP Dale Murphy is 53; Jackson 5 member Marlon Jackson is 52; former NFL linebacker and Detroit Lions president Matt Millen is 51; actor Courtney B. Vance (he’s played everything from sonar technician Ronald Jones in “The Hunt for Red October” to ADA Ron Carver on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” not to mention being married to Angela Bassett) is 49; former MLB outfielder Darryl Strawberry is 47; ESPN sportscaster Steve Levy is 44; Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson III is 43; actor Aaron Eckhart (DA Harvey Dent is “The Dark Knight”) is 41; and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Casey Mears is 31.
Today is also the 22nd anniversary of the death of the man who some would argue is the “real” architect of Ohio State football. Woody Hayes died March 12, 1987, at the age of 74.
BUBBLEHEAD BOBBLEHEAD PLANNING
It’s likely a sign of the times, but attendance figures are down throughout Grapefruit and Cactus league games this spring. Last Sunday, for example, Cincinnati hosted Toronto and the teams hooked up for a titanic struggle that was played before a crowd of 3,915 in Sarasota where Ed Smith Stadium holds 7,500.
Some of the attention dip in Sarasota could be due to the strained relations between the city and the Reds since the team is pulling up stakes after this season and moving its spring training facilities to Arizona. But the tough economic climate is affecting other teams as well. Last weekend, the Pirates and Astros played to a crowd of 3,959 in Bradenton, well below the McKechnie Field capacity of 6,562. Even in Arizona, where Glendale built the White Sox and Dodgers a new facility this year, crowds aren’t exactly what they were expected to be. A crowd of only 3,963 watched Chicago beat the Indians on Monday at the spacious new Camelback Ranch where capacity is 13,000.
Those sobering numbers will likely linger on into the 2009 regular season. Obviously teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Cubs and Dodgers are practically bulletproof economically, but what about mid-market teams that may struggle in the standings? What can they do to keep the turnstiles moving?
Usually teams fall back on tried and true marketing ploys such as dime-a-dog nights or bobblehead giveaways. Traditionally, those promotions are held through the week and against weaker opponents, giving fans an excuse to go to the ballpark.
The Reds, however, have inexplicably scheduled each of their bobblehead games in 2009 for Saturday night. Even more of a head-scratcher: The first two, which feature popular young stars Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, will be when Cincinnati hosts NL Central rival St. Louis.
Last season when the Cardinals played their only weekend series at Great American Ball Park, the three games were witnessed by an average of 31,472 fans. The Reds only averaged 25,415 for the entire home schedule, and that ranked 23rd among the 30 major league teams.
I don’t have a degree in marketing, but I don’t need one to realize the folly of scheduling your most popular promotions on nights when the ballpark was going to be full anyway.
** Congratulations to our old friend Larry Coker. The former Miami (Fla.) head coach and Ohio State assistant was hired last week by Texas-San Antonio as its first-ever football coach. The Roadrunners, who will play their home games in the Alamodome, are scheduled to begin competition at the Division I-AA level in 2011. It is Coker’s first job in coaching since the Hurricanes fired him after the 2006 season. He has a 60-15 career record as a head coach, which includes the 2001 national championship. San Antonio is the largest city in the nation without an NFL or Division I-A football team.
** Some athletes just don’t get it. Last week, pitcher Pedro Martinez said that while he is still hoping to pitch in the majors this season, he is not interested in any incentive-laden contracts. “I don’t think I’m in that stage,” Martinez told the Star-Ledger in New Jersey. “I believe I’m very comfortable. I’m not going to let anybody disrespect my abilities the way I am. … I wouldn’t say I want to pitch that bad.” You want to talk about disrespect, Pedro? How about disrespecting the fans of any team that would sign your tired 37-year-old arm after posting a 17-15 record and 4.74 ERA over the past three seasons? You’re history, pal. You’re lucky the Dominican Republic needed warm bodies to fill its World Baseball Classic roster.
** Since we’re on the subject, do you think Martinez is a future Hall of Famer? I’m not so sure. Pedro has a pretty gaudy .684 winning percentage (seventh best of all time), more than 3,000 strikeouts and he won three Cy Young Awards. But he won 20 games only twice, his 214 career victories rank below the lifetime totals of Curt Schilling, Dennis Martinez, Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat and Tommy John, and he doesn’t rank in the top 150 in career innings pitched. His Cooperstown bona fides seem a little iffy to me.
** And then there’s this: Boris Isayev, a 48-year-old Russian man, took first prize in the pancake eating contest to mark the end of Maslenitsa, or “pancake week,” in the western Russian region of Kaliningrad. Isayev downed 43 banana-and-cream-stuffed pancakes at the competition, and then collapsed while he was receiving his trophy. A few minutes later, Isayev was pronounced dead. Probable cause: axphyxiation due to a piece of pancake lodged in his throat. I would write more but I’m too choked up.