April 20, 2016
"Graveyard of Coaches"
Woody Hayes and the 100-Yard War, by Jerry Brondfield (1974)
The triple-decked gray concrete structure [Ohio Stadium], built in about a year and a half, was dedicated in 1922. It held 65,000 ... It was the first of the nation's huge, modern stadiums, the first built since Harvard's and Yale's ... It launched the 1920s boom in college ball parks that had all the biggies following the Buckeye lead.
What it also led to at Ohio State was something that would be called the "Graveyard of Coaches." Dr. John Wilce, producer of the Buckeyes' first champion, first All-America and first conqueror of Mighty Michigan, continued to be a winner but couldn't whip Michigan as often as the locals would like. Beating Michigan was the eleventh commandment, losing to Michigan was the cardinal sin. By the late 1920s it was obvious Michigan had lost his desire to continue with pressure football and wanted to spend more time in medicine. He resigned after the 1928 season.
L. W. St. John, the Ohio State athletic director, immediately got a tip from Major John L. Griffith, the Big Ten commissioner. He knew a candidate for the job who was really interested. "Like who?" asked St. John.
St. John ... calmly told Griffith he was out of his cotton-pickin' mind, or whatever was the 1928 equivalent, but Griffifth knew what he was talking about.
Notre Dame's famed coach somehow thought he'd climbed all the available mountains with the Irish and was looking for a new peak. Rockne and St. John went into a long huddle. After about four hours he agreed to take the job - but only if no word was mentioned until he had a chance to get back to South Bend and ask Notre Dame officials to let him out of his contract. It was all set.
No one knew how it happened, but there was a leak. Notre Dame officials heard of it, and when Rock got home he knew there was no way they'd let him out of his contract. Those were the days when coaches felt impelled to honor those things. Notre Dame talked Rockne into staying on and Ohio State lost a chance to lay forever the Coaches' Graveyard ghost that would soon take residence in the huge, cavernous stadium alongside the Olentangy River.
Instead of Rockne, the Buckeyes got one of Wilce's assistants, a solid and capable man named Sam Willaman. Unfortunately, a nickname came with him: "Sad Sam" Willaman. He had that kind of face and manner. He also was one fine football coach and never had a losing season. But in five years he couldn't wrap up a Big Ten title. There were years when he lost only one game. The one game always seemed to be to Michigan. Alumni discontent, student discontent and a generally sour interview by the statewide press convinced Michigan. He packed it in.
Francis Schmidt instructing the Buckeyes
Okay, fans said, let's get somebody with imagination, with zest and zeal and anything else beginning with Z. So, St. John got it for them. He got the zaniest, maddest, most imaginative football coach ever to hit the Big Ten, and the record still holds. He got the Buckeyes Francis Schmidt from Texas Christian, and it was Schmidt who launched Ohio State's modern era of football eminence. Schmidt was a World War One bayonet drill instructor with a loud, raucous and colorful approach to the English language, the likes of which had never been heard on this serene and conservative campus.
It had really taken Schmidt only one year to enrapture Ohio State fans for what was predicted to be forever. At his first football banquet after a sensational first season capped by a glorious 34-0 shellacking of Michigan, Schmidt, in bayonet drill tones, bawled forth two classic and historic comments. "Let's not always be called Buckeyes," he brayed. "After all, that's just some kind of a nut, and we ain't nuts here. [A debatable claim.] It would be nice if you guys in the press out there would call us 'Bucks' once in a while. That's a helluva fine animal, you know."
Francis Schmidt, despite his individual brilliance, coached football in a perpetual ambiance of frenzied chaos. His staff was in a limbo of misdirection and uncertainty. Nobody knew from one day to another what the hell the mad genius was going to do. He heaped scorn and ridicule on his players and they hated him. There was open dissension. And after a couple of years the opposition began to catch on to his pyrotechnic style.
Then, like other coaches before him, Francis Schmidt fell victim to the Michigan bugaboo. After four straight Buckeye victories, Michigan came up with a back named Tom Harmon, and in 1938, 1939, and 1940, Ohio State dropped three in a row. ... Once again in Columbus, mutinous fans were getting out a plank for a Buckeye football coach.
Francis Schmidt knew the Athletic Board was debating his future. He was the kind of man who'd rather die than be fired, so he quit before the board could act - as it certainly would have done. The board also accepted resignations of Schmidt's five assistants, two of whom would later make names for themselves elsewhere: Sid Gillman at Cincinnati and later in the pros; and Gomer Jones, who would become the architect of Bud Wilkinson's great lines at Oklahoma ...
When news photographers came around for a going-away photo, Schmidt, blatantly sarcastic to the end, told them, "You guys have dozens of my pictures in your files. Just dig out one of them and use it. And while you're at it, underneath it just say: 'Rest in peace.'" Three years later, at Idaho, he died of a heart attack. Some say a broken heart.