OHIO STATE’S GREATEST DRIVE #12
Whenever a sports fan, writer or broadcaster comes up with some “all-time greatest” list or countdown, there’s always a tendency for the list to skew to modern times. As seasons pass and years roll, records are broken and memories of yesteryear’s heroes fade. In this day and age of 24-hour sports channels on TV, a good portion of airtime is filled with these countdown-type shows. It sure is more entertaining if the entries on the list can be recalled with video highlights and sound bites from those who were there, as opposed to a series of still pictures from some bygone era.
When I put together our original “Greatest Drives” list, I strived to make sure that all of Ohio State football history was taken into account. The oldest game in our initial Top 25 was the 1944 Michigan game, and although Ohio State had many significant wins in its 50+ years of existence until that epic contest, none really seemed to fit the motif of a last-minute, game-winning march.
I was wrong. Embarrassingly wrong.
College football’s legendary institutions all can point to a certain season, coach or even a single player that provided the launching point for that school’s deep-seated tradition, its first foray into the nation’s consciousness. For fans of the Scarlet and Gray, there’s no disputing that the supernova that is Ohio State football blazed to life in 1916, led by the “godfather” of Buckeye greats. And if you wish to get more specific, you could arguably point to one single day of yore when Buckeye Nation came of age. As Columbus Dispatch sports columnist Bob Hunter put it in his outstanding book, Chic-
“In one cold, rainy afternoon…(Chic) Harley and his teammates had given birth to the Ohio State football behemoth that lives nearly a century later. This was the Big Bang of Buckeye football. On the Columbus campus, the sport would never again be the same.”
How and why I passed over this game the first time around is beyond me. But I am here now to right a wrong. The game itself reminded me a lot of the 2002 “Holy Buckeye” game at Purdue– all of the drama was squeezed in at the end of an otherwise drab affair. But there is no doubting its importance on the OSU pigskin landscape.
Correcting this glaring omission also gave me the opportunity to get reacquainted with the numerous volumes of Buckeye football tales that fill my bookshelves. The 1916 Illinois/Ohio State battle pre-dated television, radio and even the movie newsreels, so telling this story required poring over numerous books and also utilizing the Dispatch archives. This requires focus for it’s easy to get sidetracked paging through the history of Columbus on microfilm (and for those of you raised with the Internet wondering what that is, don’t ask!)
The man with the whistle who helped usher OSU into the “big time”, head coach John W. Wilce, had come to Columbus in 1913, the same season that his new school began competing in the Western Conference, aka the Big Ten. The university, and the city around it, was still trying to find their way in the college football jungle. The football program was 23 years old, yet Wilce was already the 13th head coach. 16 of those 23 seasons had produced winning records, including the last 14 in a row, yet most of the victories had been over Ohio schools. And for sheer exasperation, the Bucks were 0-12-2 with a whopping total of 3 touchdowns scored against TBGUN, which should explain why the roots of “hatred” run so deep in this state towards the Maize and Blue.
Wilce’s troops fashioned a 4-2-1 mark in his initial campaign and gained their first Big Ten win with a 58-0 pasting of Northwestern (some things never change). In 1914, they improved a bit to 5-2, yet with Wilce continuing a solid run of winning ledgers; the Buckeyes were often outdrawn crowd-wise by the Tigers of Columbus East High School. Their dynamic halfback, Charles W. “Chic” Harley, had gained greater notoriety as a prep standout than anyone who had played for Ohio State to this point. In fact, in an eerie foreshadowing to his collegiate career, Harley had led East to unbeaten seasons in his first two years on the varsity. With OSU out of town facing Indiana on November 7, 1914, East and Columbus North met at Ohio Field with the Tigers needing a win to wrap up a third undefeated year in a row. North, however, pulled the plug with a stunning 14-0 upset. Any Buckeye rooter who had followed Harley’s career had their disappointment over the North loss soothed when Chic made the fateful decision to play his college ball for Ohio State.
In 1915, while Chic toiled with the freshman team, Wilce led the Buckeyes to a 5-1-1 mark, the only blemishes being a 3-3 tie with Illinois and a third loss in as many games to Wisconsin. Fans may have expected the slight improvement- 1915 marked the first (and to date only) time in Ohio State history that the football team played the exact same teams in the exact same order from the previous year.
Harley joined the varsity for the 1916 season, and those who had never seen him play at East or on the frosh squad quickly saw what all the shouting was about. There was NOTHING Chic couldn’t do- run, pass, punt, kick, play defense. Off the field, though, was another story. The sophomore halfback was struggling in the classroom, and his name was on a list of gridders in the Columbus Dispatch who “still have ineligibility delinquencies which may possibly be written off or removed by further classroom work.” Harley’s eligibility was in question until the Thursday before the opener with Ohio Wesleyan, when he was finally cleared. On Saturday he led the ground attack with 87 yards as the Bucks shut out the Bishops 12-0. The next week Wilce’s troops unmercifully annihilated Oberlin 128-0, setting marks for points and margin of victory that will never be broken. The onslaught of points grabbed the headlines, naturally, but quietly the defense had allowed only two first downs, both via the air, in both wins.
So much for the “sisters of the poor”. Next up for OSU was a trip to Champaign to face the Fighting Illini. Illinois had been a charter member of the Big Ten in 1896, but had claimed only one league title in 1910, the same year that the school became the first to hold a “homecoming” game and weekend. Their fortunes began to change when the coaching reins were handed over to the legendary Bob Zuppke in 1913.
Zuppke promptly won his first 4 games in 1913, and although the Orange and Blue lost two and tied one down the stretch, the tone had been set. The next season Illinois rolled to a 7-0 mark, yielding only 22 points all year and claiming the mythical national championship. 1915 again saw no numbers in the “L” column, but two ties left Zuppke’s troops one-half game behind Minnesota for the league crown. One of those stalemates was a 3-3 tie in Columbus. After disposing of Kansas in the 1916 opener and with Ohio State due in the next Saturday, Illinois perhaps got caught “looking ahead” and dropped a 15-3 decision to Colgate, putting an end to their 15-game unbeaten streak as well as a 14-game win streak over non-conference opponents dating back to 1909. They still, however, owned an 11-game Big Ten unbeaten string.
Captain Bart Macomber, who had kicked the field goal to tie the 1915 game with OSU, led Illinois. He had played high school football for Bob Zuppke, and was voted All-American in 1915 at halfback. He would play some quarterback as well in 1916, and just as the Ohio State fortunes revolved around Chic Harley, Macomber was the point person for his squad. His illustrious Illini career would be rewarded with induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1972.
Macomber’s foot had saved his team’s bacon against OSU in 1915, but the Buckeyes hadn’t had reliable kicking in the pre-Harley days. In what would prove to be another clairvoyant moment for the Dispatch, this item had appeared in their column entitled “Ohio State Gossip” just a week before the season started-
“Harley and (Gordon) Rhodes are spending a lot of time drop-kicking. Chick (sp) will do a lot of this work later on and perhaps be asked to kick goals after touchdowns. This was a strong feature of his work at East High, and if he can keep up his interscholastic form the Scarlet and Gray team for once will have a reliable man to get that extra point.”
It was a roller coaster of emotions in Columbus the week leading up to the Illinois clash. On Monday, Tony Angelo, who had taken care of the Ohio Field turf for the last 10 years, welcomed a new baby boy. Then came a scare on Wednesday as all of Central Ohio’s “baby boy”, Chic Harley, split a finger trying to field a punt in practice. It was going to take something more grave to keep Chic out of this one.
The team left for Illinois by train on Thursday from Union Station in downtown Columbus. Before departing, the team had appeared at a rally attended by 1,000 students. Captain Frank “Swede” Sorenson told the throng, “I don’t want to make any predictions…that would be foolish. But I can tell you one thing- after this game is over Saturday afternoon, Illinois will discover that Ohio State can fight!”
OSU arrived in Urbana around noon on Friday, held a light workout on Illinois Field late that afternoon, and then, in what sounded like a bad horror movie plot, “the entire squad was taken on a long hike into the woods” according to the Dispatch. While the team traversed the Illinois forestry, a special student train was loading up to depart Columbus at midnight. OSU athletic director Lynn St. John had struck a deal for students to get 50-cent seats, and 175 of them took advantage, along with a 20-piece “regimental” band that had raised funds to go.
A combination of rain and snow on Friday in Champaign made the playing surface a quagmire. Apparently fearing that Harley’s speed and elusiveness would be neutralized, Saturday’s Dispatch headline proclaimed “Heavy Field Makes Illinois Favorite”. Yet both teams had to play in the conditions, which was not lost on Bob Zuppke. Looking for any kind of edge, when the Bucks got to Champaign Zuppke gave the visitors a tour of the Illinois trophy room, which certainly seemed, as Bob Hunter pointed out in his book Chic, “more of a psychological ploy than a genuine display of hospitality.”
A lackluster crowd of 4,388 fans settled in for each team’s Big 10 opener. (Note: The play-by-play comes from the Columbus Dispatch’s game summary, and at times is spotty) OSU had the football first and immediately disaster struck as Paul Hurm fumbled the ball away on the opening play. Macomber hit on a pair of passes then ended up booting a 26-yard field goal, giving Illinois a 3-0 lead two minutes into the game and putting the Bucks on the short end of the scoreboard for the first time all year. Under the rules of the day, Ohio State had to kickoff again to the Illini, and the Orange and Blue once more worked into enemy territory, including a 3-yard run from a halfback named George Halas. Halas would, of course, do a lot more for football in the state of Illinois than this 3-yard run. Macomber fired and missed on a 45-yard field goal attempt to keep the count at 3-0.
The Bucks couldn’t muster any offense and punted. Macomber and fullback Robert Knop spearheaded a ground-bound drive down to the Ohio State 6, where it was fourth down. Zuppke decided to roll the dice but Macomber’s pass for Halas was incomplete. “Shifty” Bolen immediately punted out of his own endzone and Donald Strauch brought it all the way back to the Buckeye 20. Responding to the pressure, the OSU defense brought a halt to the Illinois thrust, forcing another Bart Macomber field goal try. This one was a chipshot from 20 yards out, but it went awry. The Buckeyes punched out a first down to get some breathing room as the first period came to a close.
Harley finally got loose for a 25-yard scamper as the offense started to show signs of life, but the home team stiffened and Chic was off target on a 45-yard field goal try. The teams then exchanged punts, but on Ohio State’s boot Harley kicked the ball into a teammate and Illinois was given possession at the Buckeye 25. Macomber made a couple of nice runs to position himself for another field goal try, and his kick was true from 20 yards away, doubling the lead to 6-0. Illinois would have one last push before the half ended, but Macomber misfired on a 36-yard field goal try and the 6-0 lead stood. Coach Wilce and the troops had to be breathing a huge sigh of relief at the break. Practically the entire first half had been played in OSU territory and the guests were fortunate to only be down by six.
Neither team could dent the scoreboard in the third period. Bart Macomber continued his less than stellar day with another missed field goal, while Howard Yerges thwarted an Illinois drive with an interception for the visitors. Play moved to the fourth period and it was starting to appear that the Illini’s six points might just be enough. Harley broke off a 28-yard run to midfield, but after a pair of incompletions Howard Yerges, who was alternating punting duties with Chic, booted it away. Illinois was penalized for holding on the return, pushing them back to their own 6. Not wanting to take any chances, Macomber punted and Harley brought it back to the Illini 42. On the second play, Fred Norton was on the receiving end of an 11-yard pass from Max Friedman. Clarence McDonald pulled in a 6-yard aerial, and then Norton plowed ahead for another six. The Buckeye offense finally seemed to be gathering steam, but Harley was thrown for a 7-yard loss and two plays later his fourth-down throw to “Shifty” Bolen was short of the first down, turning the ball back over to the Illini at their 20.
Macomber and Edward Sternaman picked up decent ground gains, but the Ohio State defense forced a stop and got one last shot to save the day. An apparent 20-yard pass play was ruled incomplete, but Harley motored through the muck for 18. Fred Norton continued his stellar fourth quarter with a 12-yard reception, but the Illinois defenders toughened and with 1:10 left in the contest, Ohio State was facing 4th-and-3 from approximately the 15-yard line.
Harley got the snap, and with his receivers and the shifted line overloaded to the right, he fake-pumped and took off for the corner of the endzone. Three Illini had a shot or an angle and couldn’t get it done as Chic dove over the goal line for the biggest touchdown in school history to that point. The game was tied at 6 and now it was down to the PAT. Bob Hunter picks up the story from his book Chic-
“Extra point kicks were harder and more complicated in those days. The scoring team had to kick the ball from behind the goal line at the point from which the ball carrier entered the end zone. A member of his team had to field the ball cleanly on the field of play, and from that spot, the kicker was given a chance to make the conversion with either a place kick or drop kick. If the receiver of the “kick-out” dropped the ball or missed it entirely, no try for the extra point was permitted. Harley produced the kick-out to halfback teammate Fred Norton, who caught the ball on the 22 near the sideline. The spot was less than ideal, particularly because of the muddy conditions, but the Buckeyes had another problem. Most of Wilce’s regulars had been substituted off the field. The rules of the day said they couldn’t return, and no one in the lineup had ever held the ball for a place kick. Up stepped Kelly Van Dyne to offer his services.”
(Click here to check out Bob Hunter’s book for yourself)
In a moment of tension probably only rivaled by all of the fourth-down plays in the two overtimes against Miami in the ’03 Fiesta Bowl, Chic called timeout to get a dry shoe from the sideline. While every eye in the place was on him, Harley slowly laced up the new footwear, then returned to the field and split the uprights with the placement kick, giving the Buckeyes a 7-6 lead that would become official moments later with a game-ending interception by “Shifty” Bolen.
It was only a small crowd of students that had come over from Columbus, but the party was on in Champaign. Illinois had tasted defeat at home in a Big Ten game for the first time since a 19-9 loss to Minnesota on November 22, 1913.
And as any college football fan would probably attest, it’s not a big Ohio State win on the gridiron without the police having to break up a skirmish. As the teams left the field, legend has it “Shifty” Bolen asked Bob Zuppke if he’d like to have Chic Harley’s shoe for his trophy room, and as you might expect Zuppke and his players didn’t take too kindly to Bolen’s suggestion and Champaign’s finest quickly quelled a short brawl. The game, and Bolen’s remarks, would add more spice to a rivalry that would be second only to Michigan for a long stretch of Buckeye football history. The teams would meet consistently from 1914-2003, the longest uninterrupted series in Ohio State annals. From 1919 to 1933 the Buckeye/Illini matchup was the last game of the year for both schools, and when the Michigan game moved into that slot in 1935, the yearly Needless to say, Chic Harley was the toast of Columbus following the dramatic win in Champaign. But in typical low-key fashion for the East High product, he took a train by himself to Chicago to visit his family after the epic victory. Meanwhile, his teammates returned to Columbus as conquering heroes and would ride the unprecedented groundswell of enthusiasm to the school’s first unbeaten, untied season and first Big Ten championship with a 7-0 mark. Harley would garner the first of three All-American selections, prompting selector Walter Camp to opine, “He is one of the greatest players the country has ever seen. He is an excellent leader, shifty, fast and one of the best open-field runners in years.”
Chic would lead the Buckeyes to another unbeaten season in 1917, blemished only by a scoreless tie with Auburn (OK, the SEC didn’t come into being until 1933, but still…freakin’ SEC!) After serving in World War I in 1918, Chic returned to campus the next year and led the Bucks- FINALLY! – to their first ever win over Michigan. But in a heartbreaking deja vu of his high school career, he suffered his only collegiate loss in his final game as Illinois booted a last-second field goal to upset the Bucks 9-7. He would become the very first Ohio State player elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951, and in 1977 would be among the first group of inductees into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame.
The most recent issue of the Ohio State alumni magazine gave results of a vote for the all-time Ohio State team. Archie Griffin and Eddie George took the two runningback spots, and while Archie is a no-brainer, how you could not recognize Chic Harley is beyond me. Don’t get me wrong, I still wear my #27 jersey to the ‘Shoe a couple of times each season, but Ohio State football isn’t what it is today, and has been for years, without Chic. His successful era resulted in Ohio Stadium being built and lit the fuse for what fall Saturday afternoons have become for Buckeye Nation. No all-time Buckeye team should exclude him, and no list of important plays in Scarlet and Gray annals should be without his touchdown AND extra point from that muddy afternoon in Champaign.