The Ohio State coaching tenures of Paul Brown and Jim Tressel have had many similarities. Both were native Ohioans who brought a detailed, hands-on approach to Columbus. Both had been extremely successful at their previous schools as well. Brown had come from Massillon High School after turning the Tigers into a powerhouse during his stay from 1932-1940. After going 22-7-1 his first three years, Brown had led Massillon to a 58-1-1 mark the final six, losing only to a team from Newcastle, Pennsylvania in 1937. Most importantly, he had NOT lost to bitter rival Canton McKinley in those six seasons. Jim Tressel, of course, led the Youngstown State Penguins to four 1-AA national titles and played in two other championship games during his 15-year career. Both men took the Buckeyes to the summit in their second year- Brown leading Ohio State to its first-ever national championship in 1942 while Tressel engineered a miraculous 14-0 campaign in 2002 to win it all. In both cases, it quickly put to rest any concern over whether someone could handle coaching at OSU coming from a lower level, be it Division 1-AA or even high school.
Going into 1943, Paul Brown had fashioned a 15-2-1 record in his first two seasons, but World War II was cleaning out rosters all over the country, and while several major colleges (including Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Boston College) dropped the sport altogether that year, Brown marched on with only 5 returning members of the ’42 title team mixed in with 39 freshmen. In an effort to help schools, freshmen were permitted to play while upperclassmen who weren’t drafted for whatever reason were granted an extra year of eligibility. However, Ohio State was hindered by an Army ruling which stated that its trainees were not eligible for varsity sports. OSU, Indiana and Iowa were all affiliated with the Army’s officer training program, while the rest of the Big Ten schools were tied in with the Navy, which allowed its officer candidates to keep playing.
Widdoes had talked Horvath into playing in 1944 and he had practiced with the team, but it didn’t appear the Army would release Les from the training program so as fall practice began Horvath actually was helping coach the freshman running backs. But then, the Army dropped the program, Horvath became a civilian and since he wanted to continue his dentistry studies he was granted a deferment by the draft board. Michael Doss’ decision to return to Ohio State for his senior year was certainly a cornerstone of the 2002 championship run, and there’s no question that Chic Harley and Vic Janowicz meant almost everything to some other fine Buckeye teams. But the circumstances which allowed Les Horvath to return to the gridiron in 1944 would prove to be one of the best hands of fate the school would ever be dealt. To help accommodate Horvath’s intense studies, coach Carroll Widdoes cut back on Les’ practice time and even arranged for him to fly to away games instead of taking the train.
The 1944 Buckeyes fired out of the gate with back-to-back shutouts of Missouri (54-0) and Iowa (34-0). Many Buckeye fans and other followers of college football, who had been lulled to sleep by OSU’s 3-6 mark in ’43 and the subsequent loss of their highly popular coach, began to wonder if something was brewing on the banks of the Olentangy. The next Saturday, the Bucks traveled to Madison to face unbeaten, 19th-ranked Wisconsin. Just two years earlier, most of the Buckeye squad had gotten sick from the water on the train they rode to Madison, and they were hardly 100 percent the next day as the Badgers dealt the ’42 OSU gridders their only loss of the season, 17-7. This time, Widdoes made sure that the team brought its own water supply from Columbus, and the Scarlet and Gray broke open a 7-7 game in the fourth quarter with two scores to knock off Wisconsin 20-7. The game was actually a homecoming in a couple of respects for former Ohio State coach Dr. John Wilce. The Buckeyes’ regular team doctor, Walter Duffee, missed his first game in his 24-year career so Wilce had accompanied the squad to Madison. Ironically, Wilce was a Wisconsin graduate who had been the Badgers’ football captain in 1909. With the 20-7 win, the Bucks moved up to #4 in the AP poll and were set for a huge matchup at Ohio Stadium with the sixth-ranked Bluejackets of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, coached by-you guessed it- one Paul Brown.
Paul Brown had coached for the last time in Ohio Stadium.
The following week the Buckeyes laced Minnesota 34-14 and took sole possession of first place in the Big Ten as Michigan handed Purdue its first conference loss since 1942, 40-14. Ohio State and Purdue would not be facing each other in 1944, so the Boilers would need some foreign aid to get back into the race for the crown. They hoped to get help from their in-state brethren the Indiana Hoosiers, who brought a 5-1 record and #15 ranking to Columbus on November 4th. Indiana grabbed a 7-0 lead, putting Ohio State on the short end of the scoreboard for the first time all year, but freshman halfback Bob Brugge scored twice and Les Horvath passed to Jack Dugger for another tally as OSU smacked the Hoosiers 21-7. Nationally, Navy beat #2 Notre Dame so the Bucks moved into the runner-up spot in the AP poll behind Army.
Back in 1942, OSU’s loss at Wisconsin in the “bad water” game had occurred when Paul Brown’s unit was ranked #1 in the country. In the next poll, somewhat predictably, they were sixth. That next Saturday the Bucks had walloped Pitt 59-19, but when the next AP rankings were released, Ohio State was clear down in 10th place- after a 40-point win! Now the point differential wasn’t that much between #6 Michigan and #10 OSU, but the fact that Brown’s teams made a 10-spot jump in the final THREE weeks to finish #1 that season was somewhat unbelievable. Fast forward two years- OSU, ranked #2, hammers Pitt 54-19 on November 11, 1944. So what happens in the following AP poll? Naturally, the Buckeyes fall to fourth. Either the media was doing its utmost to make sure December 2nd’s Army-Navy game would be a #1 vs. #2 contest (Navy, even with two losses, had remained at #3 while another service team, Randolph Field, shot to #2), or else the AP pollsters really didn’t think much of Pitt. OSU may even have helped that theory as the 54-19 blowout was accomplished even with Bill Willis and guard Bill Hackett sitting out the entire game to mend from injuries. Despite the frustration with the national picture, Willis and Hackett would need to be at full strength as the unbeaten Bucks had two obstacles between them and the Big Ten title- a get-together in Cleveland with Illinois, and “THE GAME” back in Columbus.
The Ohio State-Illinois contest on November 18th was held at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. It was the third straight year the Bucks had played up at the lake. Illinois had been an easy 44-20 victim in 1942, while Purdue had drilled OSU 30-7 in 1943 on their way to an unbeaten season and a tie for the Big Ten title. 83,627 fans turned out, the largest crowd in Cleveland Stadium history to that point, and they saw hometown boy Les Horvath score twice to lead the Scarlet and Gray to a 26-12 victory. Ohio State was 8-0, ranked #3, and set to welcome their archrivals to the ‘Shoe. #6 Michigan was 8-1, their only loss being to Indiana 20-0, but UM had played 6 league games as opposed to Ohio State’s 5, so a win in Columbus would give the Wolves the outright Big Ten crown. By the middle of the ’44 season, Michigan had no one on its roster from the previous year’s Big Ten co-championship team, but the job that Fritz Crisler had done was about as remarkable as Carroll Widdoes’ efforts. This was the 41st meeting between the two old rivals, and they had been members of the Big Ten at the same time since 1918, but this would be the very first time that the Big Ten championship would go to the winner.
Hype-wise, only the 1942 TBGUN game and the 1935 Notre Dame contest probably had as much buildup. The press descended from all over the country, including immortal writer Grantland Rice, who represented one of four New York newspapers that covered the game. Legendary radio sportscasters Bill Stern of NBC, Bill Slater of Mutual and Ted Husing of CBS would be calling the game over their respective networks, while all five existing newsreel companies would have cameras in the pressbox, which forced Ohio State’s coaches to move to another location. Even actor/comedian Bob Hope would be at the game, since he would be later heading up to Cleveland for a War Bond rally on November 30th. For added incentive, it was strongly rumored that the Buckeyes would receive a Rose Bowl invitation with a win, even though Big Ten rules forbade it. Just in case, the Buckeyes sent scouts to Los Angeles to see Southern Cal, the likely Rose Bowl opponent, face their crosstown rivals UCLA.
By Friday, Columbus was at a fever pitch. All reserved seats at Ohio Stadium had been sold out for two weeks, and 11,000 general admission tickets that went on sale that day at 2PM were quickly snapped up. It was Homecoming weekend, and also Senior Tackle was held that Friday. Needless to say, with only four seniors, it was a brief ceremony. Les Horvath got to participate in the sacred tradition for a rare second time, but the highlight was the final hit of tackle Bill Willis. The antique tackling dummy was hanging from goalposts on the practice field, but Willis hit the dummy so hard it broke off the chains holding it to the posts. Coaches had to hold the thing so that Jack Dugger could take his shot at it.
A pep rally was held at Page Hall on campus at 7PM, then at 9PM another huge rally took place downtown at the Palace Theatre, featuring the Ohio State Marching Band. At 9:30, NBC’s Bill Stern had Carroll Widdoes as his guest on his nationally broadcast “sports newsreel of the air”. In the midst of all the hoopla, Michigan slipped into town around 10:30. The numerous Navy and Marine trainees on the team were only allowed to be off campus for a maximum of 48 hours, so UM had scheduled a late Friday arrival, with the plan being to head back to Ann Arbor Saturday night.
The battle for the Big Ten championship kicked off at 2PM, and both teams picked up one first down on their initial possessions before punting. Ohio State revved up its second drive from their own 44. Bob Brugge slipped and fell on first down, losing 5 yards, but Horvath picked up 7 and freshman halfback Dick Flanagan scampered for 20 on a reverse to the UM 34. On 3rd-and-5 from Michigan’s 29, Brugge went around the right side for 6 and a first down at the 23. Flanagan and Les Horvath then combined for three carries to move the ball to the Wolverine 12. Freshman fullback Ollie Cline pounded the middle for 2, then Horvath, who played the quarterback position when OSU ran the T-formation, sneaked for 6. Flanagan could only manage 1 yard, so Widdoes had an early decision to make with 4th-and-1 at the Michigan 3. He called on Horvath who delivered the needed yard to set up a first-and-goal at the 2. The stubborn Michigan defense stuffed Horvath on a sneak and buried Flanagan for no gain, but finally on third down Cline barreled into the south endzone for the game’s first score. Jack Dugger’s point after was blocked, so with only 1:42 left in the opening period the Bucks led 6-0.
The game moved on into the second quarter, and the defenses continued to dominate. TBGUN hadn’t even managed a first down since Gene Derricotte picked up 10 yards on UM’s very first offensive play of the day, and they had been plagued by bad field position. Late in the period OSU began a drive from their own 29, and quickly faced a 3rd-and-9. Horvath dropped to pass but with the Wolverine defense bearing down he took off and scrambled for 10 and a first down at his 40. Three running plays got the ball to midfield, then Horvath took to the air again but was picked off by Ralph Chubb at the Michigan 35. Chubb returned the ball 35 yards to the Buckeye 28, and now the Maize and Blue were in business. After fullback Donald Lund picked up 2, Chubb scampered for 13 to the OSU 13, then danced for 9 more to give Michigan a second-and-goal at the 4. The Buckeye defense threw Lund and Chubb for one-yard losses on both of the next two plays, so now Fritz Crisler was faced with a crucial choice. Just as Widdoes had done on Ohio State’s scoring drive, Crisler went for it and Chubb delivered, slamming down to the 1. Bill Culligan did the honors from there with only 22 seconds remaining in the half, and after Joe Ponsetto’s conversion Michigan took a 7-6 lead.
The fans were treated to a poignant halftime show as “The Best Damn Band In The Land” formed “13149”, signifying the number of Ohio State undergrads and alums who were serving America in World War II. A single bugle played “Taps” from this formation as the crowd stood in silent tribute. The band then performed the incomparable “Script Ohio”, and for the playing of “Carmen Ohio” at “Script’s” conclusion, band director Prof. William McBride stepped aside and the musicians were led by Fred Cornell, who had written “Carmen Ohio” back in 1902. Cornell was an OSU freshman that year and was coming back on the train from Ann Arbor where the Bucks had suffered the worst defeat in school history, 86-0 to Fielding Yost’s Wolverines. Cornell had been impressed by UM’s band and created verses to an old Spanish melody as the train headed back to Columbus. By the time they arrived Cornell had the song mostly finished, and although it has several verses, it’s the opening stanza that Buckeye Nation knows best.
The Wolves got off to a hot start in the third quarter as Lund gained 8 and Chubb picked up 14 on their first two plays to move the ball into Buckeye territory. But Lund fumbled on the next snap and Gordon Appleby recovered for Ohio State. The Bucks’ initial second-half march was short-circuited as Les Horvath was dumped for losses of 4 and 5. OSU punted to the UM 21, and just three plays later Chubb coughed it up and once again it was Appleby with the recovery, this time at the Michigan 23. Dick Flanagan plunged for 3, then Horvath swept wide for 9 and a first down at the 11. The Parma native came right back on a reverse and was stopped just shy of a first down around the 2. Les was stuffed on the next snap, but Flanagan pounded out the first down, setting up a first-and-goal at the 1. Ollie Cline was brought down short of the goal line, but on the next play Horvath stormed over for the touchdown. Tom Keane missed the conversion and with 8:17 left in the third quarter Ohio State was back on top 12-7.
On Ohio State’s next possession they moved inside Michigan’s 30 but fumbled. Three plays later Joe Ponsetto tried a quarterback sneak on a 3rd-and-1 play but OSU’s Matthew Brown stole the ball away from him. A Wolverine back clipped Brown by the ankle as he broke away from the pile, knocking him off balance. Brown had nothing but green grass in front of him but he fell down at the Michigan 20. That fortunate stop was magnified considerably as the Bucks turned the ball over on downs at the 17-yard line. Michigan ran two plays as the third quarter came to a close with OSU still up 12-7.
Jack Weisenburger, Bill Culligan and Donald Lund all notched first downs to move the pigskin to the Ohio 46. On 3rd-and-8, Culligan drilled a 28-yard pass to Ponsetto. It would be the only completed pass of the entire game for either team, and Michigan was now at the Buckeye 16. Four consecutive totes by Culligan led the Maize and Blue to the OSU 2. Ponsetto gained about a foot, then Culligan blasted in for his second touchdown of the game. The 83-yard drive had taken 18 plays, and after Ponsetto’s kick Michigan was back in the lead 14-12 with 8:29 left to play.
Ralph Chubb kicked off and the boot only traveled 12 yards, going out of bounds at the Buckeye 48. It has been debated for years whether or not Fritz Crisler ordered an onside kick. Both Crisler and Chubb would deny it to the press after the game, and with a two-point lead and the Big Ten title in the balance it certainly wasn’t a bright move -if indeed an onside kick was the intended idea. Regardless, Ohio State was 52 yards from home.
Les Horvath got the drive going with a 6-yard gain, then it was Dick Flanagan for 3 and Bob Brugge for 4 and a first down at the UM 39. Back came Horvath for 3, then a pair of Brugge runs netted 6 yards, bringing up a 4th-and-1 at the Michigan 30. Flanagan got the critical carry and powered for 8 big yards, moving the sticks to the Maize and Blue 22. Again Horvath carried on first down, this time for 6. Ollie Cline got in on the action and barreled for 4 and another OSU first down at the TBGUN 12. Flanagan plunged for 4, Brugge cut back for 5, and when Horvath struck for 1 it was first-and-goal at the Wolverine 2. Flanagan only managed 1, and legend has it that in the huddle one of the offensive linemen told Horvath to stop messing around and take it in himself. Out of the single wing, Horvath took the snap from the tailback spot and dove right over the middle into the north endzone for the touchdown, his second of the day and twelfth of the season.
Ohio Stadium was in absolute bedlam. Their Buckeyes had marched 52 yards in 14 plays- all on the ground- for the score, the fourth time in the contest that the lead had changed hands. Jack Dugger missed the PAT kick- OSU’s third botched conversion of the afternoon- and with 3:16 to play the Bucks led 18-14.
Michigan’s last chance began on their 27. Culligan scrambled for 11 on the first play, good for a first down at the Ohio State 38. After an incompletion, Culligan threw deep and Dick Flanagan intercepted it at the Buckeye 33. OSU ran out the clock and had capped off a perfect 9-0 season, the school’s first unblemished record since 1920. The Bucks were also outright Big Ten champions for the sixth time.
Army defeated Navy a week later to wrap up a 9-0 campaign, and the Black Knights of the Hudson had their first national championship. The Bucks finished #2, and they were the only non-military team in the top six as Randolph Field, Navy, Bainbridge Navy and Iowa Pre-Flight rounded out the first half dozen spots. Although the Cadets won the title, Ohio State prevailed individually as Les Horvath won the school’s first Heisman Trophy award, beating out Army’s fabled “Touchdown Twins” backfield of Glenn Davis and “Doc” Blanchard. Horvath, who was the only player in OSU history to play for Francis Schmidt, Paul Brown and Carroll Widdoes, also became the first (and to date, only) Heisman Trophy winner who had not played at all the previous season. Les would be one of four Buckeyes to be named All-American, joining Bill Willis, Bill Hackett and Jack Dugger, and would also become Ohio State’s team MVP and the school’s third winner of the Big Ten MVP award, following Wes Fesler (1930) and Jack Graf (1941).
Coach Carroll Widdoes, who had been thrown in the shower by the players after the historic Michigan win, garnered some hardware himself as he was voted “Coach Of The Year” by his peers. Unfortunately, Widdoes wouldn’t be able to coach his team in the Rose Bowl, as the Big Ten faculty directors met in Chicago on Sunday and voted (reportedly 7-3) against lifting their ban on postseason games. Athletic Director Lynn W. St. John received a long distance phone call at the Deshler-Wallick hotel in Columbus during the traditional Captain’s Breakfast informing him of the vote. St. John was bitterly disappointed but said they would respect the decision, somewhat of a contrast to Dispatch sports editor Russ Needham, who wrote a column which mentioned the “stubborn bullheadedness of the Big Ten faculty brass hats”. Tennessee went west instead and was blanked by Southern Cal 29-0.
Despite the Rose Bowl disappointment, 1944 had been a vintage year, especially considering all that had been accomplished with Paul Brown in the service. Widdoes had kept the “dynasty” seat warm, but just over a year later Paul Brown accepted an offer to coach the new professional team in Cleveland for the All-American Football Conference. Buckeye fans were stunned, and when Brown signed several OSU players for his new team that had eligibility left (including Lou Groza and Dante Lavelli), it burned bridges with the athletic department. Widdoes would coach one more year before asking to return to being an assistant.