World War I had just ended and Americans were tired of war and eager to move on with their lives. The year was 1920, and the United States was in the midst of a presidential election cycle. One candidate campaigned vigorously from his front porch on Mount Vernon Avenue in Marion, Ohio, promising a “Return to Normalcy.”
That November, Warren G. Harding was elected president with the highest percentage of votes ever recorded at that time. The Roaring Twenties were underway with a former newspaperman from Ohio in the White House. Marion had arrived.
Eighteen years after Harding won the presidency, Marion drew national headlines for another winner. This time it was for Marilyn Meseke, the reigning Miss Ohio who was crowned Miss America.
Nationwide attention came to a halt shortly thereafter, though. Unless you count John Dean’s stint as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel and subsequent role in the Watergate scandal, or Mary Ellen Withrow’s tenure as the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Clinton Administration.
Some 150 years before the city of Marion became synonymous with presidential history, its namesake, the “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion, was busy terrorizing the British in the Revolutionary War. Marion, a father of guerilla warfare and what became the U.S. Army Rangers, became a cult hero during the Revolution after his surprise attacks and sieges laid waste to the British.
In 1821, Eber Baker, a Mainer, relocated to Ohio and thought present-day Marion was a good spot to build a log cabin. Soon thereafter, Baker platted the town and chose Marion over Claridon to serve as the county seat. Later in life, Baker served in the Ohio House of Representatives.
Recent decades have brought tough time to Marion. Jobs have disappeared and unemployment has skyrocketed at a rate higher than the state and national average. Each fall, though, moods are lifted when football season arrives. A three-day stretch each weekend, featuring Marion County high school teams, Ohio State and the Cleveland Browns, brings a community together and sends patrons to local establishments, including the venerable OK Café.
Home to one of the top Ohio State branch campuses, Marion and the Buckeyes are closely linked. Thousands of residents have earned degrees from the university and several athletes from the area have suited up for the Scarlet and Gray. The list includes Bob Middleton, Paul Ludwig, Max Midlam, Dave Merchant (basketball), Nate Stead, Dan Hirneise, Alan Rowley (basketball), Dan Weston (basketball), Jason Warner and current Buckeye Devlin McDaniel.
Marion’s respected football history began in 1922 with the NFL’s Oorang Indians. The team, headquartered in La Rue, played its home games in Marion and was owned by Walter Lingo, an Airedale Terrier breeder, who used his franchise to promote his dogs on road trips. One of the greatest athletes of all-time, Jim Thorpe, served as player-coach.
The Indians finished 3-6 in 1922 and 1-10 in 1923. The team does have two Pro Football Hall of Famers, Thorpe and Joe Guyon.
The cost of establishing an NFL franchise in 1922: a paltry $100. Lingo’s return on his investment worked out quite well, as he made over a million dollars selling dogs due to the publicity garnered by the Indians. He is also credited with creating halftime shows. The most famous example was when lineman Nick Lassa, also known as Long Time Sleep, wrestled a bear.
It would take nearly four decades until a Marion football team received notoriety again on the gridiron. In 1959, Marion Harding won a state poll title before another hiatus from the headlines. The program languished for decades until Tim Hinton arrived in 1993. The turnaround that took place is still the stuff of legend in Marion.
“At one point, Harding went winless in football and boys’ basketball. The numbers weren’t real good, and Tim came in and kids really bought into his philosophy,” said Jeff Ruth, who is now in his 30th year of doing play-by-play for WMRN radio in Marion. “It wasn’t just on the football field. Players were well respected in the community. Even if someone never got on the field on Friday night, he made sure they were part of the rebuilding process.”
For the next 11 years, Hinton patrolled the Prexie sideline. He led Harding to five conference championships and five playoff appearances, twice reaching the regional final. In 1995, Hinton was named the Division I coach of the year for the state of Ohio. But it’s those years that ended in the regional final that Hinton remembers most.
Harding’s 1998 team is still one of the best in county history, even without a state title. The upstart Presidents faced traditional power Canton McKinley in the regional final. McKinley, led by Mike Doss, was considered one of the best teams in the country, which left Harding as a heavy underdog. Late in the fourth quarter, though, the Presidents were inside the five-yard line with the game tied at 7. But a goal-line stand featuring a game-saving tackle by Doss changed the momentum.
McKinley drove the length of the field, won 14-7 and went on to win the state championship.
“Until the day I die, it will haunt me,” Hinton said of the goal-line stand. “That was a phenomenal football game. I’ve coached in a lot of games over the years, but that one will stick with me. There were a lot of great players on the field that day.”
- Population: 36,904
- Where: 40.588, -83.128
- County: Marion
- Zip Code: 43301, 43302, 43306, 43307
- Area Code: 740
- Fun Fact: Marion has been home to a President of the United States, Miss America and an NFL franchise.
Two years later, Harding squeaked into the playoffs and faced Massillon in the first round. Massillon was an overwhelming favorite as the home team and a No. 2 seed. Once again, though, Harding wasn’t intimidated and led 17-13 in the closing seconds. Then all hell broke lose.
Massillon quarterback Justin Zwick scampered 53 yards for an apparent game-winning touchdown. But a yellow flag was on the field. In a game marred by penalties – Massillon was flagged 15 times – it was the final straw for Tiger fans. Once the game ended, the field was littered with bottles. Several people, including the Harding band director, were injured in the mêlée.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” said Hinton, now an assistant at Ohio State.
Said Ruth: “I remember one of the players for Harding down in the corner of the end zone after the game was over – and at this point the Massillon fans were in shock or throwing bottles – taunting the fans like, ‘C’mon, is that all you got?’ The Harding coaches grabbed him, like, ‘Get the hell off the field. What are you doing?’”
Both games live in Marion County lore, discussed to this day.
Following the 2003 season, Hinton left for a position on Mark Dantonio’s staff at Cincinnati. The Marion Harding mystique left along with him. The Presidents have been a shell of their former selves in the post-Hinton era.
“To see where Harding was at one time and then, boom, you bring one guy in. You hear, ‘Oh, one guy can’t make a difference. Well, Tim did,” Ruth said. “Harding hasn’t been the same since he left.”
The school is attempting to recapture some of its magic with the hiring of longtime Hinton assistant, John Brady, as head coach. Coming with Brady will be several members of Hinton’s staff.
Week 3 will be the first major challenge as Harding, the county’s only city school, takes on a county foe in River Valley. It will be a throwback to early 1990s when the schools played a four-game series. Harding, a Division I school at the time, won all four games, but the significance hasn’t been forgotten.
“We always wished we would have had a chance to measure ourselves against Harding,” said Tim Stried, a former starting quarterback at Marion Pleasant, who is now the director of information services for the Ohio High School Athletic Association. “That (series) was huge. Marion County was buzzing over that. Just to have one of the county schools playing Harding was neat.”
Harding, River Valley, Pleasant, Elgin and Ridgedale are the five schools inside the county’s borders. Marion Catholic – state champions in 1965 – shuttered its doors after the 2012-13 school year. The rivalries between the schools are strong but civil. Pleasant and River Valley’s dislike for one another represents one of the best small-town rivalries in the state.
“I would certainly rank Marion County in the upper-tier of counties in Ohio (that supports high school football),” Stried said. “The county knows about its sports.”
At the center of the support are the residents of the county and city. When Hinton arrived at Harding, he enlisted parents to help paint the press box and do other odd jobs in support of the program. The response he got was overwhelming.
“I was like, wow,” he said. “From that moment on, I knew I went to a really, really special place.”
The winning helped Hinton’s case at Harding, while the same is true at Pleasant. But River Valley, Elgin and Ridgedale haven’t always been consistent winners. Still, the fan support has been top-level. That’s why Hinton looks back with fond memories of his time in town.
“They are very special years,” he said. “I never want to undersell the importance of how they impacted my life. (Marion) will always be a very special place. My children will always call it home. I enjoyed it very, very much.
“It wasn’t that we exceeded expectations, it was people rallying around us. It was city pride. I’ll always have great memories of the city. Those relationships I built in the 11 years I was there are absolutely priceless.”
Brady recently asked Hinton if he’d be interested in speaking to the 2013 Presidents.
“Are you kidding me?” Hinton said, dumbfounded. “Without Marion Harding, I’m not here today.”
Marion County football wouldn’t be the same without Ruth, whose smooth voice has filled the airwaves for three decades. He’s now one of the most recognizable members of the community and a trusted source for information.
“I remember coming home from away games and Coach (Chris) Kubbs wanting the radio on WMRN, and the bus was quiet,” Stried said. “We listened to the postgame show for other scores. If you can picture the setting, we’re driving home from Ridgedale, Elgin and Northmor, and it’s a quiet bus ride even though we won all those games, because we’re listening to Jeff do the scoreboard.”
Prior to Hinton’s success at Harding, Marion’s golden age came in the 1960s and 70s, when Pleasant won 44 straight games from 1969-1973. Those years included poll titles, but also the first Class A state playoff champion in 1972.
The final play of the 1972 title game against Lorain Clearview remains one of the most dramatic moments in Ohio high school history and arguably the greatest play in the history of Marion County football.
With the score tied at 14, Clearview had the ball at midfield in the final seconds. Instead of going to overtime, they opted for a Hail Mary. What transpired next is almost unfathomable. Pleasant defensive end Terry King hit the quarterback causing a fumble that was scooped up by Dave Mauk, who never stopped running till he reached the end zone. The undefeated season was complete.
The very next night, Pleasant played Marion Catholic in basketball. With no practice time due to football season, Pleasant trailed by double digits early before rallying for the win. It was the beginning of another undefeated season that culminated with a state championship. The 1972-73 Pleasant Spartans remain one of the few schools to capture a football and basketball title in the same year.
“Those teams (69-72) set the table,” Stried said. “Those team pictures and those trophies are on display. We knew about it. If you don’t get inspired by that, you’re just not into the sport. That really set the foundation.”
Pleasant has enjoyed a winning history since those Don Kay-led teams paved the road for future success. The Spartans have only had four head coaches in their 50-year history. The most successful was Kubbs, who retired in 2009 after 24 years as head coach.
For two decades, Pleasant won the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference championship and advanced to the state playoffs. In 1996, the Spartans won the state title, snapping Versailles’ 54-game winning streak in the process. Pleasant won another title in 2002.
“It was Pleasant and then everybody else,” Ruth said. “It was a thrill to broadcast them throughout the season. I still hear parents say, ‘You always want to beat Pleasant.’ There’s always satisfaction when you beat Pleasant in any sport.”
The Spartans became the New York Yankees of Marion County, the team everyone loved to hate. River Valley, Elgin and Ridgedale all fielded quality teams during Pleasant’s time as the county kingpin, but they could never put an end to their reign.
From youth football all the way up to high school, the Spartans’ support system is second to none. The coaching, competitive spirit and community support allows kids to thrive in a welcoming setting.
“The consistency has been there since the early 1960s, and what that leads to is really strong community and generational support,” Stried said.
“I lived two miles away from the school and when I was a kid growing up I would drive my bike to the school in August and sit on the monkey bars and watch the football team practice. When you grow up watching that, you’re inspired to be a part of the next great team.”
That came to fruition during his high school career, though it ended with a forgettable performance: two interceptions and a fumble.
Just how pressure-packed is high school football in Marion? Twenty years after a playoff defeat, Stried said, “I still think about it every once in a while.”