IF YOU CALL YOURSELF A BUCKEYE, then you simply must read this:
The 1916 game against Illinois is considered by many Ohio State football historians as the greatest football game in Ohio State history. One has to take in to account that the football program up to this point was unlike anything modern fans are used to and was certainly not taken seriously… that was all about to change by the outcome of the effort put forth by Ohio State at Illinois Field on October 21, 1916.
First year Phenom, Charles "Chic" Harley and the Buckeyes were surely tired for just one week prior they beat Oberlin University 128-0 for what remains today as the largest victory in Ohio State history but what was about to happen is considered the beginning of what we all know today as the elite program of our beloved Buckeyes.
Excerpts borrowed from The One and Only, Chic Harley by Todd C. Wessell p.p. 54-59. If you do not own the book, please ask for it as a Christmas gift, I promise you will not regret getting a copy.
“The Buckeyes’ 1916 battle against the Fighting Illini is, without question, one of the greatest football games ever played by an Ohio State team. In fact, it may indeed be the greatest. Whole no one really identified the full significance of the contest at the moment the final whistle sounded, history revealed that without the 7-6 victory, and the way it was snatched in the final seconds by Chic Harley, it’s questionable that Ohio State and its storied football program of today would have evolved the way it has.
Heading into the contest on Illinois turf in Champaign, Ohio wasn’t given much chance. Illinois had been a perennial power in the Western Conference, winning the league title the year before. In fact, Coach Bob Zuppke, in his third year at Illinois, hasn’t lost a conference contest since the 19-9 loss to Minnesota in 1913. His players were big, quick, and talented, with Bart Macomber captain, George Halas at end, and Ed “Dutch” Sternaman at halfback.
A few hours before the 2 P.M. kickoff, Zuppke gave the visiting players a tour of the Illinois trophy room, where awards, balls, and all sorts of hardware were on display. This clever bit of hospitality more likely was a tactic to intimidate the visitors. That day, the weather in Champaign-Urbana and surrounding cornfields was horrible, with intermittent rain that made the gridiron a sea of mud. Neither team could get on track as 4,388 fans (175 from Columbus) huddled on the bleachers, trying to keep dry and warm. Just moments after play began, a fumble by Ohio State gave Illinois good field position. Two complete passes set up a successful field goal for Macomber from a difficult angle. Two more field goal attempts a few minutes later by Macomber failed, leaving Illinois with a 3-0 lead at the end of the first period. In the second quarter, Harley and Ohio continued to struggle with the wet conditions, picking up a few yards here and there and occasionally thrown for a loss. Finally, on a fake punt, Harley picked his way through opposing tacklers for a twenty-five-yard gain around the left end. But on the next play, he was thrown for a loss, and a play later, a forward pass from Harley to Shifty Bolen was incomplete. Later in the period, a forty-five-yard field goal attempt by Chic failed. After the Illini gave up the ball on downs, as did the Buckeyes, a punt by Harley was accidentally blocked by one of his teammates, with the referee ruling that the ball belonged to Illinois. Macomber, running and passing, again was called on to make a field goal as the second period ended. This time it was good from twenty yards.
Buckets of rain continued to fall, forming a sea of small puddles and uprooted turf as the second half of play began. Cleats were like street shoes on ice. Jerseys and padded pants were caked in mud. Players’ faces were unrecognizable. Still, the two teams battled up and down the gridiron, with Rhodes and Harley carving out one- and two-yard gains and Macomber booming fifty- and sixty-yard punts following unsuccessful Illini attempts at first downs. A few trick plays netted six or seven yards, not enough to prevent Ohio from punting nine times in the game and Illinois, seven.
In the fourth quarter, with Illinois clinging to a 6-0 lead, play began to open up. Harley, unable to get going for anything longer than his twenty-five-yard scamper in the second period, was called on to handle some of the punting. Macomber went to the air more often for Illinois, and the crafty Sternaman started chalking up four-, five-, and six-yard gains on the ground. Following an eight-yard punt return by Harley to midfield, Ohio State suddenly began gaining sizable chunks on the ground. L.A. Friedman replaced Yerges at Quarterback, and his hot passing gained eleven yards, then six yards. Their hopes at scoring fizzled when Chic was thrown for a seven-yard loss and a Harley-to-Bolen pass attempt was incomplete. Illinois then came right back, with Sternaman and Macomber leading the way with runs. With just a few minutes remaining, Harley, running for his life after a handoff, “seemed confused,” but managed to complete a pass to end Clarence MacDonald for eighteen yards. Two more forward passes put the Buckeyes on the Illini thirteen-yard line as the clock ticked away the final moments. With about two minutes left in the game, the situation was third down and three yards to go for Ohio State. The outcome rested on Wilce’s next one or two plays and on the skill and luck of his players, who had to contend with not only an opponent desperate to stop them, but also terrible weather conditions.
“Two minutes of bitter struggle remained,” Wilce later wrote of one of his greatest thrills in a three-decade coaching career. “A long forward pass from Chic Harley to end MacDonald had carried Ohio from its twenty-yard line to midfield, and a succession of short tosses, in which the future aviator Fred Norton figured prominently, made it fourth down with three yards to go on the Illinois thirteen-yard line. Then came a great play.”
“The game was nearly over,” remembered team center Fritz Holtkamp. “But the Buckeyes were pressing down over a sodden, miserable field. They were inside the fifteen-yard line. A flash of Scarlet and the freshman halfback Illinois had heard of had raced loose for a touchdown.”
As a newspaper described it the next day, “Harley received the ball from quarterback Kelley Van Dyke that started to be a forward pass play. Harley saw the Illinois defense on the right side of the line momentarily sucked in, triggering him to plug the ball under his arm and dart across the field. With his legs carrying him as fast as he could Chic whisked by the outstretched arms of several defenders and dropped the ball across the goal in the far northwest corner.”
The roar from the small contingent of Buckeye rooters was deafening, and Harley’s teammates went wild, not believing what they had just witnessed. “He faked to pass then ran to the left,” recalled Wilce. “Two teammates going to the left as possible pass receivers blocked the defensive end and right halfback. Harley outran the fullback, straight-armed the safety man and dove for a touchdown in the extreme left corner of the field. As teammates jumped up and down, hands and helmets raised, uncontrollable, soaked Ohio fans shrieked in delight, and Illini fans mumbled their disappointment, one more job awaited. Harley was not through thinking. He called time, asked for a clean right shoe to replace the mud-heavy one he had on.”
Moments earlier, after scoring the TD in dramatic fashion, Harley punted the ball from his end zone, which in those days was a requirement for a chance at kicking the extra point. Norton, whose catching ability later in the fourth quarter was so important, threw his hands and body around Chic’s punt at the twenty-two-yard line, where the ball would have to be placed for the point after touchdown.
“Gimme a shoe,” said Harley to team trainer Doc Gurney. The cleat he was handed was not only dry, but a special square-toe design created by team manager Joe Mulbarger, Chic’s pal and former high school teammate. In practice, Chic was perfect when he used this shoe; with other shoes he occasionally missed.
“Calmly, as if the battle were just starting, the Ohio freshman waited while out from the sidelines came the immortal Doc Gurney, the Buckeyes trainer- carrying one clean square-toed shoe that was to be the instrument in deciding a Big Nice championship,” wrote Holtkamp.
As Chic laced up his new shoe, Wilce, always the psychologist, briskly and nervously in uncustomary fashion walked up and down the Buckeye bench instructing “all Ohio substitutes to concentrate on just one image – the picture of Harley kicking the winning point after touchdown.”
On the field, waiting for Harley, was a calm Van Dyne, who had volunteered to hold the ball for Harley, the first time he had ever been put into that role.
“A scoreboard that showed the score 6-6,” wrote Columbus Citizen reporter E.H. Penisten, “An almost breathless stillness of suspense broken only by the wind that swept the grey sentinel bleachers on either side of the field. Four thousand spectators who realized that only a simple minute of time remained, whose hearts beat with a mingled feeling of hope for victory and dread of impending defeat. And down on a rain-soaked field a scarlet jerseyed player – a freshman playing his first big game, lacing his shoes for an attempt at goal that was to mean more than any one play in the two score years of football history of his alma mater.”
With mud splattered across his face, jersey, socks, pants, and left shoe, Harley stood nearly ankle deep in muck waiting for the snap to Van Dyke. The hike was perfect, as Chic gauged the distance carefully from the line and sent the ball sailing perfectly between the uprights. For a moment, stone silence. Then pandemonium broke out among State fans. Several people fainted in the bleachers, said reports. With the minute that remained on the clock, Illinois tried desperately to recover, but couldn’t. Delirious Buckeye fans – all 175 of them – broke down a fence in front of the bleachers, running up to members of the team to congratulate them, slapping them on the back, hugging, and dancing around like little children. Harley, the hero who had scored all seven points in spectacular fashion, fled in embarrassment for the more comfortable confines of the locker room. As he was running, tackle Bob Karch threw his arms around Chic and carried him all the way to the dressing room, tears streaming down his face.” (Wessell, 2009).
My 1916 Ohio State vs. Illinois Real Photo Post Card (RPPC).
And a ticket from the game that I just picked up.