100 Teams in 100 Days: Fesler Takes Over as Buckeyes Struggle in 1947

By Matt Gutridge on June 26, 2016 at 8:25 am
The 1947 Ohio State University football team
Ohio State University Archives

Paul Bixler had quit after one season as Ohio State's head coach. The day Bixler quit, Lynn St. John proposed Wes Fesler as the school's 18th head football coach.

69 days and counting.

Fesler, as you may recall was one of the more decorated athletes in Ohio State history, earning a combined nine varsity letters in football, basketball and baseball for the Buckeyes. He was a three-time All-American on the gridiron, becoming just the only other Buckeye to match that feat of the legendary Chic Harley.

Following his playing career, Fesler spent two years on Sam Willaman's staff as an assistant at Ohio State before moving on to serve on a staff at Harvard, and then serving as Wesleyan's head football and basketball coach for two years. Fesler would then take a leave of absence in 1944 to serve in the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1945, Fesler served as an assistant coach on Princeton's football staff, while holding down the dual role of head coach of the Tigers' basketball team. The following year, he took over as the head coach at Pittsburgh, where his Panthers lost to Ohio State in the Shoe, 20-13.

Ohio State took a risk hiring the 39-year-old Fesler in 1947. He owned a career 10–14–1 record as a head coach. However, the Athletic Board hoped he would be as accomplished on the sideline as he was on the field of play, and made the hire over Sid Gillman (Miami), Jack Mollenkopf (Toledo Waite) and Don Faurot (Missouri).

The 1947 Buckeyes
Record 2–6–1
B1G Record 1–4–1, 9th
Coach Wes Fesler (1st year, 2–6–1)
Captain Bob Jabbusch

Games of Note

September 27th • Missouri • Ohio Stadium
For the fourth time in as many years, the Buckeyes would open their season against Missouri. In 1946, Ohio State had tied the Tigers in what many really viewed as a loss.

1947 would prove different, though not before a scare. Fesler and Faurot's squad entered the locker room at halftime in a scoreless tie. In the second half, fullback Joe Whisler put the game on his shoulders and scored both of Ohio State's touchdowns to give the Buckeyes a 13-7 victory in front of 59,444 at Ohio Stadium.

October 4th • Purdue • Ross-Ade Stadium
The Buckeyes traveled to West Lafayette for their second game to face Stu Holcomb's Boilermakers.

In a back and forth battle, Ohio State trailed Purdue, 24-20, late in the fourth quarter. 

Needing a touchdown, the Buckeyes drove into Purdue territory, but their drive stalled at the 30-yard line. The Boilermakers took possession on downs with one minute remaining and held on for the four-point win.

Ohio State still held a commanding lead in the series, though Purdue had managed to go 4–0–1 against the Buckeyes in the last five meetings.

October 12th • Pittsburgh • Pitt Stadium
Ohio State would fall to 1–2–1 thanks to a 32-0 thumping at the hands of No. 20 Southern Cal in Ohio Stadium and a tie at home against Iowa. Fesler's troops needed a win against Pittsburgh in the worst way.

1947 Schedule
OCT. 11 #20 USC OHIO STADIUM L, 0–32
      2–6–1, 60–150

Luckily for the Buckeyes, the Panthers were winless. Even with the poor start to the season, Ohio State was favored to beat Pittsburgh for the eighth-straight time.

The Panthers only gained two first downs in the game, but were able to put 12 points on the board. However, the 12 points were 12 more than what Ohio State could muster. 

The shutout win was Pittsburgh's only victory during the 1947 season. It also ended the Panthers' 24-game losing streak to Big Ten teams. To put it mildly, this was a bad loss. 

November 8th • Northwestern • Ohio Stadium
The week prior to facing Northwestern, the Buckeyes lost a home game to Indiana, 7-0. Ohio State was 1–4–1 when they welcomed Northwestern to Ohio Stadium.

One of the most intriguing endings in Ohio State history started off slow. The Wildcats and Buckeyes were tied 0-0 at the end of the third quarter. However, it didn't take Northwestern long to put points on the board in the final quarter of play. 

On the second play of the fourth quarter, Frank Aschenbrenner plunged in from two yards out to give the Wildcats a 6-0 lead. Northwestern's Jim Farrar missed the extra point, however.

In what appeared to be Ohio State's last drive, the Buckeyes failed to punch the ball in from Northwestern's one-yard line. With less than two minutes remaining, the Wildcats took over and many of the 70,203 in attendance began streaming towards the exits.

What happened next is still hard to believe.

Northwestern was flagged for seven – seven – penalties on their ensuing possession and were forced to punt.

Ohio State took over on the Wildcats' 35-yard line with 31 seconds on the clock. And then things really got weird.

PURDUE L1 9–4–1
USC L1 3–3
IOWA T1 6–4–2
INDIANA L1 17–9–3
ILLINOIS L2 20–14–2
MICHIGAN L3 12–29–3

From The Official Ohio State Football Encyclopedia:

On first down, quarterback Pandel Savic passed 24 yards to Demmel at the Wildcat 12 – there were 13 seconds left. Savic's next pass was intercepted by L.A. Day as time expired, and Northwestern had apparently won, 6-0. The Ohio State marching band started onto the field for its postgame show, and fans were now pouring out of the stadium by the thousands. However, Northwestern had 12 men on the field during the last play, and Ohio State would have one more down. 

The Buckeyes tried a deep reverse with Rodney Swinehart carrying, but Swinehart was tackled at the two. But wait – Northwestern had two players lined up offisde, and OSU would have yet another play. This time Savic fired a lobbing pass to Jimmy Clark in the back corner of the end zone to tie the score, 6-6. 

Emil Moldea's conversion attempt was blocked, but AGAIN two Northwestern players were offside. Moldea's second attempt was good, giving Ohio State the win, 7-6.     

Unbelievably, the Buckeyes scored all of their points after time expired because of Northwestern penalties.

Regardless, struggling Ohio State needed the win and would gladly take it.

November 22nd • #1 Michigan • Michigan Stadium
Following the miracle against Northwestern, the Buckeyes fell to No. 11 Illinois, 28-7, in Ohio Stadium. With little on the line, Fesler's 2–5–1 Buckeyes were playing for nothing but pride against the No. 1 team in the nation, the Michigan Wolverines.

To this point, Michigan had outscored their opponents 329-53. A pounding was surely on the table.

On a drizzly day in Ann Arbor, Michigan scored the first touchdown just over three minutes into the game. Bump Elliott capped off a 68-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown run. The rout appeared to be in place, but the Ohio State defense held strong.

Neither team could sustain a drive for the rest of the half and the Wolverines took a 7-0 lead into halftime.

Michigan struck again near the midway point of the third quarter. This drive featured the passing skills of Bob Chappuis as he guided his team 80 yards before plunging in from three yards out. Chappuis finished the day with 217 passing yards on 12 completions.

Early in the fourth, the Wolverines' Jack Weisenburger finished the scoring with a short rushing touchdown. The final: Michigan 21, Ohio State 0.

The Buckeyes were shutout for the fourth time that season, but showed grit. A description of their play from The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

It was an Ohio team, excellently prepared -- in condition, fundamentals and technique -- and that hard, bitter, but losing fight was a tribute to the coaching prowess of Wes Fesler.

Fesler's team wasn't very good, but certainly played above their record on the road against the country's top-ranked team.

On a historical note, Fritz Crisler's '47 team was the first in college football to have the majority of its players specialize on offense and defense. The new concept worked and would soon be embraced by schools across the country.

Ohio State football programs from the 1947 season.

1947 Recap

  • Wes Fesler became Ohio State's 18th head coach.
  • Purdue gave Fesler his first loss and improved to 4–0–1 against the Buckeyes in the last five contests.
  • USC tied the series 3–3 after taking a 32-0 victory in Ohio Stadium.
  • Pittsburgh earned its only win of the '47 season by beating the Buckeyes 12-0. The Panthers only gained four first downs all season; two of them were in this game. 
  • Ohio State beat Northwestern by scoring seven points on four plays after time expired.
  • Illinois defeated the Buckeyes in consecutive games for the first time in 18 years.
  • Michigan gave Ohio State its fourth shutout loss of the season. The Buckeyes now trail the series 12–29–3. 
  • Ohio State finished the season unranked in the AP Poll.
  • Nobody was named All-American.
  • Howard Duncan, Bob Brugge, Dick Flanagan, Ollie Cline and Dave Templeton were selected in the NFL Draft.

Wes Fesler became the first Ohio State coach since 1897 (David Edwards) to start his career with a losing record. The 1947 team's 2–6–1 final record is the second worst in Ohio State football history in the last 118 years. The brass at the university was looking for stability, but wins were paramount.

Fesler had to turn things around quickly or the search for Ohio State's 19th coach would be on the horizon.

View 24 Comments