Ohio State first played Michigan in 1897, losing 34-0, and except for two ties it lost every Michigan game until 1919. Ohio State's first touchdown against Michigan was not made until 1904. The next came in 1908. There was a 3-3 tie in 1910, which was hailed as a great victory until the undergraduates drank to celebrate it and were roundly censured in Columbus. The first Ohio State success against Michigan did not come until 1919. Football history has rarely recorded such dogged determination by such persistent losers: in 21 years Ohio State scored three touchdowns and one field goal against Michigan, while Michigan piled up 369 points against Ohio State.
Aside from being the state capital, Columbus was a flat, nondescript farm town. When you read of early Ohio State athletics it is impossible not to feel that its citizens were heartily ashamed of the poor, struggling school on the outskirts. In those days the big sports events in Columbus were the baseball and football games between Columbus East High School and Columbus North or Columbus Central. High school games often drew bigger crowds than college games. George Bellows, a tall, ungainly boy, played basketball and baseball at Central High. The level of competition was such that years later, when Bellows was studying art in New York (before such paintings as Stag at Sharkey's made him famous), he supported himself playing semipro baseball. James Thurber went to East High. He was the president of the senior class, and his brother, Bob, was captain of the basketball team. And it was one of their classmates, Charles Wesley Harley, who did more than anyone to transform the attitude that Columbus held toward Ohio State.
Harley was slight, weighing only 145 in his senior year of high school. He was a good-natured, self-conscious boy with a lopsided grin, and was fast enough to break high school sprint records. Often, when not on the playing fields, he wore a look of puzzlement that may have had something to do with the monumental eligibility problems he faced because of his grades. Until his last high school game (against Columbus North) the football teams that Harley played on never lost. He went into Ohio State determined to keep up the record, and he did. With Harley at halfback, Ohio State went undefeated in 1916, winning its first Big Ten championship and repeating it the next year. It did not, unfortunately, beat Michigan, which was temporarily out of the Big Ten. Walter Camp picked Harley for three All-America teams and said, "Harley is one of the greatest players the country has ever seen."
Harley went into the Army in 1918 but returned to take Ohio State through an all-but-unbeaten 1919 season. In the last game a field goal, with eight seconds left, gave Illinois a 9-7 victory. Harley was also responsible for Ohio State's first victory over Michigan (13-3) and for the football madness which from that year on gripped Columbus. When a stadium was planned in 1920 it was thought Columbus citizens might provide $300,000. They contributed $544,500 of the first $923,755 that was raised. The stadium, wrote a local OSU historian pointedly, "gave Columbus a proprietary interest in the campus such as it had never known before."
And football gave the old farming town of Columbus an emotional release such as it had never known before. For the next 30 years or more you could not get into Columbus before a big game unless you knew somebody. All hotels were sold out, with reservations usually made for the year ahead. During most of those autumn weekends the furniture in the lobbies was quietly removed and stored in warehouses. Holes were cut in paper laundry bags to prevent their use as water bombs. Bookies operated on the street corners, and ticket scalpers, with seats selling for $25 to $60, were everywhere. On one occasion the police rounded up 60 undergraduates selling seats in the cheering section. No college anywhere ever had so many enthusiastic volunteer old grads as Ohio State. After victories the celebrants built bonfires at the intersection of Broad and High, snake-danced through the theaters and poured water on passersby from the windows of the Deshler-Wallick Hotel. Every college in the country, according to one writer, envied the "fierce, affectionate loyalty" of Columbus for Ohio State football. If, to the faculty of Ohio State, all of this proved to be a pain in the academics, it did make an enormous contribution toward breaking down the old barriers between the team and the college.
Columbus accepted Ohio State emotionally just at the time that the revelations of the hearty, corn-fed corruption of the Harding era had shocked the state and the nation. Some of the Ohio Gang's operations, which included the Teapot Dome scandal, were chilling. This grandiose plot was made possible by a ruling of the Attorney General, who also happened to be Columbus' most powerful citizen, Harry Micajah Daugherty. From the law office of Daugherty, Todd and Rarey, he masterminded the election of Harding, an old friend from the town of Marion, a few miles north of Columbus, and as a reward Harding placed their friends in strategic positions from which large-scale graft was easy. A suave and cynical manipulator, Daugherty excelled at getting out from under when things went wrong and letting his cronies take the blame, with the result that Teapot Dome and other scandals, while they were nationwide shocks to the U.S. generally, were neighborhood ruin in the small-town atmosphere of Columbus. Daugherty's right-hand man, Jesse Smith, for example, a courthouse political hanger-on, was found after the Teapot Dome revelations shot in Daugherty's Washington apartment, his head stuffed in a wastepaper basket (President Harding's physician, hurrying to the scene from the White House, called it suicide). Things like that created mysteries in Columbus that were never solved, and perhaps the local citizens took up Ohio State football enthusiastically because it seemed so honest and unspoiled.
At any rate, State's football following was ardent indeed. Joel Sayre, who grew up in Columbus with Thurber and Harley, satirized the attitude of the local sportsmen in his novel, Rackety Rax. In Sayre's story rival gangsters create their own college teams. The games grow increasingly bitter until they reach their logical conclusion when Old Canarsie and the Chicago Mob machine-gun each other across the gridiron. Columbus readers did not think it was funny.
For that matter, they did not think Thurber's stories about Bolenciecwcz and the like were exactly knee-slappers, either. People on High Street would stop each other and say, "I don't see anything funny about that." Thurber was a local hero of sorts, but that was in earlier times. Shortly after Ohio State lost the Rose Bowl game of 1921 to California, City Hall in Columbus caught fire. Thurber, who was then a reporter on the Dispatch, was covering a council meeting at the time. The meeting was so dispirited that no one noticed the smoke. Roused finally, the councilmen escaped to the street. Thurber filled his arms with blueprints from the city engineer's office as he fled. These were the only things saved from the fire as the building burned to the ground. There was not even any insurance on it. "Months passed before a shocked Columbus recovered from the disaster," wrote a reporter—the disaster, that is, of the 28-0 defeat by California, not the loss of City Hall. Or as Joel Sayre put it cautiously in an article called Frenzied Football, "When Ohio State loses, something extra seems to happen to Columbus."
Sometimes visitors could hardly get out of town fast enough. "No team of mine will ever again play Ohio State," said a Wisconsin coach once. Among his general charges of mockery, injustice and humiliation of Wisconsin players who had foreign-sounding names, there was a specific that revealed something of the sportsmanship in Columbus in the days of the Ohio Gang. It seemed that local citizens, pretending the stands were full, secured standing-room sideline badges that allowed them to wedge in behind the Wisconsin players on the sidelines and thus jostle, insult and ridicule them at close range.
It was also charged that Columbus made Ohio State a graveyard for coaches. After John Wilce, whose 16-season career began when Ohio State entered the Big Ten in 1912, the university had five coaches in 18 years. In one period there were four coaches in seven years. Sam Willaman went out after the 1933 season, though Ohio State that year had won seven and lost one. Francis Schmidt was forced to resign despite a four-year term in which Ohio State won 25 and lost only seven. The case of Paul Brown, later the famous coach of the Cleveland professional team, was more complex: Columbus liked him and cheerfully put up with his record of 18 won, eight lost and one tie. But Brown staggered the city's sportsmen by leaving and signing five Ohio State stars for his Cleveland team while they were still eligible to play some more for beloved Ohio State. Carroll Widdoes resigned as head coach in 1946, though in two seasons his teams won 16 and lost only two. Wesley Fesler, who had been a Columbus hero second only to Harley in his own All-America days, led Ohio State to its first Rose Bowl victory in 1950, and quit, fed up with the criticisms of downtown coaching groups, anonymous telephone calls and insults to his wife and children when Ohio State lost.