In 1934, Ohio State athletic director Lynn St. John plucked a new football coach out of the cowboy town of Fort Worth, Texas. His name was Francis Schmidt, but some people called him crazy.
St. John did not care. He reportedly had struck out trying to hire two other coaches. Why not flip the script and hire Schmidt, who was stirring things up offensively at TCU?
True, Schmidt was unorthodox in his approach, owned a quirky personality and lacked self-awareness, but St. John reasoned that Ohio State needed something out of the ordinary. Or at least he did. Attendance in 1933 had dipped to its lowest since Ohio Stadium was opened in 1922; not the kind of financial downturn conducive to an athletic director’s job security.
St. John offered Schmidt big money — $7,500 per season as part of the program’s first three-year contract — and further lured the native Kansan with the sales pitch of working at one of the nation’s football factories. At that time, Texas football failed to generate as much attention as schools from the East and Midwest. Schmidt said yes. Ohio State was in for a ride.
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Schmidt had served as drill sergeant in WWI and brought a military mentality to the Buckeyes, complete with a profane mouth that initially caught fans, players and even coaches off guard.
“He was prone to immense amounts of swearing,” said Brett Perkins, who profiled Schmidt’s life in “Frantic Francis: How One Coach’s Madness Changed Football.” “In those days, especially to college students on a cultured campus, it was something to hear him drop the foulest of words. He just wasn’t self-aware enough to (edit) himself.”
Combine Schmidt’s colorful language with an equally vibrant football mind and Ohio State in the depths of the Depression was a sight to behold.
At TCU — where he had three top-10 teams from 1929 to ’33 — and at Arkansas before that, Schmidt had begun creating an offensive playbook 10 times thicker than what typically was used. In an era when conservative offense was the norm — teams often punted on second down inside their 20-yard line — Schmidt scribbled plays in different colored pencils that diagrammed double laterals and shovel passes. The Buckeyes’ wide-open offense soon became the talk of college football.
“He had one of those minds that went and went and went,” Perkins said. “I assert that he had this condition, hypomania, which is the upside of bipolar. You don’t sleep much and your mind goes and goes.”
Schmidt was equally energetic behind the wheel.
“He drove like a maniac, had a Cadillac, and was legendary in Columbus as this guy who was, ‘Get the hell out of the way,’ ” Perkins said.
The Ohio State players did not know what to make of Schmidt. He struggled to mentor them, but for all his eccentricities he also could be quite engaging. And his energy level and obsession with daring play-calling made him exceedingly entertaining to be around. As long as it was in small doses. And that became the problem.
The longer Schmidt coached the Buckeyes the worse they got, and the less people liked him.
After leading OSU to two Big Ten titles and four consecutive wins against Michigan — he instituted the gold pants tradition — Schmidt’s compulsive behavior got the better of him. Fans soon saw that the Buckeyes blew out weaker competition — Schmidt’s habit of running up scores earned him the nickname “Shut the Gates of Mercy” Schmidt — and struggled against better competition. One loss in particular gnawed at him. Dubbed the game of the century, Notre Dame rallied from a 13-0 deficit and scored twice in the final two minutes to stun the Buckeyes 18-13 in the Horseshoe.
“He was playing his aggressive style and at the end he kept pushing, which led to a fumble and Notre Dame comeback,” Perkins said.
Fans eventually turned on Schmidt, convinced that his reliance on laterals and trick plays fell flat against top-of-the-line opponents. Players, too, tired of his act. After going 14-2 his first two seasons, the Buckeyes went 25-14-1 over Schmidt’s last five seasons, including 4-4 in 1940, and lost to Michigan three straight times.
As cruel fate would have it, TCU won a mythical national title in 1935, the year after Schmidt left for OSU, and the Buckeyes won the Associated Press national championship in 1942 under Paul Brown, two seasons removed from Schmidt’s final go round in Columbus.
Still, Schmidt’s legacy lives on as an offensive innovator — although interestingly 25 of his 39 wins came by shutout — who changed how the game was played. Sadly, he did not live long enough to see his influence truly appreciated. After resigning under pressure in 1940, he briefly coached at Idaho, then died at age 58, four years after leaving Ohio State.
“Everyone cites Sid Gillman and his influence on offensive football, but no one ever sees that Schmidt was his mentor,” Perkins said.
Thankfully, some did. In 1971, Schmidt was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.