Editor’s note: Without Big Ten football to occupy the thoughts and conversations of fans this fall, The Dispatch set about trying to fill the void by answering the question: How did Ohio State football become a Buckeye Nation of true believers? In a 14-part series, we explore the aspects that shaped OSU’s evolution from Saturday afternoon diversion to near-religious experience. Today: Spark
Charles Wesley Harley was not a large young man, even when considered among the athletes in his peer group.
Harley arrived in Columbus at age 12 in 1907 with his parents and six siblings from Chicago — hence his nickname, Chic — and when he enrolled at East High School a few years later he was a wisp of a thing, a mere 5 feet 6 and 130 pounds.
He was fast, to the benefit of the track team, but it was questionable how his speed would translate to the football field against bigger, stronger players. It undeniably did, though, first at East and later at Ohio State, which listed him as a 5-9, 156-pound halfback.
"You would not necessarily look at him and say, ‘great football player,’ " said Bob Hunter, a retired Dispatch sports columnist who has authored numerous books about OSU football, including one about Harley, written in 2008, called "Chic."
So Harley was not an imposing figure, but it is no stretch to say that it is on his narrow frame that Ohio Stadium, completed in 1922, and Ohio State’s reputation as a national football powerhouse solidly stand today.
"He was probably the person most responsible for Ohio State football becoming what it is," Hunter said. "I don’t think you can overstate what his arrival meant to the program."
Many nonetheless have tried, which explains why the stadium now known colloquially as the ’Shoe was called "The House That Harley Built" throughout much of the 20th century.
Harley was the flint that created the spark that started the fire that fueled the passion for a sport that had received only tepid interest before his arrival. His running, passing, defending and kicking made him the front man on talented Ohio State teams that went 21-1-1 in his three seasons and captured the program’s first two Big Ten championships.
A Dispatch editorial after his death, in 1974, credited Harley as the man who "brought football from the pasture to the big time."
"There had not been anything like it," Hunter said. "With Ohio State football, there are two eras: before Chic Harley and after Chic Harley."
Ohio State played its first football game in May 1890, more than 20 years after Princeton met Rutgers in what is considered the first collegiate contest.
Columbus at that time was a burgeoning city, one whose population more than doubled between 1890 and 1910, when there were about 180,000 residents. It also was a place seeking an identity.
"Columbus was going through a transition in those progressive years," said Ed Lentz, a historian and author.
Lentz noted that Ohio’s capital had been known as the Arch City for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries for its arches that spanned High Street and other areas of Downtown. But the arches were gone by 1910.
Likewise, Columbus was for years considered the buggy capital of the world, but within a decade of the dawn of the 1900s the automobile had rendered buggies largely obsolete.
"It was a period of change," Lentz said. "Columbus was looking for a new image. Lo and behold, along came football. Bingo."
In its first 26 seasons, Ohio State largely was a regional team, and not necessarily a power. The Buckeyes went 140-77-19 in that span, in which nearly 81% of its games were played against other Ohio teams.
Before joining the Western Conference (later known as the Big Ten) in 1913, OSU played 34 games against teams from other states and went 7-23-4 in those games.
"They were nothing," Hunter said.
That changed in 1916, Harley’s sophomore season and his first as an eligible player. The Buckeyes opened with wins over Ohio Wesleyan (12-0) and Oberlin (128-0) before traveling to a game at Illinois, which hadn’t lost a Big Ten game the previous two years.
OSU trailed 6-0 in the final minutes before Harley penned his first legendary chapter, sweeping around left end on a fourth-down play for a 16-yard touchdown run to tie the score. He then executed the winning point-after kick — a much more complicated task under the rules in those days — but only after he had changed out of a mud-caked shoe into a fresh one for a 7-6 victory.
"I’ve always referred to that game as the Big Bang of Ohio State football," Hunter said. "When they beat Illinois, it was like, ‘We’ve arrived.’ "
Interest and ticket demand skyrocketed in Columbus for the Buckeyes’ next game, two weeks later against Wisconsin. Athletic director Lynn W. St. John had extra bleachers installed at the south end of Ohio Field for the game, increasing capacity to 12,000 fans.
As it happened, 12,268 crammed in to seats at the field on North High Street near Woodruff Avenue — more than 4,000 more than the previous attendance record.
Wisconsin took an early lead, but Harley scored on a 27-yard run in the second quarter and an electrifying 80-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, a play in which he eluded eight would-be tacklers for the go-ahead points in a 14-13 win.
Three weeks later, Ohio State clinched its first conference title and an unbeaten season with a 23-3 win against Northwestern, a game in which Harley kicked a field goal, had scoring runs of 63 and 16 yards and sealed the outcome with a fourth-quarter interception.
"He was the toast of the town, a new star," Hunter said — and it wasn’t only in Columbus. In 1916 Harley was named an All-American by Walter Camp, a former coach and sportswriter who more than 25 years before originated the idea of a national all-star team. Harley was the first sophomore so honored.
More of the same
The buzz surrounding Ohio State football did not abate in the 1917 season, though there was much focus among the team and the community about the United States joining the Great War in Europe.
The Buckeyes went 7-0 in their "regular season," outscoring opponents 251-6 in their first six games. They then captured a second straight Big Ten title with a 13-0 win over unbeaten Illinois, a game in which Harley kicked two field goals and threw a touchdown pass in front of a crowd of some 15,000 at Ohio Field.
OSU finished the season with two games to benefit servicemen training for the war, including an uninspired 0-0 tie at Auburn that marred an otherwise perfect season.
Soon after the season, Harley and many of his OSU teammates — tackles Harold and Howard Courtney, halfback Pete Stinchcomb, quarterback Howard Yerges — enlisted in the military. Only four players from the 1917 team returned to Ohio State for the 1918 season, which was further disrupted by the Spanish flu that shut down football throughout the country for weeks in October.
November brought armistice in Europe, and for the Buckeyes losses in all three conference games they played, leading to a 3-3 record. Worse, two OSU football players were counted among the 116,000 American deaths in the war, 1916 halfback Fred Norton and 1917 captain Harold Courtney.
Ohio State’s 1919 season promised a return to normalcy, even optimism. Harley and Stinchcomb, among others, were back in the fold, and more than 200 players showed up to try out for the freshman team.
The season itself was marked by a singular high and a low. The apogee was on Oct. 25, when Harley engineered a 13-3 victory over Michigan with a touchdown run and four interceptions. It was the Buckeyes’ first win over Michigan in the teams’ 16th meeting, the Wolverines having outscored OSU by a cumulative 369-21 in going 13-0-2 from 1897-1918.
"That was the game that really started the rivalry," Hunter said.
But four weeks later, Ohio State’s bid for a third unbeaten Big Ten season in four years was squashed when Illinois kicked a last-second field goal to claim a 9-7 win at Ohio Field.
Hunter’s book describes how Harley openly wept after the loss, his first and only while wearing an OSU uniform. And although the nearly 20,000 fans who packed Ohio Field — and the thousands more who watched from the street, nearby houses, rooftops and trees — also felt the sting, another reality had set in.
St. John figured he could have sold 50,000 tickets or more for just that one football game. By the following Tuesday, the Ohio State board of trustees authorized the athletic director to begin the process of building a new, horseshoe-shaped stadium on the east side of the Olentangy River.