Jack looks back | Wes Fesler leads Ohio State to initial Rose Bowl victory

Jack Park For The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State football coach Wes Fesler in 1950 [File photo]

This football season marks the 70th anniversary of Ohio State’s first Rose Bowl victory.

The 1949 Buckeyes were led by Wes Fesler, the coach who preceded Woody Hayes. This team shared the Big Ten title with Michigan and finished the season with a 17-14 triumph over California in the Rose Bowl. End Jimmy Hague booted a 17-yard field goal with just 1:55 remaining to break a 14-14 tie for win. It was the first Rose Bowl to be decided by a kick.

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Fesler is one of only five of the school’s 25 coaches who graduated from Ohio State. The other four are Sam Willaman (1929-1933), Earle Bruce (1979-1987), Luke Fickell (2011), and Urban Meyer (2012-2018).

Fesler grew up in Youngstown and is fondly remembered as one of Ohio State’s all-time finest players. He was a three-time All-America end from 1928 to ’30 and played at fullback in some games. Fesler captained the team his senior season, when he became OSU’s first player to be selected the Big Ten’s MVP. He also excelled with the Ohio State basketball and baseball programs, winning a total of nine varsity letters in three sports.

Fesler served two years as an assistant football coach after graduation, then played professional baseball for a season in the St. Louis Cardinal organization. Next, he coached football and basketball a total of 12 years at Harvard, Connecticut Wesleyan and Princeton. Fesler become football coach at the University of Pittsburgh in 1946, then returned to Columbus in 1947 to assume the same position at his alma mater.

Fesler guided Ohio State four seasons before resigning after the 1950 campaign. His first team in 1947 went 2-6-1, but his last three squads posted a combined record of 19-7-2.

Fesler’s 1950 team was his best. It moved gradually from 11th place to the top ranking in the weekly Associated Press poll, before concluding the year at 14th. Ohio State defeated Iowa 83-21 in the season’s sixth game with one of the most impressive offensive performances in Big Ten history. It remains the Buckeyes’ highest score in a Big Ten game. That season, junior tailback Vic Janowicz became Ohio State’s second Heisman Trophy winner, following quarterback Les Horvath in 1944.

Ohio State finished the 1950 season with unexpected losses at Illinois (14-7) and at home to Michigan in the never-to-be-forgotten Snow Bowl. Playing in blizzard conditions, the Wolverines won 9-3 without registering a single first down. With the weather all but halting both rushing games, the two teams combined for 45 punts that totaled 1,408 yards.

Fesler resigned 14 days after the Michigan game, indicating his unhappiness with the pressure of big-time college coaching. He surprisingly soon accepted the same position at Minnesota and coached the Golden Gophers from 1951 through 1953 with a three-year record of 10-13-4. Ohio State and Minnesota did not meet during those three seasons. Fesler had been Ohio State’s fifth coach during an 11-year period from 1940 through 1950 when Ohio State rightfully earned the dubious reputation as the Graveyard of Coaches.

Fesler’s first game as coach was a 13-7 home victory over Missouri on Sept. 27, 1947. Missouri was coached by the talented and well-respected Don Faurot. In January 1951, Faurot accepted Ohio State’s offer to replace Fesler as coach. But three days later he informed athletic director Dick Larkins he had “changed his mind” and elected to stay at Missouri.

A disappointed and somewhat embarrassed Larkins and his search committee quickly made a “second choice.” That selection was 38-year old Woody Hayes, who at the time was relatively unknown in the major college circles. Hayes compiled an extraordinary 28-year Ohio State record of 205-61-10 and put to rest the school’s reputation as the Graveyard of Coaches.