Ohio State football's history with race source of both shame and pride
Editor's note: How did Ohio State football become a Buckeye Nation of true believers? In a 14-part series, we explore aspects that shaped OSU's evolution from Saturday afternoon diversion to near-religious experience. Today: Race
The issue of race is as old, and as current, as any in America.
It permeates almost every aspect of life in this country. In the history of Ohio State football, it has been a source of both shame and pride.
The Buckeyes had their first Black player in only their second year of existence. They also went decades without any Blacks on the roster. Ohio State didn’t have a Black assistant coach until 1968.
The program’s history with race is a complex one, but it also is filled with glory, starting with Bill Bell 90 years ago and Bill Willis in the early 1940s. More recent times have included illustrious stars whose last names are unnecessary to Ohio State fans: Archie. Eddie. Troy. All won Heisman Trophies.
Black players have been instrumental in all of Ohio State’s national championships, beginning with Willis in 1942 under Paul Brown and halfback Bobby Watkins and tackle Jim Parker in 1954 under Woody Hayes.
The 1968 title team featured an influx of Black players – Jack Tatum, John Brockington, Rufus Mayes, Leo Hayden, Jan White – who eventually would be among the first 30 picks in the NFL draft. Cornelius Green broke the color barrier at quarterback for Ohio State in 1973, a year after his roommate Archie Griffin’s spectacular freshman season.
Even now, when Black players constitute the majority of the roster and it’s a non-issue that the past several Ohio State quarterbacks are Black, race can’t be ignored. Ohio State’s players, regardless of race, spoke out during this turbulent summer in support of Black Lives Matter, with the blessing and encouragement of the program.
Breaking the barrier
Ohio State began playing football in 1890. Frederick Patterson, who had a Black father and White mother, joined the team the next year. Julius Tyler played for the Buckeyes five years later.
But the team then remained all-white for more than three decades. American society was mostly segregated during those years, and Ohio State had few Black students. Desegregation of campus dormitories didn’t begin until 1946. Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, had to live off-campus as an Ohio State student.
In 1929, William “Big Bill” Bell became the first Black player in 33 years. A standout at East High School in Akron, Bell became an honorable-mention All-American guard. But it wasn’t easy for Bell. He reportedly had to endure being spiked with metal cleats by both opponents and teammates unhappy about the playing field being integrated.
“He didn’t say much, but he would let his playing do his talking for him,” his son, the Rev. Bill Bell, told The Dispatch.“He believed in playing hard but clean football. He didn’t mind hitting an opponent with his shoulder since it was clean.”
The times were such that Bell wasn’t even allowed to play in all the Buckeyes' games. In 1930 he did not accompany the team to Annapolis, Maryland, to play Navy.
“Navy complained to Ohio State about Dad playing,” Bell said. “They didn’t want their players playing against a Black player. The coaching staff at Ohio State made the decision to leave Dad in Columbus.
“He didn’t say he was all that upset, but I remember seeing an article (about it) and I thought it was strange. Why would Navy be upset about one guy playing? But that’s what happened.”
Despite such indignities, Bell said his father considered his experience at Ohio State to be a positive one.
“He was a Buckeye through and through, even with some of the stuff,” he said.
Bill Bell went on to become a successful head coach and athletic director at several historically black colleges, graduating from Ohio State with honors and eventually earning his Master’s and doctorate degrees. He also earned the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
“He was my hero,” his son said. “He was a man of integrity and character and high moral principles.”
Brown, Willis arrive
The door was again closed to Blacks at Ohio State after Bell graduated. Francis Schmidt, who took over as coach in 1934, did not have any non-whites during his seven-year tenure.
Then the legendary Paul Brown arrived. He was only in Columbus from 1941-43 before moving to pro football to found the Cleveland Browns and then the Cincinnati Bengals, but the shift in racial attitudes at OSU began with him, particularly with his recruitment and relationship with Willis.
The Columbus East star and future Pro Football Hall of Famer was light for a defensive lineman but had rare strength and quickness, the type of attributes Brown coveted. That Willis was Black was irrelevant to Brown.
“He believed everyone deserved the same chance,” his son, Bengals president Mike Brown, told The Dispatch. “He made no exceptions. He didn’t think race mattered. It was just whether you could perform.”
Mike Brown said his father did not regard himself as a pioneer.
“He never took credit or tried to seek credit for this,” Brown said. “He didn’t think in terms of breaking barriers; he thought there shouldn’t be any barriers.
“He just was not prejudiced. He did not believe in Jim Crow laws. He thought they were backward and unfair.”
If Brown had stayed in Columbus longer than he did, it’s reasonable to believe that his coaching acumen and color-blindness on racial issues would have made Ohio State a powerhouse before it became one under Woody Hayes.
Hayes was hired in 1951, eight years after Brown left. Like Brown, Hayes did not see players through the prism of race. In addition to Parker and Watkins on the ’54 title team, Hayes had such notable Black players as Jim Marshall, Bob Ferguson, Paul Warfield and Matt Snell in his earlier years.
But Blacks didn’t constitute a large percentage of the roster and under the surface, tensions simmered.
“A lot of black players had issues that we talked about it in the dormitory,” said running back Rudy Hubbard, who played from 1965-67 during the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement. “It never really came out and got to be public or anything, but stuff like that was going on all around the world.”
Hubbard was so disenchanted by the end of his Buckeyes career that he included harsh words for Hayes in a speech when the coach came to a postseason banquet at Hubbard’s high school. Hubbard was understandably shocked a short time later when Hayes offered him a job as running backs coach. Hubbard accepted and became the first minority assistant at Ohio State.
Several years later, Hubbard was instrumental in recruiting Griffin and Green to Ohio State.
Griffin grew up in Columbus as a Buckeyes fan, but it was no lock that he would attend Ohio State.
“I didn’t see a lot of (Black) kids from Columbus playing at Ohio State,” Griffin said. “I can remember people saying, ‘If you go to Ohio State, you’re not going to get a chance to play,’ and they said race was a factor.”
Griffin did get his chance to play. In just his second game as a freshman, he ran for 239 yards against North Carolina, the springboard to a career that would make him college football’s only two-time Heisman Trophy winner.
But it was something that happened the next year that disproved to Griffin once and for all the criticism he’d heard about Ohio State and Hayes regarding race.
Cornelius Green didn’t know what he was getting into when he signed at Ohio State out of Washington, D.C. He knew Ohio State had never had a Black quarterback. But he was confident in his ability, and Hubbard had promised him that if he was good enough, he would stay at quarterback and not be shifted to defensive back, which was a common practice back then.
Green played little as a freshman. Greg Hare was the quarterback, and he led the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title. But Green – he went by “Greene” in college – outplayed Hare in spring practice in ’73, dazzling with his elusiveness as a runner. Still, the popular Hare was voted to be one of the team's two captains by his teammates, including Green. It was a gutsy move for Hayes to switch starters, even aside from any racial component.
When the decision was made, not all the Buckeye faithful were on board. Green said he received 50 letters a week from Ku Klux Klan members and other racists expressing their anger. Green lived with Griffin in a dorm. Their phone numbers were public.
“I was getting death-threat calls and being called the N-word over the phone,” Green said. “Several times, Archie would answer the phone and they thought he was me and they would let him have it.”
Green didn’t talk about the threats publicly, believing it would only inflame the situation. He talked with Hayes, who told him to ignore the racists while reassuring Green that he wouldn’t bow to pressure and change his mind.
In Green’s first game as starter, the Buckeyes routed Minnesota, the first of 33 victories in his 36 games as quarterback. Ohio State won or shared the Big Ten title all three years.
“Against Minnesota, we ended up winning 56-7 and I never got any more letters and never got another phone call,” Green said. “Winning cures all, I guess.”
Green added, “If you were to put a bow and arrow and hit the target, it was 1972 when the face of Ohio State’s race relations changed.”
To Griffin, Hayes’ unwavering support for Green convinced him once and for all that the talk he’d heard growing up didn’t reflect reality, or at least reality in the early ’70s.
“I think Cornelius handled that extremely well, and coach Hayes handled that extremely well,” Griffin said. “After that, there was nobody that could tell me that coach Hayes wasn’t a coach who wanted to see the best player play (regardless of race).
“He told us, ‘Duke Ellington cannot play good music on that piano without the black and white keys.’ That made a point and made us feel that, hey, we’ve all got to play together to make this team a championship team, and we did.”
Those teams were a line of demarcation for Ohio State in terms of race. Until then, Green said, there was a belief that an unwritten quota system prevailed in which only a few Black players at a time played on offense or defense. That perception faded. Another Black quarterback, Rod Gerald, succeeded Green.
Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy in 2006, 11 years after running back Eddie George did so. And since 2008, every Buckeye starting quarterback has been Black. All of them – Terrelle Pryor, Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, Dwayne Haskins and now Justin Fields – have been stars.
In last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson, 18 of Ohio State’s 22 starters on offense and defense were Black.
Perhaps the most significant thing about that is that nobody even noticed or cared. They were simply Buckeyes.