Anatomy of a Powerhouse: Rise of Ohio State football took pushback in 1961
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.
The backlash was fierce. Thousands of Ohio State students flooded High Street and marched to the Statehouse. A decision by the university's faculty council triggered the bubbling outrage.
On Nov. 28, 1961, council members voted against allowing the Buckeyes football team to play in the Rose Bowl. A season, which began with a tie against Texas Christian and followed with a streak of eight consecutive wins and a climb toward the top of the polls, had ended.
The fallout resonates six decades later as a sort of identity crisis for the university: Did Ohio State wish to be viewed as a football school?
With the Buckeyes emerging as a national powerhouse midway through the 20th century, led by legendary coach Woody Hayes, enough faculty members had apprehension with the image, leading to the controversial 28-25 vote and ensuing protests in Columbus.
The move kept the Buckeyes from returning to the Rose Bowl for another seven years, contributing to a decade-long drought.
“If you look back on it now, it was kind of a speed bump,” said Bob Hunter, a retired Dispatch columnist who has written several books on Ohio State football. “It temporarily slowed things down a little. But all you have to do is look at the stadium and look at the money involved and all that to see that it didn't really change anything.”
Many of the concerns of the faculty emanated from Jack Fullen, the secretary of the alumni association.
Fullen was a critic of the commercialization of the postseason, particularly the Rose Bowl. He contended that it allocated a majority of its game tickets to business such as hotels and travel agencies rather than for the schools that brought their teams to southern California, according to the book, “Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust.”
But his biggest worries rested with the place of football within higher education, questioning the sport’s growing prominence on campus.
Fullen made his position well known in columns publicized in the school’s alumni magazine, a sign of the simmering tension between athletics and academics.
“All I want is balance,” said Fullen, according to Bill Levy’s 1966 book. “We have small-time support for the true mission of the university and big-time support for athletics. You aren’t going to have a very good house if you put all of your money in the game room and ignore the rest.”
Prior to the 1961 season, some Ohio State faculty members had grown further frustrated by what they saw as lowered academic standards instituted across the Big Ten. Scholarship benefits for players were increased, while standardized testing requirements were lowered in order for them to receive tuition aid, plus housing, books and more.
Incoming high school prospects needed only to receive a score that was high enough to show that they were able to achieve a 1.7 grade-point average during their freshman year in college.
Critics referred to them as “free rides” for players. In previous years, scholarships were primarily awarded based on financial need, not strictly athletic abilities.
In his book, Levy also quoted Marvin Fox, an associate professor in Ohio State’s department of philosophy, who said, “We are going off the deep end by admitting that these athletes are professionals, being paid to play football, so that we can fill up the stadium and draw huge sums of money from football attendance.”
The Rose Bowl fate of the Buckeyes hung with the faculty council in the fall of 1961 because the Big Ten champion was no longer automatically sent to Pasadena.
The contract between the Tournament of Roses and the conference had expired a year earlier, leaving the association to invite member schools. Ohio State’s faculty members were positioned to exert influence.
In a story in Sports Illustrated, an unnamed professor summarized the feelings of frustration that led to the council’s decision, saying they were upset with how the school was being viewed as “merely an appendage to the football team.”
“It was like Custer's Last Stand or something,” Hunter said. “But it was too late. If you were going to stem the tide of an overemphasis on football, that needed to be done long before that.”
Alumni had long been eager for consistent success in football.
Hunter pointed to the school’s previous status as the “graveyard of coaches,” a reputation that gained notoriety in the 1940s. Before the hiring of Hayes, in 1951, five coaches had led the Buckeyes over the previous 11 seasons to varying degrees of success.
Some were fired, while others quit, a churn rate illustrative of the pressure placed on winning.
As Hayes produced a series of top-ranked teams throughout the 1950s, capturing wire-service national championships in 1954 and 1957, a fierce reaction following the vote over the Rose Bowl was assured.
The Buckeyes had finally built a juggernaut. Why would fans, which included alumni and students, want for it to be impeded?
Hayes was unhappy with the faculty’s decision and was described as irate in the book, “100 Years of Ohio State Football,” co-written by former Dispatch sports editor Paul Hornung, who was close with the Buckeyes coach.
Hayes believed a Rose Bowl appearance brought favorable attention for the university, while playing in the game was a “dream of each player and that this honor was earned by winning the (conference) championship.”
The faculty council vote harmed recruiting efforts, he believed.
“For several years football prospects were wary of Ohio State and looked instead to rival Big Ten schools,” Hornung wrote with Marv Homan, his co-author.
But recruiting picked up soon enough.
Led by a group of so-called “super sophomores,” the Buckeyes returned to the Rose Bowl at the end of the 1968 season and captured a consensus national championship.
The following decade produced “The Ten-Year War,” a bitter stretch of the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan, pitting Hayes against his former assistant Bo Schembechler.
Ohio State football was a booming industry, exploding in popularity across the state and the country. (Or hatred in some corners.)
In the decades since, the school expanded Ohio Stadium to more than 100,000 seats. Now, every game is televised nationally and the program brings in tens of millions of dollars annually, and remains a cultural touchstone.
The faculty council’s decision in 1961 wasn’t much of a speed bump.
The school quickly found the accelerator again.