Forget Jerseys, Let’s Actually Honor the 1961 Buckeyes
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
That line from A Tale of Two Cities has been passed around, recycled and quoted since Charles Dickens first wrote the novel in the mid 1800’s. What directly follows that now-famous phrase has never reached such wide-spread acclaim.
“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”
No words could better describe the 1961 season at Ohio State.
Led by Bob Ferguson and Paul Warfield, the ’61 Buckeyes had everything at their fingertips. Despite an early-season tie with TCU, Woody Hayes and his team would still have had the chance to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl with a consensus national championship on the line.
Instead, they spent New Years at home while Alabama defeated Arkansas 10-7 in the Sugar Bowl to capture the Associated Press national title.
When the Buckeyes run out of the tunnel Saturday night at Ohio Stadium, they will pay tribute to that ’61 team, which did capture one national championship from the Football Writers Association of America.
This year’s alternate “Pro Combat” jerseys are as much a merchandising ploy by Nike and Ohio State as they were in years past, but if nothing else they should remind us to stop and truly honor a great Ohio State team that never really had its moment in the sun.
There were a lot of memorable moments for the Buckeyes during the 1961 season. For starters, it was the year that Woody Hayes coached his 100th game at Ohio State. To celebrate, three of his players eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in the same game.
Woody was giddy with excitement.
That was also the year Hayes went for two against Michigan with a 48-20 lead in the fourth quarter. There were many other great moments, most of them involving the “Thunder and Lightning” backfield of Ferguson and Warfield, but 1961 will always be remembered as the year the faculty voted down the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State was stacked heading into the 1961 season. They had won national titles in ’54 and ’57, and many expected the Buckeyes would compete for another championship after returning 26 lettermen from a team that was 7-2 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten.
The fact one of those 26 was Bob Ferguson made all the difference. Considered to be perhaps the greatest fullback in school history, Ferguson was a consensus All-American the year before when he ran for 853 yards and 13 touchdowns.
A bruising runner out of Troy, Ohio, Ferguson was joined in the backfield by a pair of speedy sophomores in Paul Warfield and Matt Snell. They were so elusive that Hayes initially considered playing one or both of them at quarterback.
He was desperately trying to replace the team’s MVP from 1960, Tom Matte, who had thrown for nearly 800 yards the previous season—which at the time was the second most in school history.
Woody eventually settled on a pair of juniors named Bill Mrukowski and John Mummey. Neither could pass like Matte, who by then was playing with the Baltimore Colts, but both were built like fullbacks, their positions in high school.
In passing situations—yes, he was that obvious—Hayes would bring sophomore Joe Sparma off the bench to play quarterback. A product of Massillon, Sparma was a tremendous athlete who would later go on to pitch for the Detroit Tigers.
In 1961, however, he completed only 16 of his 38 pass attempts for 341 yards. That was good enough to lead the team, but it didn’t matter. The Buckeyes could run the ball on anyone, thanks in large part to their dominant offensive line.
Senior Chuck Bryant and junior Bob Middleton were the star ends in Woody’s offense, but the Buckeyes also had a pair of excellent offensive tackles in Bob Vogel and Daryl Sanders. Both juniors would eventually become first round NFL draft picks following the 1962 season.
Senior co-captain Mike Ingram and center Billy Jo Armstrong anchored the interior of the offensive line while Cleveland-native Rodney Foster played the other guard spot.
Stumbling Out of the Gates
In 1957, the Buckeyes won their second national championship but finished No. 2 in the Associated Press Poll behind Auburn. It would have been a consensus championship—and probably should have been—if not for a stunning 18-14 upset loss to Texas Christian University in the season-opener.
Hayes and his Buckeyes were looking to avoid the same fate in ’61 when they opened the season with TCU in the Columbus. They did, sort of.
The Buckeyes were ranked No. 3 in the AP Poll heading into the season, but they looked like the best team in the country on their opening drive. They went right down the field on a 56-yard touchdown drive that was capped by a 2-yard pass from Mrukowski to Chuck Bryant.
With a 7-0 lead in the opener, Hayes predictably decided to shut it down. His defense— led by ends Sam Tidmore and Tom Perdue, along with linebacker Gary Moeller—held the Horned Frogs scoreless for three quarters.
It looked like Hayes might get away with a conservative win, but TCU’s 6-7 quarterback Guy “Sony” Gibbs found Jim Glasscock on a 12-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and suddenly the game was tied.
The Buckeyes still should have won the game, but Hayes made a strange decision to have his quarterback—who was a high school fullback—throw the ball in the red zone. Gibbs intercepted Mrukowski at the goal line and the game ended in a 7-7 tie.
“That was as bad a game as I’ve ever coached,” Hayes said after admitting he never should have called for a pass at the TCU 10-yard line.
“We should have chopped away for at least two more plays since we were within field goal range.”
This would come back to haunt them again in 1978.
Getting Back on Track
Hayes was never a master strategist but he was an exceptional motivator. The Buckeyes would bounce back the next week with a 13-3 win over UCLA and suddenly the ’61 season was back in full swing.
Ohio State annihilated Illinois 44-0 in the Big Ten opener and shut out Northwestern 10-0 in Evanston the following week. The Buckeyes ran for 357 yards in a 30-21 win over Wisconsin on Homecoming Day in Madison, and defeated No. 9 Iowa 29-13 in Columbus.
Ferguson was leading the way. He would eventually finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Syracuse’ Ernie Davis, but he had plenty of help in Ohio State’s week-eight victory over Oregon. Three Buckeyes—Ferguson, Mummey and Bob Klein—each ran for over 100 yards as the Buckeyes beat the Ducks 22-12 in Woody Hayes’ 100th game at Ohio State.
Hayes was 71-23-6 as he neared the end of his 11th full season in Columbus.
The “Go-for-two Game.”
Fans on both sides will forever remember it as the game Woody Hayes tried to run up the score on “that school up north,” but there were a lot of historic events that took place in the ‘61 Michigan game.
For starters, Ohio State recorded its 400th victory (against 180 losses and 44 ties) with a 50-20 trouncing of the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. It was the highest point total ever scored by the Buckeyes against their archrivals—later tied by the 1968 Ohio State team.
In his last collegiate game, Ferguson ran for 152 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first Ohio State player in history with four touchdowns in one Michigan game. The Buckeyes outgained the Wolverines 512-271 that day thanks in part to two of the longest scoring plays in the rivalry’s history.
The first was an 80-yard touchdown pass from Sparma to Bob Klein. Under normal conditions, that would have grabbed the headlines, especially in ’61. It was, after all, the longest scoring pass play in the history of the OSU-Michigan game.
But it wasn’t even the best play of the day. That honor went to Paul Warfield. The Warren Harding graduate had one of his magical runs that day, as he sprinted 69 yards on an end-around. It was the longest scoring run from scrimmage in an OSU-Michigan game, but only those who saw it will truly remember it for what it really was.
All of that was overshadowed by Woody’s decision to go for two. This would happen again in 1968, which is coincidently the only other time Ohio State put 50 on the scoreboard against Michigan.
In explanation in ’61, Woody concocted an flimsy story about his assistant coach Ernie Godfrey. According to Hayes, he wanted the game’s total points to equal 70 in honor of Godfrey’s 70th birthday because the long-time kicking coach would be retiring after 32 seasons.
No one believed his story, especially in Ann Arbor.
November 28, 1961
There are not many “dark days” in Ohio State’s football history: the day Woody punched Charlie Bauman, the day Cris Carter was ruled ineligible, the firing of Earle Bruce and March 8, 2011 when Jim Tressel stood up and admitted his 10.1 violation.
In 1961, all of that was in the future. The Buckeyes were beating Michigan on a regular basis, they were competing for national championships and everyone seemed to be in love with Woody Hayes.
Everyone that is except Ohio State’s faculty council. They were disenchanted with some of Hayes’ antics—both on and off the field—and felt football was getting too big at Ohio State. (If only they could see it now.)
They were worried the University was becoming known as a “football school,” which hindered their image in the academic community. Many also thought the Rose Bowl, now the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, was becoming too commercial.
On November 28, 1961, one of the “darkest days” in school history, the faculty council voted 28-25 in a secret ballot against playing in the Rose Bowl. The council was perfectly fine, however, with accepting “its share of the Rose Bowl receipts” even after declining to allow Hayes and his team to play in the game.
Following the vote the students rioted for two days and Hayes stewed inside, but eventually his voice of reason prevailed.
“We have had to learn to accept defeat under pressure and that may help us now,” he told a group of OSU alumni at the Hollenden Hotel in Cleveland.
“Although it is difficult to explain to the boys when, after 15 years, the Rose Bowl is jerked out from under them.”
Their loss was Minnesota's gain. The No. 6-ranked Gophers went to Pasadena in Ohio State's stead and beat up on UCLA 21-3 for their only Rose Bowl victory.
It is one of those moments that will always be remembered, and the 1961 Buckeyes were a team that should never be forgotten.
*Jack Park’s officially licensed Ohio State Football Encyclopedia contributed to this story. You can purchase that book or any others by Jack at http://www.jackpark.com/
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