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Story of Francis Schmidt, Buckeye icon
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Forsyth County News

Pity poor Ohio State.

All the Buckeyes have done the past two seasons is reach the BCS Championship Game. Just because they’ve laid two of the biggest eggs in the history of title games, they’ve aroused disdain from sea to shining sea.

No one wants to see them back for a third debacle. Except for their loyal legion of diehard fans, Kirk Herbstreit and any potential opponent in the next championship tilt.

That hardly seems fair. Ohio State possesses a wonderful football history, and its myriad traditions stack up with those of any school. The marching band performing the script Ohio, with the sousaphonist dotting the “i” dates to 1936. The ringing of the 2,420 pound Victory Bell dates to 1954.

They play in the famous “Horseshoe,” Ohio Stadium, receive buckeye leaves for great plays, and gather to sing “Carmen Ohio” after every game.

And every player who participates in a victory over hated rival Michigan, “that school up north,” receives a pair of miniature gold pants engraved with his name, the date and the score of the game.

That tradition owes itself to Francis A. Schmidt, the man who ushered Ohio State football into its modern era of national importance. He was the first coach of national prominence to be hired at Ohio State, in 1934.

At his introductory press conference, scribes wanted to know how he would tame Michigan. The Bucks had just lost 9-of-12 to their rivals, including two straight shutouts that cost coach Sam Willaman his job. Schmidt had a ready reply, coining a new phrase.

“As for Michigan, those fellows put their pants on one leg at a time, the same as everybody else.”

Indeed. Schmidt’s Buckeyes pounded Michigan 34-0 that fall, the Bucks’ biggest win in the series. They topped that in ‘35 with a 38-0 thrashing. That game was the first time the two schools played in the last game of the season. Then followed two successive 21-0 wins.

Schmidt created the “razzle-dazzle offense.” As described by Jerry Brondfield in his book, “Woody Hayes and the 100-Yard War,” Schmidt “stunned the opposition by displaying — in the same game — the single wing, double wing, short punt, and, for the first time ever seen, the I-formation.

“He used reverses, double reverses and spinners, and his Buckeyes of the mid-30’s were the most lateral pass-conscious team anyone had ever witnessed. He threw laterals, and then laterals off of laterals downfield, and it was not unusual for three men to handle the ball behind the line of scrimmage.”

His team became such a prolific scorer that a season opening 60-0 win over New York University in 1936 earned Schmidt the sobriquet “Close the Gates of Mercy.”

Born Dec. 3, 1885, Schmidt played at Nebraska and earned a law degree there. He served in the army during World War I, earning the rank of captain.

In 1919 he garnered his first head coaching job. His first Tulsa team went 8-0-1; his second went 10-0-1. Despite a 6-3 mark in 1921, Schmidt retains the highest winning percentage of any coach in Tulsa history.

After his first Tulsa team beat Arkansas, 63-7, the Razorbacks would have no rest until they stole him as their own coach, another tradition that lives on today. From 1922-1928, Schmidt’s teams went 41-21-3 (including a phenomenal 24-3-2 at home). No Razorback coach topped his record until Frank Broyles arrived 30 years later.

Schmidt then moved on to TCU, where he found his greatest success. He posted an incredible 47-5-5 record from 1929 through 1933, still the best mark in TCU history. How’s this for a five year run: 9-0-1, 9-2-1, 9-2-1, 10-0-1 and 9-2-1.

All of which led Schmidt to Columbus, along with several trunks filled with plays, diagrams and formations. His Buckeyes would run more than 300 plays out of seven different formations.

Schmidt was so obsessed with designing plays that he never went anywhere without three-by-five cards and a pencil.

Once, in need of an oil change, Schmidt drove his car into the bay, and stayed behind the wheel, intent on finishing a new play.

After reaching his “eureka” moment, Schmidt opened the door and leapt out of the car — and stepped into thin air. He refused to tell anyone why he was limping at practice that afternoon.

He once took a day off to go hunting with athletic director L. W. St. John. They stopped for gas — full serve in those days — and Schmidt began creating a play. St. John went inside for some food, and watched in horror as Schmidt paid for the gas and drove off without him.

Schmidt’s Buckeyes went 39-16-1 from 1934 through 1940, winning two Big Ten championships. But the romance fostered by his first two teams (both finished 7-1) soon faded.

Schmidt was an autocratic, demanding, profane coach. He often practiced his players from morning till dusk. He hired outstanding assistants, but wouldn’t give them a free rein. His 1938 staff included Sid Gillman, generally acknowledged as the father of the west coast offense. Gillman always said he learned everything he knew about offense from Frances Schmidt.

Ultimately, Schmidt was undone by that school up north. Michigan hired Fritz Crisler as coach in 1938. Behind the play of 1940 Heisman winner Tom Harmon, Michigan won three straight over the Bucks: 18-0, 21-14, and 40-0.

The last loss led to Schmidt’s resignation. He coached two more years, at Idaho, without distinction. He died on Sept. 19, 1944, many said, of a broken heart.

But the old coach had one more great play up his sleeve. In 1971, he was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame.