From a flag plant to a Heisman Trophy pose, the history of Ohio State Buckeyes football is filled with moments where opponents disrespected the Scarlet and Gray. Yet, over 130 years on the gridiron — there’s a moment that stands out as the most disrespectful. And it was a Wisconsin Badgers’ team that was responsible for it. Or, more accurately, a Wisconsin Badgers’ coach.
Let’s wind back the clock to the 1910s. Wisconsin was already a power in college football — a power that regularly handled the Buckeyes. In 1913, new Ohio State athletic director Lynn St. John liked what he saw in Madison and hired Badger assistant — and former star player — John Wilce to lead the Buckeyes as head coach. The Buckeyes had joined the Western Conference that year, a forerunner of the Big Ten. Wilce had a tough task — to transition the Buckeyes from playing in the Ohio Athletic Conference, made up of some of the best teams in Ohio, to play with some of the nation’s best teams in the Western Conference.
Wilce rose to the occasion — and the Buckeyes rose up the conference standings. OSU racked up a 14-5-2 record over three seasons under Wilce’s leadership, including a 5-1-1 record in 1915. But Wilce had a Badger problem. In his three contests against his alma mater, the Buckeye coach had come up short. That included a 21-0 loss to Wisconsin in 1915, the only defeat of the season.
So the calendar turned to 1916. With the spark of halfback playmaker Chic Harley playing his first season of varsity football, Ohio State rolled to a 3-0 mark. This included a shocking upset: OSU upended Illinois — a team that had won a national championship two seasons earlier in 1914.
Entering the game against undefeated Wisconsin, the Buckeyes had outscored their opposition 147-6 (including a 128-0 victory against Oberlin — a blowout record that stands to this day as OSU’s largest margin of victory). Wisconsin also entered the contest undefeated, downing the Amos Alonzo Stagg coached Chicago Maroons 30-7 a week earlier.
So two undefeated teams— and coaches — would clash in Columbus; Wisconsin’s Paul Withington in his first season as Badger head coach, taking on Ohio State’s Wilce. But Withington had a different plan. A very bad plan.
Withington was so confident of victory that he decided to skip the OSU game. Yes, skip it. He delegated coaching to his assistant and instead went to scout the Minnesota-Illinois game. Withington reasoned that Ohio State was still a second-rate team. That Illinois, who the Buckeyes had sprung the upset on, was having a down year. That his time would be better spent scouting a tough Minnesota side.
So the Badgers showed up in Columbus without their head coach. Wilce and Harley would make them pay for their disrespect. Behind two Harley touchdowns, including a dazzling 80 yard punt return, the Buckeyes edged out the Badgers 14-13. The back-to-back victories against Illinois and Wisconsin brought the Buckeyes national attention.
Ohio State would go on to finish the year with a perfect 7-0 record and claim their first ever Western Conference championship. The 1916 season electrified interest in college football around Columbus. OSU morphed from a so-so team to one in the national conversation. The program had finally arrived.
After the OSU loss, things went in a different direction for Wisconsin. In their final two games of the year, the Badgers lost to Minnesota 54-0 and tied Illinois 0-0. In total, Withington’s scouting plan resulted in two losses and a draw to end the season. Clearly Withington’s approach to scouting needed some work. After all, he didn’t seem to know a second-rate power when he saw one — if he had, he may have recognized it in his own team.
At noon on Saturday, two Big Ten contenders will again take the field. Though they may be tempted to scout Minnesota again, if history is any lesson, the Badgers better make sure that coach Paul Chryst makes the trip, especially since they found out first hand that Illinois is not a team to be taken lightly.