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24 Club: Alexander Lilley

The pony riding, first-ever head coach of OSU left a big legacy — despite few wins.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

There have been 24 head coaches in the history of Ohio State football. Each has a story and legacy. This off-season, Land-Grant Holy Land’s new series 24 Club will help you get to know the coaches from past and present who built the program. We start with OSU’s first ever head coach: Alexander Lilley.

Alexander Lilley
Seasons Coached: Two (1890-1891)
Overall Record: 3-5 (.375)
Overall Wins: No. 23 out of 24 OSU Coaches
Winning Percentage: No. 23 out of 24 OSU Coaches

George N. Cole was a bored college student. Of course he would not be the first bored college student — nor would he be the last. But he was indeed bored, and Cole wanted to try something new.

One day Cole had an idea — but like any idea, it needed some money to come to life. So Cole turned to his fellow students to raise the cash. It paid off, and Cole made a small purchase that would have big consequences. In fact, this particular purchase would change the history of Ohio State: Cole bought a football.

But a ball wasn’t enough. What good was a football if you didn’t have some folks to play with? Cole needed a team. Of course, any team also needed a half-decent coach. So soon a team was formed, and Cole recruited his friend Alexander Lilley to coach the new football squad.

The year was 1890. Times were certainly different. Coach Lilley lived on East Main Street and rode a pony to get to football practice. He was also an unpaid volunteer — he didn’t earn a single penny to coach the Buckeyes.

Out of those humble ingredients — a bored college student with an idea, and an unpaid coach with a pony — Ohio State football was born.

Lilley’s time as Ohio State’s first head coach was short and sweet. The Buckeyes went 1-3 in 1890, and 2-2 in 1891. OSU got its first ever win against Ohio Wesleyan in 1890, and its first back-to-back wins in 1891 against Denison and Akron. Though it’s still up for debate how many games Lilley actually coached from the sidelines, as record-keeping was spotty.

Lilley’s total wins (3) and winning percentage (.375) rank near the bottom among OSU coaches — 23rd out of 24 — but his tenure can’t really be measured by games won and lost. Most importantly, his time will always stand as the starting point for all that came after.