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24 Club: John Eckstorm, OSU’s First Great Coach

John Eckstorm might be the best Ohio State coach you’ve never heard of.

There have been 24 head coaches in the history of Ohio State football. Each has a story and legacy. This offseason, 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. Today we look at one of the best coaches in the early days of the program — John Eckstorm.

Name: John Eckstorm
Seasons Coached: Three (1899-1901)
Overall Record: 22-4-3

Where Does He Rank in the 24 Club?
Overall Wins: Tied No. 10 out of 24 OSU Coaches
Winning Percentage: Tied No. 4 out of 24 OSU Coaches

How would you describe the OSU football program entering its tenth season? Well, it wasn’t very good. Heading into 1899, Buckeyes teams had posted only two winning seasons. Poor play and cratering attendance led the athletic department to briefly suspended operations in 1897.

Athletics got up and running again, but things were still on the wrong track. OSU wobbled to a 3-5 season in 1898, which included a 29-0 loss to Kenyon. The Lantern summed up the game, which could have been a summary for many of the team’s games, “the visitors outplayed the varsity at every point.” It was clear that OSU needed a spark. Who better to lead the program than the coach that had dealt OSU one of its worst recent losses? A coach who ran circles around the Buckeyes in game-planning and execution. Ohio State hired Kenyon head coach John Eckstorm.

Eckstorm immediately breathed life into the program. OSU breezed through their 1899 schedule — allowing points in only a single game — and finished with a 9-0-1 record. It was Ohio State’s first undefeated season in program history. The Buckeyes also claimed the only championship of the day that mattered — the championship of the Ohio schools. The Lantern summed up Eckstorm’s single-season resurrection of the program:

“The OSU football team has risen from a second rate, second class team, to a first grade first-class team in Western football...As far as Mr. Eckstorm is concerned, he is second to no coach in the United States, and it is to him more than anyone else that the success of the team is due.”

Eckstorm’s teams continued to excel but tragedy struck. Ohio State center John Sigrist died as a result of a freak injury he suffered in a game against Western in 1901. The pain of losing a player was too much — Eckstorm quit after the season ended. Eckstorm told a friend that the season contained more hard luck than all the hard luck he had faced in all his years. Eckstorm was not done coaching though — he would go on to coach at Ohio Medical and Kenyon. He would eventually serve as Chief Medical Officer at the Ohio Penitentiary.

Ohio State was stunned by Eckstorm’s departure. But, the move was not criticized in the pages of The Lantern. Instead, the OSU community was thankful for the contribution he made to the program. In three seasons, Eckstorm racked up a 22-4-3 record. He left a string of superlatives to his name, including: the first coach to notch an undefeated season, the first to capture the title as the best team of Ohio (which he did twice), the first coach to finish with a winning record overall, and the first OSU coach to play Michigan to an even draw. His winning percentage (.810) is tied with Jim Tressel (.810) as fourth best in program history, and even bests that of Woody Hayes (.761).

Eckstorm was Ohio State’s first great coach and his short tenure was a turning point. He took a program that was accustomed to losing and set the bar at winning championships. After he left, Ohio State would not suffer a losing season for more than two decades.