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24 Club: John Wilce, the father of the modern OSU program

Before coach Wilce, the Buckeyes were an afterthought in college football. Wilce changed all that.

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. Today we look at John Wilce, the father of the modern Ohio State program.


Name: John Wilce
Seasons Coached: 16 (1913-1928)
Overall Record: 78-33-9

Where Does He Rank in the 24 Club?
Overall Wins: No. 6 out of 24 OSU Coaches
Winning Percentage: No. 14 out of 24 OSU Coaches


Coach John Wilce is the father of the Ohio State program we know today. Wilce took the helm at OSU as it transitioned from a mid-level power in the second-tier Ohio Athletic Conference to a champion in one of the nation’s best conferences — the Big Ten. Wilce’s teams played an open game that blended a running and passing attack. His teams soared.

After recruiting Columbus native halfback Chic Harley, the Buckeyes won back to back Big Ten championships in 1916 and 1917. Wilce’s Buckeyes became the first squad to ever beat Michigan in 1919 after OSU had come up short in 15 previous tries. When Chic Harley graduated, Pete Stinchcomb stepped up and the Buckeyes continued to fly high. The success of Wilce’s teams swelled demand for tickets in Ohio Field and eventually led to the building of Ohio Stadium.

Wilce was cut from a different cloth. In 1919, the same year Ohio State first beat Michigan, he earned a medical degree. Dr. Wilce demanded that his men carry themselves to a higher standard. And, when all the things in the world seemed to line up against them — to dig deep — to summon a term he first coined “intestinal fortitude” to overcome the odds.

Wilce finished his career at Ohio State with a 78-33-9 record, three conference championships, four victories against Michigan, and OSU’s first ever Rose Bowl appearance. Before Wilce, Ohio State was a small-time program. After Wilce, OSU had a stadium the envy of the land and Big Ten championship banners hanging above.

Wilce was not done teaching when his coaching days ended. He entered private practice in medicine and taught at OSU’s College of Medicine. He focused his time — not on beating up Michigan — but on treating heart disease. He remained committed to the students of Ohio State, serving as Director of Student Health Services until 1958.