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24 Club: Sam Willaman, a winner who followed a legend

Willaman led the Buckeyes to five consecutive winning seasons, one of the best runs of any coach for OSU at the time

Case Western Reserve University Archives

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 Ohio State’s 13th coach Sam Willaman, who stepped in after a legend and delivered five consecutive winning seasons.

Name: Sam Willaman
Seasons Coached: Five (1929-1933)
Overall Record: 26-10-5

Where Does He Rank in the 24 Club?
Overall Wins: No. 9 out of 24 OSU Coaches
Winning Percentage: No. 13 out of 24 OSU Coaches

After 16 seasons, John Wilce stepped aside as Ohio State head coach. Before Wilce, Ohio State was a mid-tier power in the Ohio Athletic Conference. After Wilce, the Buckeyes had a string of Big Ten championships, victories over Michigan and a new Ohio Stadium. It’s never easy to replace a legend — but stepping into those shoes was Sam Willaman. Willaman was selected by Wilce to be his successor — and for good reason.

Willaman played for the Buckeyes, including for Wilce’s first Ohio State team in 1913. After a successful stint as head coach at Iowa State, he served as Wilce’s lead assistant coach. But the move to Willaman almost didn’t happen. The Buckeyes heard through the grapevine that Knute Rockne, the famed coach of Notre Dame, was interested in coaching in the Big Ten. Athletic Director Lynn St. John approached Rockne — and there appeared to be serious interest among both parties. But Rockne re-signed with Notre Dame, and the Buckeyes turned to Willaman.

Willaman led the Buckeyes to five straight winning seasons — tying Wilce for the most successful consecutive winning seasons of any coach in OSU history. The run saw a 2-3 record against Michigan — becoming only the second OSU coach (after Wilce) to beat the Wolverines. Willaman’s 1933 team was his best — finishing 7-1, but suffering a setback against the eventual undefeated national champion Wolverines. OSU finished second in the Big Ten. At the end of the season, Willaman resigned amid calls from the fans who were dissatisfied with the dry spell of Big Ten championships. The Buckeyes would win zero conference championships under Willaman — and had not claimed a conference title since 1920, before Ohio Stadium was built.

Willaman was a successful coach but stepped into a challenging situation following up his legendary predecessor. The program and its fans had high expectations. A string of winning seasons wasn’t going to be good enough. Championships were now the markers for success. The Buckeyes had Ohio Stadium — it was time to find a coach who could deliver some new banners to hang there.

The man the Buckeyes turned to next would do just that.