Other than calling football-mad states home, Ohio State and TCU don’t have a lot in common.
Perhaps the biggest exception is a larger-than-life, profanity-spewing football mad genius named Francis Schmidt.
If you haven’t heard of Francis Schmidt, that’s not surprising.
The man whose quote inspired the creation of the Gold Pants Club at Ohio State passed away more than 70 years ago, a man without a football team anymore who spent his last days at a hospital in Spokane, Washington, in failing health.
Schmidt was still well-known enough his death made the national wire, though, and his legacy lives on today through many football coaches who might have no idea who he was, either.
TCU hired Schmidt in 1929, and he led to the Horned Frogs to an undefeated season that first fall in Fort Worth.
He won two Southwest Conference championships and 46 games — still No. 4 on the school’s all-time list — there in five years before being hired by Ohio State in 1934.
What made OSU director of athletics Lynn St. John interested in Schmidt?
Winning, of course, but also the Nebraska native’s “razzle-dazzle” offense that was known to feature numerous fakes, reverses, multiple laterals in one play and, yes, even more than dozen forward passes per game.
Schmidt was widely regarded as a leader of the “open game” movement at a time football was generally played even more conservatively than to Jim Tressel’s liking.
He was never content to rely on the plays he had, either, and was renowned for spending nearly ever waking minute thinking about if not scribbling down plays.
An out-of-town reporter was once surprised to visit Schmidt’s office and see the walls papered with plays — literally covered in Xs and Os drawn up by the Ohio State coach — but perhaps even more amazing is those were just the schemes Schmidt apparently no longer had use for.
That account is one of many found in a 2010 book by Brett Perkins called, “Frantic Francis: How One Coach’s Madness Changed Football.”
Perkins also unearthed this gem from Schmidt, delivered in 1936:
“Every team must have a running attack,” Schmidt said, “but you can’t rely on that alone. In fact, the open style of offense, with passes being tossed on unorthodox downs and from unusual places, will gradually push the running attack into the background. I expect to see the time, before many years, when forward and lateral passes will make up the greatest part of the offense, with the running attack just something to fall back upon. The wide-open, chance-taking game is the style the fans want to see. The day of having a fullback plunge into the center of the line for a yard or two at a time is rapidly passing.”
The rise of the T formation delayed Schmidt’s prediction from coming to pass for a few decades, but his quote sums up football in the 21st century fairly well.
Alas, visionaries sometimes struggle with attention to detail, and that was the case with Schmidt.
While his early teams overwhelmed opponents with offensive ingenuity, his later ones suffered from lacking almost everything else.
In another story that seems almost unimaginable today, Schmidt’s players actually complained they did not get enough conditioning and that hurt them later in games. They also felt skipping work on fundamentals such as blocking and tackling to spend more time installing new plays was a major factor n the deterioration of the Ohio State program overall by the time he was forced out in late 1940.
Although Schmidt is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, one is at least tempted to conclude he does not get the credit he is due at Ohio State or TCU, but it’s also not hard to see why that might be the case.
Coincidentally or not, the men who replaced him at TCU and Ohio State both won national championships almost immediately.
Dutch Meyer, who succeeded Schmidt at TCU, is generally credited with revolutionizing “spread football” — probably in no small part because he wrote the book on it, literally, after retiring from coaching — and being among the first to utilize a short, ball-control passing game.
He also benefited from the arrival of Sammy Baugh to run the offense, and Baugh went on to sing his praises during an illustrious NFL career. Still, it is fair to wonder how much of Meyer’s system was derived from Schmidt.
Paul Brown, who replaced Schmidt at Ohio State, is likewise considered a football genius, but that might be the only thing he has in common with the eccentric Schmidt.
Brown was known as one of the game’s ultimate taskmasters. His success was largely a result of a fanatical attention to detail and organization, putting him at odds with Schmidt to be sure.
At least one prominent football man gave Schmidt his due, however.
Sid Gillman told the San Diego Union in 1965, “Francis Schmidt is the greatest coach who ever lived. He was years ahead of his time.”
Gillman, who is a member of the pro and college football halls of fame, played at Ohio State for Schmidt’s predecessor, Sam Willaman, but became an “open game” disciple while serving as an assistant to Schmidt at OSU.
Building on Schmidt’s teachings and his belief in using the full width and length of the field, Gillman developed the downfield passing attack that led to him being regarded as “the father of the modern passing game.”
Having influenced (among others) both Don Coryell and Bill Walsh — who are credited with the two systems that dominate NFL strategy today — Gillman has one of the most impressive coaching trees of all time.
Francis Schmidt’s name may or may not be mentioned Saturday night while the Buckeyes and Horned Frogs face each other in Arlington, Texas, but his influence will be felt regardless.
Although similarities between Urban Meyer’s offense and Schimdt’s are indirect, “spread football” made its way back to Ohio State in 2012 — for the first time since Woody Hayes installed his beloved T formation in 1951.
Meanwhile, TCU’s resurgence that began in 2014 has largely been thanks to installation of the Air Raid offense, a “modern” passing system derived in no small part from, you guessed it, Sid Gillman.