WHAT IF: Paul Brown Came Back to Ohio State After WWII

1943 Ohio State Buckeyes

This is part of a series looking at crucial moments, games, and decisions in Ohio State football history, and how things may have played out if they had gone a different way.

Before there was Woody Hayes, there was Paul Brown.

There are few names as synonymous with the sport of football as Paul Brown — he won seven league titles in his first 10 years as a professional head coach, after all.

The father of two NFL franchises in the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, Brown got his start in high school, but also had a memorable 3-year stint at Ohio State, which included the Buckeyes’ first national championship.

World War II threw all sports for a loop in the early 1940s, and perhaps no team or franchise was impacted the way Ohio State’s football program was — or could have been.

What Happened

In late 1940, after a string of domination as the head football coach at Massillon High School, Ohio State offered their open head coaching position to Paul Brown.

The job was open because Francis Schmidt resigned following a third-consecutive loss to Michigan, with the final blow being a 40-0 pummeling in Ohio Stadium.

Schmidt, who began the Gold Pants tradition at Ohio State and beat Michigan his first four attempts, eventually succumbed to the results of the only game that mattered.

In his place came 33-year old Paul Brown.

In his debut season, the Buckeyes went 6-1-1 in 1941, including a 20-20 tie with Michigan.

It was in 1942, however, that everything came together for the Buckeyes. Ohio State went 9-1 with a 21-7 win over Michigan. Their lone loss was on the road at Wisconsin against a Badgers team that finished the year 8-1-1. Still, the AP voted the Buckeyes as national champs, giving them their first football national title in school history.

With Pearl Harbor happening the previous December, the college football landscape was greatly altered by World War II. The 1943 season was proof of this, as OSU’s roster was depleted by a much more pressing need and Brown’s Buckeyes went 3-6, including a 45-7 loss at Michigan.

Following that season, Brown himself joined the fray, serving in the Navy as a football coach at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. He did this for two seasons, with the expectation that he would return to Ohio State when the War was over.

In Brown’s place at Ohio State was assistant coach Carroll Widdoes. Widdoes’ Buckeyes went 9-0 in 1944, finishing No. 2 in the AP Poll behind Army. In 1945, Ohio State went 7-2, finishing No. 12 in the AP Poll.

Widdoes had done a fantastic job of keeping OSU’s program on top and he was ready to hand the reins back over to Brown. Instead, Brown was given an offer he couldn’t refuse to coach a new professional team in Cleveland for a new professional league known as the All-American Football Conference.

Brown’s pay was reportedly more than any other coach had ever received, but few had ever been as successful.

Widdoes, meanwhile, did not want to be the Buckeyes’ head coach anymore and his assistant Paul Bixler took over and Widdoes demoted himself back to an assistant. Thus began a tumultuous rest of the decade for Ohio State football.

Things wouldn’t get settled until the early 1950s when Woody Hayes finally righted the ship.

Back in Cleveland, the All-American Football Conference lasted just four years, in part because of Cleveland’s dominance, going 47-4-3 over the four years and winning all four league championships.

In 1950, Brown and his Browns were then folded into the NFL, where they would win three league titles in six years.

Art Modell purchased the Browns in 1961 and fired Brown following the 1963 season. A few years later, Brown would reappear as an owner/coach of a new AFL team in Cincinnati, which remains under his family’s control today.

What Could Have Happened

Feeling a calling to return to college coaching, Paul Brown turns the AAFC offer down, despite the sizable contract.

Upon returning to Ohio State in 1946, a team that had gone 15-3 over the previous two seasons was now ready to crank things up.

Scores of the Midwest’s top recruits couldn’t wait to have an opportunity to play for such a revolutionary football mind, and they happily came aboard.

Now a rejuvenated 38-year old head coach, Brown set Ohio State football loose on the rest of the country, and nobody was safe.

The Scarlet and Gray go on to win two national championships in Brown’s first three years back.

With the country still settling in after World War II, the one thing that everyone could rely on was Brown’s Buckeyes.

Over the next 20 seasons, Ohio State would have unparalleled success under Brown, winning 12 Big Ten titles and six national championships. More importantly, he would go 12-6-2 against Michigan.

Eventually, however, Brown would give in to his desire to take his game to the professional ranks. He would become part of an ownership team for an expansion AFL team in Cincinnati in 1966.

And Ohio State would finally be on the hunt for a new head football coach.

The Ripples

With Ohio State not in the market for a new head coach around 1950, that means Woody Hayes never ends up at OSU.

Instead, Northwestern gives him a call and offers him the job in late 1950. Bob Voigts was the head coach of the Wildcats at the time, and despite a strong early start to his career, he was never able to recapture his early success and the administration had grown tired of the struggles.

Woody accepts.

Ohio State humiliates Northwestern in 1951 by a score of 45-0. The outcome drives Hayes and the Wildcats mad for the next calendar year, and with the Buckeyes coming to town in 1952, Woody’s boys exact a semblance of revenge on Ohio State with a 13-13 tie.

A rivalry had been born.

Hayes takes the 1951 Northwestern Wildcats to a 6-3 mark overall. The 1952 team does even better, going 7-1-1.

Hayes impressed many of the nation’s top programs. He also caught the eye of one particular program that had come upon some difficult times of late.

The University of Michigan was tired of constantly losing to Paul Brown and his Buckeyes, so they set out to find the perfect foil. Having successfully shamed Bennie Oosterbaan into stepping down, the UM administration offered the job to Hayes.

Knowing that he couldn’t consistently contend with Brown and Ohio State at Northwestern, Hayes accepted the Michigan job, remarking “I wanted to stay at Northwestern as long as they’d have me, but I wanted to beat Paul Brown’s ass more.”

Thus begins what would become known as The 13-Year War.

Over those 13 years, Brown would finish with a 6-5-2 edge.

No team controlled the series during those 13 hard-fought years. Every win had meaning. Michigan’s win in 1964 sent them to the Rose Bowl against No. 8 Oregon State. The Wolverines won handily and were then voted National Champions by the AP. The Coaches Poll, however, had sided with Bear Bryant and Alabama.

Still, it was Michigan’s first national title since 1948.

Upon Brown’s departure for the AFL following the 1965 season, Woody Hayes was labeled as the man who chased the unbeatable Paul Brown out of college football.

Towns throughout the state of Michigan celebrated. Nine months later, the population in Michigan boomed by seven percent.

Michigan faithful could not possibly love a figurehead anymore than they loved Woody Hayes.

With the Buckeyes now looking for a new head coach for the first time since 1940, Hayes could see the tide beginning to turn in Michigan’s favor.

Rather than elevate one of Brown’s assistants, Ohio State wanted somebody with head coaching experience.

And they never had to leave the state to find their guy.

Following a third-consecutive winning season at Miami of Ohio, an offer was made to former Hayes right-hand man Glenn “Bo” Schembechler.

Schembechler immediately accepted Ohio State’s offer, which incensed Hayes, who felt betrayed by his one-time understudy.

Thus began what would later be called The Second 13-Year War.

Schembechler would never quite reach Paul Brown’s level of success, but his Buckeyes would win a national championship in 1985 behind the dynamic backfield of Keith Byars and Jim Harbaugh.

As for the Cleveland Browns, without Paul Brown to lead them, they floundered quite a bit, but still found their way into the NFL. They weren’t such a hot property, however, and because of that, they were never purchased by New York advertising executive Art Modell.

In the late 1970s, however, Youngstown real estate giant Ed DeBartolo, Jr. bought the Browns. Soon after, he hired Stanford head coach Bill Walsh, who was once a Paul Brown assistant back in Cincinnati.

Under the guidance of Walsh and DeBartolo, the Browns go on to win three Super Bowls in the ’80s and two more in the ’90s.

[1942 Ohio State team photo courtesy OSU library archives.]

One Response

  1. This is pretty interesting (Woody at Michigan, Bo at OSU). The Browns probably would have been called the Panthers if Paul doesn’t go there, though. And, the AAFC may have lasted several more years because the Browns aren’t kicking the bejesus out of everyone.

    Maybe the AAFC lasts until 1956 (by then, Clint Murchison gets a AAFC expansion team in Dallas in 1953), and then two-four teams merge into the NFL (the 49ers are definite. The other possibilities are the Cleveland Panthers, the Dallas team, and the Bills if they kept being supported like they were).

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