Michigan vs Ohio State:
The 1950 Blizzard Bowl
Few US college football games have ever been played under worse weather conditions than the 1950 affair between Michigan and Ohio State. The game was no ordinary contest between the two schools. Fervor ran high, fueled by the ancient rivalry between the states of Michigan and Ohio. The game would climax the highly ranked Buckeye's season, for, under the Big Ten's "no-repeat" rule, Ohio State could not compete in the Rose Bowl. And conference teams went to no other bowl game in that era. Stung by an Illinois upset the week before, all Buckeye fans could hope for was a high national ranking and the satisfaction of preventing Michigan from heading to Pasadena.
The contest had been sold out by August -- 82,300 tickets sold for the 78,413-seat stadium. And Buckeye supporters had added fire in their eyes. Life had recently called the Michigan Marching Band the best in the land. Thus, Ohio State was preparing to defeat Michigan during half-time with an elaborate musical show as well as in the game.
But Mother Nature had other plans for the day as well, and they were not conducive to playing football. Late Thanksgiving Day, November 23rd, rain began to fall across Ohio as a storm system swept northeastward across the Great Lakes region. By 8:30 p.m. the rain had turned to sleet and snow across most of Ohio. Behind the system, which now stalled in its eastward progress, Arctic air plunged the temperatures in Columbus to a record low of 5 oF by 8 am Friday, 33 Fahrenheit degrees colder than Thursday's maximum. (For a more complete account of the weather conditions, go to Sporting Weather.)
Intermittent snow continued all day Friday. With the forecast of 15 oF temperatures and gale winds for game time on Saturday, officials expected game attendance to drop to 70- 75,000. Thousands of early arrivers trudged into Columbus looking like refugees.
The scene Friday, however, did not portend half of what was to greet Columbus as the sun rose Saturday. During the night, a storm moving up the Carolina coast pumped Atlantic moisture like a fire hose westward to meet the southward blast of frigid air. The clash of these two air masses reached full fury over Ohio and western Pennsylvania, paralyzing the region with heavy snow, gale-force winds and near-zero temperatures.
Pittsburgh lay under a 16-inch snowfall with another foot forecast, forcing cancellation of the Pitt-Penn State game Northern Ohio was covered by 18 inches of snow with drifts in excess of six feet. Southeastern Ohio measured 14 plus inches. Transportation across the state ground to a halt.
At 7:29 am November 25, 1950, the sun rose on a Columbus that resembled the North Pole. Public transportation slowed and then stopped altogether. The few trains able to push their way into Columbus had come down from Toledo bringing the Michigan team and its fans. Automobiles by the thousands, many once headed for Columbus, lay stranded across central Ohio. As one witness, reminded of the great Arctic explorers, observed: "Only Peary, Cook, and Amundsen could get through to this game!"
J. Edward Weaver, OSU ticket director was pessimistic. "We couldn't expect more than half of them to be here. I'll be surprised if anybody comes except the players' families and friends." The storm then triggered an event unrivaled in the history of the UM-OSU competition. Tickets, impossible to obtain as long as tour months previous, became readily available. Frightened by the prospects, a few scalpers offered tickets at less than box office rates. There were no takers.
Prior to the scheduled game time, a meeting was held among the schools' coaches and athletic directors: Wes Fesler and Dick Larkin of Ohio State; Bennie Oosterbaan and Fritz Crisler of Michigan. The question was: Would there be a game? Never had a Big Ten conference game been canceled. And, thousands of early arrivers trudged into Columbus looking like refugees, braving the elements to reach the stadium, and it was felt unfair to such determined fans to cancel.
But Coach Fesler favored cancellation, feeling nobody should be forced to play under such adverse conditions. Even with the tarp and snow removed, the yard markers would soon be obscured. Officials would be unable to see the action.
The final decision was up to Larkin, and he, feeling Crisler favored playing, gave the word: "The game is on! We'll just have to do the best we can."
At the stadium, the hardy souls who would attend the game began to arrive. Wrapped in an odd assortment of blankets and other gear, the crowd plodded toward the stadium and their snow-covered seats. Some sat huddled with cardboard cartons over their heads with peepholes cut for vision. Many tried to build fires under the stands. Stadium officials warned that all toilets in the top of the stadium were frozen.
Assisted by several hundred Boy Scouts, undergraduates and spectators, the grounds' crew cut the tarp from the frozen field and rolled the segments to the sidelines. When the tarpaulin was removed, it was not long before the snow again obliterated the field stripes from view.
Word spread that the Ohio State band would not play because it was impossible to put lips to frozen mouthpieces. The band would instead maneuver to canned music. But, at two o'clock, 120 bandsmen, aided by antifreeze in horn valves, sent the "Buckeye Battle Cry" into the frigid wind. Despite the loss of the yard markers as guides, the bandsmen bravely executed their maneuvers as best they could.
One to two touchdown underdogs, the Wolverines were a loose team -- so loose that Coach Oosterbaan had to snap at his players, "Let's get our minds on the game" as they amused themselves watching the tumbling and pratfalls of fans trying to ascend the stadium ramp.
In addition to their regular uniforms, players donned long underwear and linemen wore gloves. Michigan gained an important advantage when, during pre-game warm-ups, Assistant Coach Dick Kempthorn noticed quarterback Chuck Ortmann having trouble handling the center snap. He pulled out a pair of freshly-cut deer-skin gloves and gave them to Ortmann. With the gloves, Ortmann could better handle the slick, frozen ball.
The officials and team captains met for the coin toss. Football would be played today, but not the usual game known to fans of the Wolverines and Buckeyes. The running game would, at best, be composed of short bursts into the line. The turf was too treacherous for deception or fancy footwork. Once started, a ball carrier could hope for little help from his line except perhaps for falling before a defender. Passing and any complex exchanges of the ball were virtually impossible as the pigskin quickly because coated with a thin layer of ice, despite the frequent exchange of game balls and the use of kerosene heaters to thaw and heat the balls as they were removed from play. Coach Oosterbaan remarked, "Having the ball today is a liability."
The game started with the temperature at 10 degrees above zero and a 28-mph wind whipping into the open end of the horseshoe stadium and blowing the five inches of snow into six-foot drifts which obscured the sidelines.
Vic Janowicz' game-opening kickoff for OSU was downed by Ted Topor on the Michigan 28. On the first play from scrimmage, Chuck Ortmann set the tenor of the game by quick-kicking. The ball rolled to the OSU 31 and was downed by Michigan's Leo Koceski. Ohio State begin their possession in the traditional Buckeye manner. Janowicz cut inside right guard for five yards. Chuck Gandee dove through center for one. On third and four, Janowicz slipped, recovered and got off a tremendous quick kick which rolled dead on the Wolverine six.
Michigan again kicked on first down, but this time, Buckeye Bob Momsen blocked Ortmann's attempt and recovered on the six.
Janowicz attempted to surprise the Wolverines and came out passing. After several near sacks, he lofted the ball into the end zone. The play was ruled intentional grounding and the penalty put Ohio back to the 34-yard line. After a yard loss by Gandee, Janowicz hit a 14-yard jump pass to the Michigan 28. Fourth Down. Returning to the huddle, Janowicz had a vision. He told his team: "I can see the goal posts. Let's try a field goal." The placement went down and Janowicz' kick was true. Four minutes into the game, the Scarlet and Gray led, 3-0.
Michigan continued to avoid possession and elected to kick-off after the field goal. Harry Allis' kick was taken on the 10 and returned to the OSU 33. Ortmann and Janowicz traded punts. On Michigan's fifth possession, Ortmann hit a coffin-corner kick that rolled out at the OSU four-yard line.
Their backs to the goal line, Ohio State decided to punt on first down. Janowicz cleared a spot in the end zone tor footing and awaited the snap. His punt was blocked by Tom Johnson, Jackson recovered the ball for Michigan, but the officials ruled he was out of the end zone and awarded a safety to Michigan.
The first quarter ended with Ohio State leading, 3 to 2. Michigan's longest run had been eight yards by Ortmann and Janowicz had a similar run for Ohio State, as well as the 14- yard pass play. Each team had punted seven times. Rushing statistics were: Michigan seven yards, Ohio State minus two yards.
The first 14 minutes of the second quarter provided two highlights, a first down on an 11- yard Janowicz fumble (the only one of the half), and a 30-yard field goal attempt by Allis of Michigan which, though long enough, was wide to the left. Michigan accumulated only three yards on the ground and Ohio State 23 yards.
In the last two minutes of play, Ortmann punted out of bounds on the OSU six. Two rushes into the line gained three yards. With 40 seconds to go in the half, Michigan called time, hoping a Buckeye error would give them one last chance. Fesler reasoned that the Wolverines could also call time on fourth down. He ordered a punt.
Janowicz dug into the end zone. On the snap, the blurred figures of the Michigan line sifted through the blizzard, arms upraised. Janowicz met the ball but it soon met Tony Momsen, the brother of OSU's Bob Momsen. Suddenly, everyone was diving into snow banks in search of the elusive ball. It was Tony who found it first for a Michigan touchdown. The blocked punt was his second of the game and sixth of the season, but none would loom so large. The extra point by Allis made the score 9-3 Michigan as the half ended.
During half time, Ohio State changed from cleats to tennis shoes in hopes of gaining better traction, but, as Janowicz was to remark after the game, "If they did any good, I couldn't tell the difference." As the second half began, the snow was so heavy the visibility was near zero. The second half continued a game of punts, interspersed with feeble attempts at a running game and a few desperation passes as the blizzard piled the snow to ankle depth.
Late in the game Koceski entered the Michigan huddle with news. "Northwestern upset Illinois," meaning that the climax of the Big Ten season would take place in the snows of Columbus. The Ohio State offense was stymied, more by the weather than the Michigan defense. Michigan's offense played conservative ball, mostly punting on the first or second down. The game ended on three long, incomplete passes by Janowicz in the last 24 seconds of play. Final: Michigan 9 Ohio State 3.
Michigan had turned in a mild upset and was now undisputed conference champion with a ticket to Pasadena on January first against California.
The Columbus Dispatch labeled the game "the Blizzard Bowl." Athletic Director Larkin took the blame: "If the people are unhappy, it's my fault. I decided."
"It was like a nightmare" Janowicz proclaimed after the game, "My hands were numb and blue. I had no feeling in them and I couldn't hang onto the ball. It was terrible. You knew what you wanted to do but you couldn't do it."
Fans who braved the blizzard were divided as to the wisdom of playing in such weather. One undergraduate, peering through snow-encrusted eyelashes remarked, "Certainly the game should have been played. It's part of the American tradition and should be played, snow or no snow, cold or no cold."
Michigan had won without making a single first down. Their total offense for 46 plays was 27 yards -- all rushing. Kick returns added 29 yards to the total. Ortmann had punted times for 723 yards with one blocked. The Buckeyes managed 41 yards of offense on 58 plays, only 16 by rushing. Three passes had been completed out of 18 attempts with two interceptions. Kick returns accounted for another 47 yards. Janowicz ended the game with minus nine yards rushing, but punted for 685 yards in 21 attempts. Four were blocked, two of which accounted for all of Michigan's scoring. OSU managed three first downs.
In 60 minutes of play, the two teams totaled 68 yards of offense and 76 yards in kick returns, but punted for nearly a mile (1,408 yards). Surprisingly, only 10 fumbles occurred, both teams losing one.
The game had ended, but the drama in Columbus had not. Most of the autos in the parking areas were buried beneath snowdrifts. The "refugee line" which had filed into the stadium now filed out. Half-frozen spectators slipped and stumbled among the skidding automobiles.
A correspondent for the New Yorker rescued an old man and woman bent against the wind. Only with great assistance could the elderly man enter his vehicle. His face was purple with cold and stress, his eyeglasses covered with ice. A few minutes passed before he could speak: "I haven't missed a Michigan-Ohio State game in 25 years."
The woman accompanying him retorted, "I'm going to see that you miss the next one. We'll never go through this again."
The fears of stadium groundskeeper Ralph Guarasci gnawed through the night as he and his crew searched rolled up sections of tarp, restrooms and passageways in the huge stadium for fans who may have passed out from excess "frostbite serum" and might now be freezing to death. Fortunately, no one was found.
The blizzard continued dumping nine inches of snow on Columbus by Sunday morning, as the worst storm since 1913 swept Ohio. Ohio's Governor Frank Lausche declared Monday a legal state holiday. Not until Monday did the Columbus Airport re-open. Classes did not resume until Wednesday, and a full week passed before all of the 20,000 stranded cars were removed from the highways.
Michigan followed up the OSU victory with a 14-6 defeat of the number five-rated California squad in the New Year's Day Rose Bowl Classic. The Wolverines ended the season ranked ninth with tackle Al Wahl voted to the All-American team.
Ohio State fell from the Top 10 with the defeat but individual honors for the team were numerous. Guard Bob Momsen and center Bob McCullough joined Vic Janowicz on the All-American team. Janowicz added the Chicago Tribune Trophy as conference MVP and then the coveted Heisman Trophy.
Fourteen days after the game, Wes Fesler announced his resignation as OSU head coach, citing "the tension brought about by the tremendous desire to win football games for Ohio State" as adversely affecting his health. To replace Fesler, Ohio State would announce the signing of Woodrow Wilson Hayes as head coach, and a football dynasty was about to begin.
Long after the snow had melted and order restored, the questions and controversies surrounding it remained. Which was the better team? Was Fesler's decision to punt in the waning moments of the first half the right choice? Would Woody Hayes have become the fabled Buckeye coach, had this game been played on a cool, sunny November afternoon?
Learn More From These Relevant Books
Chosen by The Weather Doctor
- Schmidlin, Thomas W. and Schmidlin, Jeanne Appelhans:
Thunder in the Heartland: A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio, 1996, The Kent State University Press, Kent, OH, ISBN 0-87338-549-7.
- Emmanuel, Greg: The 100-Yard War: Inside the 100-Year-Old Michigan-Ohio State Football Rivalry, 2005, Wiley, ISBN 047173649X (Paperback)
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, THE WEATHER DOCTOR,
Michigan vs Ohio State: The 1950 Blizzard Bowl ©2000, 2006 Keith C. Heidorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved.
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