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What if ... former IU football coach Clyde Smith hadn’t resigned after an ‘open and undercover campaign’ to oust him?

Just imagine if Twitter burner accounts existed in the ‘50s, folks!

Minnesota v Indiana Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories revisiting the biggest what-ifs in IU history.

IU football is just 12-75-5 all-time against Ohio State and the Hoosiers have lost 24 straight to the Buckeyes. They haven’t won a game in the series in their last 27 tries, with a 27-27 tie in 1990 being the lone neutral result amid a three-plus-decade losing streak.

IU hasn’t defeated Ohio State since Ronald Reagan was in office.

The Hoosiers’ current drought against the Buckeyes isn’t even the worst in series history, either! From 1952 to 1986, IU was winless against Ohio State in 31 tries, with a scoreless tie in ‘59 separating losing streaks of seven and 23 games.

That’s what makes it so strange that the architect of one of IU’s 12 wins over Ohio State in the last 119 years – a win that featured the second-biggest margin of victory over the Buckeyes and the largest ever in an IU win in Columbus – resigned less than three weeks after his Hoosiers beat No. 17 Ohio State 32-10.

On November 6, 1951, Clyde B. Smith submitted his resignation following a 2-4 start in Year 4 of his tenure, with his overall record with the Hoosiers just 8-24-1 at that point. The Hoosiers had been shut out 21-0 against No. 4 Illinois and 6-0 at No. 10 Wisconsin in the weeks following IU’s three-touchdown win over Ohio State – a lead, by the way, they had built by the end of the first quarter.

“The quiet-spoken Hoosier coach turned in his resignation yesterday after bearing the brunt of alumni criticism for Indiana’s losing football teams,” reported The Herald in Jasper, Indiana.

Smith had a three-year contract that ran through 1953 and he promised to finish out the rest of the 1951 season, agreeing to coach the team’s final three games against Minnesota, Michigan State and Purdue.

“Smith said he ‘would like to be happy for the next three weeks and be able to coach the boys as they deserve to be coached,’” The Herald reported, calling it “an obvious crack at his detractors.”

While IU lost the rest of its games in 1951, Smith may have gotten his wish in regard to his happiness and his ability to administer proper coaching.

The Hoosiers lost by just one possession in each game the rest of the way – 16-14 at Minnesota, 30-26 against No. 1 Michigan State and 21-13 to Purdue – after being shut out in their two previous games.

Why could have Smith’s resignation potentially felt liberating?

From The Herald:

“Smith has been the target of an open and undercover campaign this fall...Chicago alumnus Frank Lindsey admitted operation of what he called ‘an anti-Smith camp.’ At the same time mysterious leaflets appeared on the Bloomington campus asking, ‘What’s Wrong with our Football Team?’ and questioning Smith’s coaching. The tide of criticism ebbed when Indiana upset powerful Ohio State but the pressure was on again when the Hoosiers lost to Illinois and Wisconsin. Indiana players were stunned by the resignation and tried vainly to get Smith to reconsider. Senior tackle Ed Roth said: ‘People who don’t know the score have done a lot of hollering. I can speak for the team when I say Smitty is a good coach. Most of us wouldn’t want anybody else.’”

So this clearly wasn’t a case of Smith losing the locker room, but rather the fans. Or rather just a subsect of influential fans – those who, if they existed in 2020, would have one, maybe two, burner accounts on Twitter, each with no more than 30 followers, a recycled Kanye lyric as a bio and an avatar of a heavily edited picture of something like, say, 1996 Michael Jordan on the Bulls guarding 2016 LeBron on the Cavs.

The Associated Press noted that J. Frank Lindsey, an IU alum and realtor in Chicago, was the first outspoken critic of Clyde Smith. Lindsey had a knack for meddling in Big Ten football affairs, having once reportedly investigated former Illinois halfback Timothy Thomas McHugh, who landed with the Fighting Illini after not completing his junior year of high school.

The president of IU’s Chicago alumni club at the time noted that many area alumni felt Smith “hadn’t done a good job,” according to the AP.

Smith said school presidents and coaches shouldn’t allow coaches to become “whipping boys for disgruntled faction that have used the won or lost measuring stick to determine the real value of athletic programs.”

However, four days after IU’s season-ending loss to Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket game, Smith said he resigned because of principle, not pressure, according to the AP.

Smith said schools and their football coaches “have sold our athletic heritage for a mess of pottage,” while calling for schools to reassess their athletic programs to decide their “true educational value.” Smith reportedly issued a statement that said schools are at risk of being blamed for “inroads made by protected gambling,” according to the AP.

By all accounts, he was a shining light in college athletics, a figure who’d probably hold up very favorably in the sport today. Newspapers at the time noted that Smith was a man who didn’t drink, smoke or swear.

“The conditions that make a gentleman, and as good a coach as Clyde Smith is, quit are a black mark on the record of the college game of football,” the Lansing State Journal’s George Alderton wrote the day before No. 1 Michigan State visited IU.

After his resignation, Smith was praised by The Indianapolis Star and Bloomington Herald-Telephone.

From The Indianapolis Star on November 22, 1951:

“I.U.’s gridiron course under Mr. Smith has been a good and honorable one. He has refused to join in the shameful rat race of player buying which is the No. 1 cause of the breakdown in amateur athletic morality. Yet he has produced steadily improving teams, teams which have made a fine record in the face of schedules as tough as those faced by any school in the nation ... Moreover, the university possibly can find another coach with his combination of skill, high standards and deep concern for the lifelong welfare of his young Saturday’s heroes. But unless I.U. intends to travel a new athletic road, the road of big-time ‘football’ schools, why not try to keep a man who is already providing the university with an excellent gridiron program?”

From the Bloomington Herald-Telephone:

“People have stopped their daily pursuits to visit our office and voice their praise of ‘Smitty’ and the ideals he stands for. Through it all the feeling is intense that Coach Sith’s standards represent the most wholesome contribution I.U. couldn’t make toward keeping football as a great college sport – and as a force for the building of character in our men of tomorrow. There has been criticism from some sources because I.U. has not been a consistent winner. We say that no coach could win consistently under the odds currently faced here. No coach in America would willingly send his team against nine of the strongest teams in the country in one year. That is what I.U. faced.”

The Bloomington Herald-Telephone’s editors went on to write that they believed if top-ranked Tennessee had traded schedules with IU, IU’s 1951 opponents would have “altered the standing of the Vols.”

IU played No. 1 Michigan State, No. 4 Illinois, No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 14 Notre Dame and No. 17 Ohio State in 1951, with three of those games coming on the road, plus Pitt, Michigan, Minnesota and Purdue. The Hoosiers’ schedule 70 years ago in the Western Conference wasn’t so different than life in the Big Ten East. If anything, their schedule may have been harder back then!

While Smith left Bloomington with a record of 8-27-1 in four seasons, he notched wins over No. 11 Notre Dame, No. 16 Pitt, No. 17 Ohio State and No. 17 Iowa during his tenure, in an era when the Hoosiers were playing five road games in a nine-game season and multiple seasons in which IU’s schedule featured five ranked opponents. That’s the 1951 equivalent of playing seven ranked opponents in a 12-game season today, including a non-conference slate with games against two or three top-30 programs, not UConn or Ball State.

Former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy, who won five national championships with the Golden Domers and used to write a column called “Football with Leahy,” once wrote, “The fact that we were beaten by Indiana causes me to realize that its coach, Clyde Smith, has done what may be one of the finest rebuilding jobs in football history.”

In 1950, IU knocked off No. 11 Notre Dame 20-7 in Bloomington amid a murderers’ row of five games against teams ranked in the top 17 of the AP poll in consecutive weeks. The games on either end of that stretch were on the road against Nebraska and Michigan.

See how going 8-27-1 isn’t quite as bad as the record looks at face value?

IU was ranked No. 17 in the country early in October in 1948 after wins over Wisconsin and Iowa, then it cracked the top 20 again two years later after the win over Notre Dame. The Hoosiers were regularly playing top independent schools like Notre Dame and Michigan State in their non-conference schedule so hypothetically in 2020, with more games and smarter non-conference scheduling practices, Smith might be coaching a bowl team annually with one or two huge wins per year.

Some of the irony in the backlash Smith faced in his last season on campus is that his win over Ohio State likely caused Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes to face the same kind of public discord, if not more severe. Then-Minnesota coach Wes Fesler, who stepped down at Ohio State in 1950 because the pressure was too much for him, said Hayes will “be getting nasty phone calls all night long and about 300 of the meanest letters you ever saw,” according to a United Press Association story that ran after IU’s win over Ohio State. “I know, believe me.”

On the same day, a separate story was published in which Ohio State athletic director Richard Larkins publicly denied that Hayes had a five-year contract, as had been reported. There was a gentleman’s agreement but the Buckeyes’ brass was publicly saying, “No sir, Woody Hayes doesn’t have to be here through 1955 if we don’t want him to be.”

The AP noted how Hayes didn’t speak to the media on the Tuesday after the Buckeyes lost to the Hoosiers.

Football - Ohio State squad, 1957
Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, center, pictured in 1957.
Photo by Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

To recap, in the three days following IU’s upset of Ohio State, you had:

  • Hayes’ predecessor publicly commenting how much it would suck to be Hayes right now
  • Ohio State’s AD publicly commenting that Hayes’ contract is shorter than was believed
  • Hayes declining to speak to the media a few days later

So IU beating Ohio State in 1951 was likely just as big of a deal as it would be today.

Maybe bigger.

*Looks longingly at the old 2015 and 2017 calendars rotting in the corner of my parents’ basement, the Ohio State game triple-circled in red marker for both years.*

After a 4-3-2 season for Ohio State in 1951 – with IU contributing one of those three losses – there was some level of uncertainty about Hayes’ future.

In a wire story headlined “Woody Hayes remains with Ohio Buckeyes” that ran on December 16, 1951, the Newspaper Enterprise Association’s Kaye Kessler reported, “But Hayes will be back as Ohio State’s head football coach for a second season come 1952. Authority for that statement is Athletic Director Dick Larkins, who intends to stick to his guns come a revolution – and it may as well be admitted now that a revolution was not far away during the ups and downs of the past season.

“Said Larkins, in an attempt to pour some sands of sanity onto the burning O.S.U. football scene, ‘We’re trying everything in our power to solidify the athletic picture at Ohio State. You don’t do it by changing coaches every year.’”

[Bold font added by CQ for effect]

Amid IU’s own search for Smith’s replacement, The Times of Munster, Indiana, reported in late November 1951 that “Statements out of Bloomington, official and otherwise, indicate nobody in power wants to take the rap for pressing the case for any man whose experience is limited to the high school front. The misfortunes of Woody Hayes at Ohio State may have strengthened their case.” While Hayes was a head coach at the college level at Denison University and Miami (OH) prior to taking the Ohio State job, he got his start in coaching at the high school level.

Hayes won the first of five national championships at Ohio State just three years after IU and Clyde Smith beat the Buckeyes in Columbus – following a pair of 6-3 seasons for Ohio State in 1952 and ‘53.

In those two years, the Buckeyes beat the Hoosiers by very similar scores to what IU beat Ohio State under Smith’s guidance in 1951 – 33-13 and 36-12, respectively.

If Smith – the champion of virtue in college athletics and a member of the exclusive club of IU coaches to beat Ohio State – ignores the leaflets throughout campus and the sometimes open, sometimes undercover campaign to undermine him and he instead fulfilled his contract through 1953, is there an alternate reality where IU beats Ohio State again, turning one of those 6-3 seasons for the Buckeyes into a 5-4 campaign that starts with a season-opening loss to IU?

Then, would the uncertainty around Woody Hayes and his new T-formation that was present in his first season in Columbus snowball and force the school’s athletic director to make a coaching change before Hayes ever wins his first national championship with the Buckeyes, potentially re-writing the history of the best football program in the Big Ten?

That question is more than this blogger is willing to answer definitively, but nonetheless, it’s an interesting question to poke from a safe distance with a 10-foot stick while wearing a face mask.

After fan and alumni support created an untenable situation for Clyde Smith to return to Bloomington in 1952, student interest in football on campus sputtered to a halt by December, just after the IU football team went 2-7 and its coach resigned.

In the first week of December, a United Press Association story reported that IU students conducted a forum to “try to find out what was wrong with the football team last season” but it “flopped because of lack of interest by students.”

The Indiana Daily Student coverage at the time noted: “It’s basketball time in Indiana.”

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