Sports

The Coldest College Football Game Ever

In 1950, Michigan and Ohio State played a game in conditions that could be charitably described as terrible.

by Patrick Sauer
Nov 27 2015, 1:30pm

Photo via wikimedia commons

Ohio' State's last-second loss to Michigan State last week dulled the luster of this Saturday's upcoming to-do between the No. 8 Buckeyes and the No. 12 Michigan Wolverines a little bit, but there are still ample reasons for fans to show up.

It's Round One of Jim Harbaugh v. Urban Meyer. There's Midwestern pride at stake, not to mention 365 days of gloating. There's the closeness of the spread, the outside chance both teams have to reach the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, and perhaps most importantly, the current Ann Arbor forecast says it will be sunny and 35. It should be perfect weather for a post-Thanksgiving tilt—and the exact opposite of the storm that swallowed the wintry 1950 game between Michigan and Ohio State whole.

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The conditions on that November 25 were beyond brutal. The weather, however, begat one of the most memorable games in the long-standing rivalry. Seven-and-a-half-inches of snow fell in the morning, still the single-day November record for Columbus. By the time the game kicked off, it was a total whiteout.

"We stayed at a hotel in downtown Columbus and when we woke up the snow was blowing horizontal past our windows, but we didn't really think anything of it," says Richard D. Widdoes, 86, a Buckeyes defensive back from 1948-50. "When they finally got the tarp off, though, we could feel the field was frozen. After the first couple of series, we realized that nobody was going to be able to move fast or make any change of direction. We just started kicking it back-and-forth to one another, hoping the other team would make a mistake."

The "Snow Bowl" featured an average game temperature of 13 degrees, a wind chill that hovered around -4, and reported gusts of 30-35 mph. The National Weather Service described the conditions as "Snow and blowing snow."

Officially, Michigan was the victor 9-3, but the real winner was Mother Nature.

"Back then, we took a train from Ann Arbor right to the stadium. We were getting taped up inside, and we watched fans coming into the stadium slip on an icy patch and land on their rear-ends, get up, then five minutes later someone else would fall," says Leo Koceski, 86, a Michigan halfback known as the "Canonsburg Comet" who wore the Maize and Blue from 1948-50. "It was that kind of game."

The offensive ineptitude was understandable given the conditions, but still incredible. Michigan won the game with 27 yards of total offense. The Wolverines gained no first downs, and didn't complete a single pass, going 0-9 in attempts. The Buckeyes had 41 net yards, lighting it up through the air as the Buckeyes do-everything Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Vic Jonowicz completed 3 of 18 for 25 yards.

Both teams, considering the elements, punted exceedingly well. Many times. Again and again. A self-serious modern day announcer would probably say they were trying to "win the field position war" or "dominate the turnover battle," but it was really just a good old-fashioned game of hot potato.

"I had gotten hurt against Northwestern, so I didn't play in the game and we couldn't even see the field from the sidelines," says 84-year-old Roger Zatkoff, a Michigan linebacker from 1950-52. "My job was to pass out the hand warmers, but I made sure to keep one for myself."

Both teams figured the best chance to win was to let the other team screw up. They kicked early and often. Michigan punted on their first play from scrimmage—it was blocked—and ended the game with 24 total punts for 723 yards. Ohio State countered with 21 punts for 685 yards, and there wasn't even any hot return action. Most of the punts landed softly in the snow. One ball was stopped cold in a mini-drift just outside the end zone that had been piled up by the voluntary "broomtenders" who tried in vain to keep the goal lines visible.

(The combined 45 punts however, were a far cry from the record. In a Shreveport Louisiana downpour in 1939, Texas Tech and Centenary combined for a whopping 77 punts in a 0-0 tie ballgame; Tech punter Charlie Calhoun amassed 1,318 yards on that sloppy afternoon.)

The Buckeyes took an early 3-0 lead on a Janowicz field goal after a recovering a blocked kick. The Wolverines then got a safety late in the first quarter on a blocked punt that scooted across the end zone out of bounds. With 47 seconds remaining before halftime, Ohio State coach Wes Fesler decided, on third down from their own 7-yard-line, to punt again. Michigan linebacker Tony Momsen barreled through, knocked it down, and corralled it in the end zone for the game's lone touchdown.

As ugly as the offenses were, the game featured outstanding play by Michigan's special teams.

"I remember someone lent our punter Chuck Ortmann a new pair of doeskin gloves, and he didn't have a single bobble," says Koceski, a retired salesman who lives in Dearborn Heights. "Our center Carl Kreager didn't have a bad snap, and he didn't even wear gloves."

As John Dietrich wrote in his 1950 Cleveland Plain Dealer game recap, "On a day when football never should have been attempted, the resourceful and stout-hearted Wolverines ended triumphant in a struggle through the driving snow..."

The question of whether the game should be played at all never really came up. The athletic directors discussed postponement, but neither man could recall a game ever being called off, so they took the blizzard head-on. One reason they decided to play was that so many brave hearty souls, including the Widdoes and Koceski families, showed up to tough it out on the frigid bleachers. The announced attendance was 50,503, although Dietrich pegged the attendees at roughly 30,000, which is still a sizable gathering for a football game played in Arendelle. The cold never bothered them, anyway.

That so many fans were even in the stadium is all the more impressive considering that the Michigan-Ohio State clash wasn't even the season's end-all be-all. Koceski said at that time that Minnesota was Michigan's primary rival and the Little Brown Jug was the most sought-after trophy. Zatkoff, who would go on to play in the NFL before returning to Hamtramck, Michigan and founding a manufacturing supply company that he still runs today, added, "It was a different era, it didn't really take off until Bo and Woody were on opposing sidelines. Not like today, where I'm still trying to scrounge up twelve tickets for my customers. Can't find them anywhere."

Which isn't to say the "Snow Bowl" didn't have consequences. Prior to 1972, the Big Ten had a "no repeat" Rose Bowl policy for its teams, so Ohio State was out because they'd defeated Cal in Pasadena the year prior. Michigan went into the "Snow Bowl" needing Northwestern to upset Illinois, which they did 14-7 in Evanston. The score was announced over the loudspeaker with a little more than two minutes left. The Wolverine faithful collectively held their icy breath until the team sealed the six-point victory. On January 1, 1951, Michigan defeated Cal 14-6 in sunny warm southern California.

"It was disappointing because we still wanted to win the conference," says Widdoes, a retired dentist who worked in Sandusky, Ohio for four decades. "The weather caused the game to be so anticlimactic."

After it was over, there was still the matter of getting home. The Widdoes, who lived 75 miles away in Athens, didn't make it back until Tuesday or Wednesday. Koceksi meanwhile opted not to accompany his brood back to Canonsburg and instead returned to campus. A wise decision, as his family didn't get home until Monday, and he received what can best be described as a warm welcome.

"The train got back to Ann Arbor at one o'clock in the morning and I went to the rooming house where I was staying, " Koceksi says. "The woman who ran it brought me a hot water bottle for my bad knee. I'm still appreciative that she did that."

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