When Ohio State fans gather to discuss their favorite running backs of all time, such names as Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Keith Byars usually top the list. Old-timers tend to gravitate more to Vic Janowicz or Howard "Hopalong" Cassady while historians will quickly point out none of those names would likely ever have been heard of had it not been for Chic Harley.
Eventually, the conversation turns to Jim Otis, John Brockington, Champ Henson and Pete Johnson – big, burly fullbacks who flourished during the heyday of Woody Hayes and his three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack.
One guy who never seems to get mentioned, though, is Bob Ferguson, which seems to be a huge injustice for a player who played in the early 1960s and was every bit the epitome of Hayes' ball-control philosophy.
"I think Bob gets shortchanged a little bit when people talk about the greatest Buckeye running backs," Ohio State football historian Jack Park told BSB. "Maybe it's because he played 50 years ago and maybe it's because he never talked that much about himself. But it's really too bad because he was certainly one of the best and most productive running backs Ohio State has ever had.
"He was just so powerful up the middle – had a very low center of gravity – but he was also deceptively fast. And he seemed to get better as his career went along. He had sort of a quiet sophomore year but then broke out as a junior and was really something as a senior."
Former longtime OSU sports information director Marv Homan said Ferguson definitely belongs among the top fullbacks in program history.
"In my opinion, Jim Otis was probably the best we've ever had for getting a first down on third-and-2 or punching it into the end zone from the 2-yard line," Homan said. "Pete Johnson would probably be No. 2 in that regard in my mind.
"But you also have to give Bob Ferguson his due. Woody always used to say that whenever he needed three or four yards, Bob would get them for him – no questions asked. I know Woody used to call Bob the best fullback he ever coached, and that was after Otis and Johnson had come along."
Park said those who never saw Ferguson in action would recognize his running style in a more modern-day player.
"I think he compares favorably to Keith Byars," Park said. "Bob didn't have Keith's speed or his ability to get around the end, but Bob was an extremely strong runner – probably every more so than Keith. Bob had perhaps the strongest thighs of any running back Ohio State has ever had.
"And he had more speed than he was given credit for. The Michigan State game in 1959, for example, Bob broke through the middle of the line and went 55 yards for the winning touchdown. He had a lot of fast players chasing him, but no one caught him. I think Bob was very underrated in terms of his speed."
Born Aug. 29, 1939, in Columbus, Ferguson moved with his family to Troy, Ohio, as a youngster and became a high school star there. Under the guidance of legendary high school coach Lou Juillerat, the Trojans rolled to three straight undefeated seasons from 1955-57 and Ferguson was a huge reason for that success. He earned All-Ohio honors during all three seasons and was named the state back of the year by The Associated Press as well as a high school All-American in '57.
In addition to starring on offense, Ferguson was also a fearsome defender as the Trojans punished opponents. During his three prep seasons, Troy outscored the opposition by an average margin of more than 26 points per game.
Meanwhile, Ferguson amassed then-national high school records of 5,521 yards rushing and 578 points scored.
As a testament to his superlative prep career, the Dayton Daily News asked readers in 2004 to name the greatest running back in area history and everyone was a distant second to Ferguson.
Some of his high school exploits included rushing for 2,089 yards as a junior in 1956 and averaging an eye-popping 232.1 yards during that nine-game season. Along the way, he turned in a 529-yard effort against Kiser, a single-season state record that stood until 2001.
‘Packed A Mean Wallop'
When Ferguson arrived at Ohio State in the fall of 1958, freshmen were not eligible to play varsity football. However, Hayes had already undergone a change in his coaching philosophy that would suit Ferguson perfectly in the upcoming years.
During the first few years of the coach's tenure, the Buckeyes ran their offense out of the classic Split-T formation – an early variation on today's spread alignments – with speedy halfbacks getting most of the carries.
Slowly, however, the ultraconservative Hayes came to the conclusion that his team would be better served by recruiting powerful running backs to run behind a huge offensive line. The experiment began in the early '50s with such fullbacks as Hubert Bobo, Don Vicic and Galen Cisco, but the power game didn't reach full bloom until 1958 when Bob White led the team in rushing with 859 yards – then the fifth-highest single-season total in school history.
Hayes' philosophy, which had changed the Split-T to more of a Robust-T formation, still wasn't completely fleshed out in 1959 since Ferguson played most of that season at left halfback. It was also the final season of single-platoon football at the college level, and Ferguson also handled defensive halfback duties.
He still managed to lead the team in rushing, albeit with a modest total of 371 yards, but the Buckeyes stumbled to a 3-5-1 record – one of only two losing seasons during Hayes' 28-year tenure in Columbus.
Things changed dramatically in 1960 when Ferguson was installed as the team's No. 1 fullback. The 6-0, 220-pounder used his low center of gravity and huge thighs to pound out 853 yards and average 5.3 yards on 160 carries. Not coincidentally, Ohio State improved to a 7-2 record and Ferguson earned first-team All-America honors.
"He fit ideally into Woody's system," Homan said. "Bob wasn't very tall and he also ran in sort of a crouched position. That didn't give defenses much of a target, and even when they did get a clear shot at him, Bob was so strong they usually just bounced off him. He packed a pretty mean wallop."
Although the Buckeyes were becoming known for a grind-it-out offense behind Ferguson, he also exhibited the deceptive speed Park mentioned and broke off several runs of 50 yards or more during the '60 season.
He turned in a 79-yarder early in the season during a 20-0 win over USC in Ohio Stadium and added a 52-yard scoring run on homecoming afternoon as the Buckeyes rolled to a 34-7 rout of Wisconsin.
It was Ferguson's 17-yard scamper to pay dirt in the season finale against Michigan that was his most satisfying run of 1960, however. It represented the only touchdown in Ohio State's 7-0 win over the Wolverines, the team's third victory in four years over its archrivals.
That set up a superlative senior season for Ferguson during which he led the Buckeyes to an 8-0-1 overall mark and perfect 6-0 Big Ten record.
To say the Ohio State backfield featured talent that season was a bit of an understatement. Flanking Ferguson at fullback were halfbacks Matt Snell and Paul Warfield, both of whom went on to enjoy stellar careers in the NFL.
Snell was one of the important cogs for the New York Jets as he rushed for 121 yards and helped lead his team to a 16-7 upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Meanwhile, Warfield played 14 seasons in the NFL with Cleveland and Miami, winning Super Bowl VIII with the Dolphins and earning induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
Snell was used mostly as a blocking back in '61 while Warfield did a little of everything – running, receiving, returning kicks, playing defensive back and even throwing the ball on occasion. Still, he understood who represented the focal point of the Ohio State offense.
"Woody's favorite play was called 26," Warfield said. "It was just a basic fullback off-tackle play, and the way it was designed, Bob was to run toward the tackle and read his block. He could then break the play back over the guard or the tackle.
"Bob was a master at running that 26 play. He had heavy thighs and a low center of gravity. He could really run up in there and create movement. He made the pile move, as they say."
Ferguson moved plenty of piles in 1961. During the season opener, a 7-7 tie with TCU, he carried a school-record 35 times for 137 yards. Fourteen of those carries and 42 of his yards came on the Buckeyes' only scoring drive of the game.
He added 100-plus-yard performances that year against Wisconsin and Oregon, but he saved his best for last.
Playing in his final collegiate game, Ferguson rolled up 152 yards and scored four touchdowns during a 50-20 rout of Michigan.
The game was still close heading into the fourth quarter with OSU holding a 28-12 lead. But Ferguson scored on a 1-yard run, an interception led to another score, and a punt return by Warfield led to another Ferguson touchdown, his fourth of the day to become the first Buckeye ever to score four TDs in a single game against Michigan.
"Man, Woody wanted to take it to them," Ferguson told BSB in 1996. "He never liked Michigan. He respected them, but he didn't like them. If he could really beat them bad, he'd do it."
The victory over the Wolverines sewed up the Buckeyes' first Big Ten championship in four years and earned them the right to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, the Ohio State Faculty Council, fearing that athletics was overtaking academics on the campus, voted to deny the trip to Pasadena. It was a bitter pill for the players on the 1961 team to take, one they struggled with long after their college careers had ended.
"The whole team was hurt," Ferguson said years later. "The administration voted not to send us and we had to live with it. That was probably the one regret I had – not ever getting to play in a Rose Bowl."
The Buckeyes had to be content with the Football Writers Association of America's version of the national championship while The Associated Press and United Press International dropped Ohio State to No. 2 in their polls behind Alabama.
Minnesota, which had finished with a 6-1 conference record, wound up representing the Big Ten in Pasadena against UCLA, a team the Buckeyes had beaten by a 13-3 score in week two of the regular season. The Golden Gophers, who took a 21-3 victory over the Bruins, have not played in a Rose Bowl game since.
Meanwhile, Ferguson took home his second straight All-America honor in 1961 after piling up 938 yards on 202 carries.
Somewhat softening the blow of missing out on the Rose Bowl trip was the fact that Ferguson won the Maxwell Award as college football's outstanding offensive player. However, a short time later when the Heisman Trophy balloting was announced, Ferguson had finished second to Syracuse running back Ernie Davis.
Although the hype surrounding the Heisman balloting paled in 1961 to what it is today, the final tally still raised more than a few eyebrows. Davis finished the season with 115 fewer yards than Ferguson while playing in one more game. Nevertheless, Davis won the trophy by a scant 53 votes, edging Ferguson by an 824-771 margin in one of the closest votes in Heisman history.
For his three-year career at Ohio State, Ferguson finished with 2,162 yards and 26 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. At the time, those figures ranked second in school history only to Cassady, the 1955 Heisman Trophy winner.
Perhaps Ferguson's finest attribute was his reliability. He carried the ball 423 times as a Buckeye and lost yardage only once.
"As offensive linemen, we took a tremendous amount of pride in that," former Ohio State and NFL tackle Daryl Sanders told BSB. "It's our responsibility to make sure a back gets going once he gets the ball, and if he is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, that means we've messed something up. It means we haven't done our jobs.
"With Bob, we never had to worry about that. He always made us look good."
Sports Illustrated once described Ferguson as a "wrecking machine" whose physical running style was one that "pounds over opposing players on a pair of stumpy legs that are about the same circumference as the average man's waist."
Following his college career, Ferguson was rated a surefire professional football star, and he was a first-round selection in both the NFL and AFL drafts. San Diego offered more money, but he decided to stay with the more established league and signed with Pittsburgh. He spent two seasons there backing up future Hall of Fame running back John Henry Johnson and then was traded during the 1963 season to Minnesota.
Unfortunately, a chronic knee injury ended Ferguson's pro career prematurely after just two seasons. In 18 games for the Steelers and two for the Vikings, he totaled only 209 yards and one touchdown. He also had four career receptions for 13 yards and returned two kickoffs for a total of 30 yards.
Ferguson returned to Ohio State and obtained a master's degree in sociology. He worked for Westinghouse for several years and then took a job with the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department, retiring in 1990 due to health problems.
He was inducted into the OSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1987 and received the ultimate honor when he was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
Ferguson was slowed by a stroke in 1993 and battled diabetes for the last several years of his life, ultimately succumbing to complications from the disease. He died Dec. 30, 2004, at the age of 65.
In the years since his death, former teammates and those who knew Ferguson best believe he isn't as well remembered as some other Buckeyes because he was never a self-promoter.
"Bob was just a quiet guy," Sanders said. "That was his nature. He and I worked the same job one summer and we had a great time together. He was wonderful to be around, but he was just one of those guys who didn't talk a whole lot. He wanted his actions to speak for themselves.
"But I'll tell you, he was a relentless football player and a great teammate. He always gave it his all – an honest day's work every day – and as I mentioned before, he was an offensive lineman's dream. All you had to do was make one block and he did the rest."
Homan added that despite all that Ferguson accomplished, he often struggled with a lack of self-confidence.
"I've always thought of Bob as a semi-tragic figure at Ohio State," Homan said. "I think he was always troubled and felt maybe he didn't measure up to other people's expectations.
"That's why I always felt really good when he won the Maxwell Award. It showed that a lot of other people around the country recognized his abilities and accomplishments. It was an honor richly deserved."