Beginning in 1959, Ferguson started chewing up chunks of yardage for the Buckeyes and didn't stop until the team had bludgeoned Michigan and earned a share of the national championship during his senior year.
Born Aug. 29, 1939, in Columbus, Robert Eugene Ferguson moved with his family to Troy, Ohio, when he was a youngster and became a high school star at Troy High School, earning prep All-American honors for the Trojans. In fact, he set what were then national high school records with 5,521 yards rushing and 578 points scored.
When it came time to select a college, longtime Michigan head coach Bennie Oosterbaan thought he had a shot at landing Ferguson, but the fullback wanted nothing more than to return to his original hometown and play for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes were coming off their national championship season in 1957 and Hayes desperately wanted another powerful fullback to follow in the footsteps of Galen Cisco and Bob White.
After spending his first collegiate season on the freshman team, Ferguson immediately stepped in the starting lineup as a sophomore in '59 and held down a position in the OSU backfield for each of the next three seasons.
During his first year with the varsity, the Buckeyes were decimated by graduation and injuries to upperclassmen and they sank to a 3-5-1 record, good enough only for a tie for eighth in the Big Ten. Playing linebacker on defense and left halfback on offense, the 6-0, 217-pound Ferguson had modest numbers with 371 yards, but averaged better than 6.0 yards per carry.
The following season, OSU rebounded to go 7-2 and rose to third place in the conference. Ferguson was a big reason for that, moving exclusively to the fullback spot and carrying 160 times for 853 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Although the Buckeyes were known for a grind-it-out offense behind Ferguson, he also exhibited excellent speed, breaking off four different runs of 50 yards or more during the season. As a result, he was a unanimous first-team All-America selection.
In 1961, the Buckeyes came all the way back. After being surprised by Texas Christian in the season opener with a 7-7 tie, Ohio State steamrolled over eight opponents in a row and averaged better than 30 points per game during that streak. The season was capped with a 50-20 rout of Michigan during which Ferguson scored four times.
The game was still close heading into the fourth quarter with OSU holding a 28-12 advantage. But Ferguson scored on a 1-yard run, an interception led to another score and a punt return by Paul Warfield set up Ferguson's final touchdown. Then the Buckeyes went for a two-point conversion to make the score an even 50.
Later, Hayes explained that he wanted to give longtime equipment manager Ernie Godfrey a present because he was celebrating his 50th birthday that year. But years later, when the coach was quizzed about why he went for two, he simply replied, "Because I couldn't go for three."
"Man, he wanted to take it to them," Ferguson told Buckeye Sports Bulletin in 1996. "Woody never liked Michigan. He respected them, but he didn't like them. If he could really beat them bad, he'd do it."
The Buckeyes finished their season at 8-0-1 and earned the right to represent the Big Ten at the Rose Bowl. But the OSU Faculty Council, fearing that athletics was overtaking academics on the campus, voted to deny the Buckeyes a trip to Pasadena. It was a bitter pill for players on the 1961 team to take, one they continued to struggle with well after their playing days were over.
"The whole team was hurt," Ferguson said. "The administration voted not to send us and we had to live with it. That was probably the one regret that 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 national championship for '61. Ferguson finished his career with 2,162 yards and 26 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry for his career. He was also extremely reliable, carrying 423 times and losing yardage on only one of those carries.
Ferguson was dealt another disappointment following his senior season. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Syracuse running back Ernie Davis even though Davis had 115 yards less than Ferguson while playing in an extra game for the Orangemen, who finished 8-3 and ranked No. 14.
Davis won the Heisman by just 53 points, edging Ferguson 824-771. It remains one of the closest votes in Heisman history.
Despite the Heisman loss, Ferguson did win his second straight unanimous selection to the All-America team.
Following his college career, Ferguson was a first-round selection in both the 1962 NFL and AFL drafts. San Diego offered more money, but he decided to stay with the more established NFL and signed with Pittsburgh. He spent two seasons there backing up Steelers legendary running back John Henry Johnson, then was traded during the 1963 season to Minnesota. Unfortunately, a chronic knee injury ended his career prematurely.
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.
He was inducted into the OSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987, then received the ultimate honor when he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
Ferguson was slowed by a stroke in 1993, but remained a fixture at many Ohio State football games until his death in December 2004 at the age of 65.
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