This isn’t one of those stories about a football team that overcame great odds and had to prove its worthiness to doubters that gave them no chance of success.
The 1974 Warren G. Harding Panthers knew they were good from the moment preseason practices began in August of that year. The senior class was one that had peaked the excitement of East-side fans dating back to its days at the feeder schools of East and Turner Junior High Schools.
All that a 46-0 rout of Cleveland John Adams on opening night did was reinforce the obvious – the Panthers would be capable of winning the Class AAA state championship.
“We thought we were good enough because we had an all-junior team in 1973,” said Ed Glass, who was entering his third and what would be his final season as head coach. “We had great speed but not much size. We felt like we had an opportunity to win it all.”
Players are usually more boisterous in their comments – then and 40 years later. Most knew that they were part of a rare class that had the proper ingredients in place to do something special.
For them, the crowning achievement that was a 41-8 win over Upper Arlington in the state championship game was pre-destined.
“I remember our junior year we were -3 in the first half,” fullback Jim Valentine said. “There were a handful of juniors playing that year. In the second half we went 4-1 and ended up 6-4. Expectations were high because we grew up that second half.”
There was one week during the 11-1 season in which the Panthers faced odds that seemed too steep to some skeptics. Their contest against powerful Cincinnati Moeller in the semifinals had the look of David vs. Goliath, and Harding was the team holding the slingshot.
Moeller was on the verge of a long run as the premier Class AAA team in Ohio under the guidance of coach Gerry Faust. The Fighting Crusaders’ meeting with the Panthers Nov. 16 at Ohio Stadium was expected to be their first step toward the dynasty they were about to build.
“I’ve watched that game on ‘Youtube’ a lot of times,” Glass said. “It’s amazing to me that we were able to compete because Moeller looked like it belonged in the NFL or at least Notre Dame. We looked like we belonged in Warren, Ohio.”
The slingshot that Glass carried that day was Harding’s incredible team speed. Star tailback John Henry Ziegler ran a 4.4 40, and his backup, Tyrone Hicks, was a bit faster. Valentine had a prototypical fullback’s body but could move in the 4.5 range. Quarterback Jim Richburg and receiver Jackie Hudson were others who could run around defenders with blinding speed.
“We had speed, and we were strong,” Ziegler said. “Coach Glass always told us that speed kills. He always said ‘power six black’ would take us to state because that was me. It was off-tackle and how I gained all those yards.”
Glass needed more than speed when the Panthers trailed the Crusaders 10-6 entering the fourth quarter. He needed the guts to make two crucial fourth-down calls that kept alive a drive that produced the go-ahead touchdown on a 34-yard run by Hicks. The first fourth-down call came from the Harding 22, and the second from its 31.
“We knew that if we turned over the ball that we would never see it again,” Glass said. “We couldn’t stop the running game because they were too big.”
Glass remained worried after Ziegler came up short on the two-point conversion run. A 12-10 lead was a scary place to be because the Crusaders had a potent, long-distance kicker.
Thankfully, for the Panthers, it never got to that stage. Safety Steve Porter intercepted a Moeller pass on the next possession. Richburg sealed the win with a 9-yard touchdown run, which was followed by a two-point conversion on a pass from Richburg to Hudson to make the final score 20-10.
“Once we scored, they got desperate and I was able to make an interception,” Porter said. “I was going out of bounds and had to come down on both of my toes. That put a seal on the whole thing.”
Ziegler returns to the mantra that kept the Panthers going – speed kills.
“Moeller thought that we were pushovers,” Ziegler said. “They were bigger than us, but we were faster. They gassed out in the fourth quarter. They couldn’t believe how we scored those points. Gerry Faust said he never saw a team like that ever since he was at Moeller.”
The Moeller win was in essence the state title game. All that Glass had to do was make sure the players remained on course heading into the title game against Upper Arlington.
“It was a state title game. Everyone was ready to play,” Glass said of the championship game Nov. 22 at the Rubber Bowl in Akron. “If you’re not ready, you need to take their pulse. They moved the ball on us but didn’t score. We kept scoring.”
Ziegler began the rout with touchdown runs of 12 and 35 yards to give the Panthers a 13-0 halftime lead. The second half made Valentine a household name to this day. With the Golden Bears gearing to stop Ziegler, who rushed for 1,872 yards during the season, Glass called Valentine’s number six times, with one going 79 yards for a touchdown and another 74 yards for a touchdown. Valentine finished with 169 yards on six carries, while Ziegler had 97 yards.
“They had to key on John Henry,” Valentine said. “That’s how Canton McKinley beat us. Wherever John Henry went, three guys went with him.”
The lone blemish on the record came in week nine of the regular season with a 19-6 loss to the Canton McKinley Bulldogs at Fawcett Stadium in Canton. Richburg, who set the offense in motion with his slick moves, had a sore shoulder. The Panthers weren’t known for their passing prowess, but with Richburg hurting they became even more one-dimensional.
“We got to Canton by 4, and at that time games started at 8,” defensive tackle Tom Sporich said. “The pre-game ritual took forever. I think we were too tight.”
The rest of the regular season was pretty much a breeze. Three shutout wins opened the season the win over Adams followed by a 33-0 win over Youngstown South and a 30-0 win over the talented Howland Tigers, who went on to win nine games.
The Panthers then defeated Steubenville, 30-6, before a critical 20-6 win over crosstown rival Warren Western Reserve, which also went 9-1. Alliance fell victim 40-8, preceding a 55-0 rout of Cincinnati Taft. Richburg ran the bootleg to perfection, gaining 163 yards in the second half on the way to a 35-10 win over Massillon. After the loss to Canton McKinley, the Panthers ended the regular season with a 40-18 win over Niles McKinley.
Ziegler was the offensive centerpiece, but the Panthers could hurt you in other ways.
“Back then we didn’t have gameplans,” Valentine said. “We ran the ball, and that’s what we did. We didn’t get complacent. They (the coaches) kept us focused.”
The offensive excellence often overshadowed what the Panthers could do on defense. Linebacker Kelton Dansler was one of the premier defenders in Ohio and went on to have a great career at Ohio State. Lineman Jon Hall was a stalwart who would go on to play at North Carolina State.
Porter was joined by safety Richard Hall, cornerback Terry McCoy and Hudson in the secondary. Hall had two interceptions against Upper Arlington.
It all came together under the tutelage of Glass, who left to coach at Hubbard the following season.
“You knew where you stood,” Porter said. “He could get angry at times, and you didn’t want to get him angry. He was supporting of us.”
“His halftime speech (against Moeller) was memorable,” Sporich said. “He put his fist through a chalkboard because we were complaining and not playing to our potential.”
It’s all good looking 40 years into the past.
“I always look back on it.” Ziegler said. “That’s my legacy, that’s what I cherish. I can’t help but think about it. I dedicated my life for that. All that hard work I had to go through – the two-a-days and walking home and wondering if I wanted to quit. I stuck with it and it paid off.”