WARREN — Former Warren Western Reserve state champion football coach Joe Novak remembers contemplating where he should go for his first coaching job after graduating from Miami (Ohio) University in 1968.
Among his offers was an opportunity to work as an assistant under head coach Dick Strahm for the fledgling Warren Western Reserve Raiders.
“I went to Jerry Hamlin, who was the offensive line coach at the time (at Miami) and somewhat of my mentor, and I said, ‘Jerry, I have these two job offers, what do you think?” Novak said. “He didn’t hesitate. “He told me to go to Warren.”
The recommendation was based on the legacy that Warren City Schools had earned as a football powerhouse.
Novak ultimately went on to lead the Warren Western Reserve Raiders to an undefeated season and a state championship just four years later.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, before Novak had even arrived, Warren already was at the center of Ohio’s high school football universe.
Fifty years later, Warren city schools next month will honor the 1972 Warren Western Reserve state championship team on Sept. 16, ahead of the high school’s matchup against Ursuline. Last fall, the high school also marked the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Warren G. Harding state championship team as well, celebrating a golden era of Warren football.
Future NFL Hall of Famer Paul Warfield had yet to don the black and red for the Harding Panthers in the 1950s. Jobs were in abundance as factories and steel mills in the area employed three shifts of workers. With all the burgeoning number of families in the community, local schools were busting at the seams. In 1966, Warren Western Reserve High School opened across town from Harding, kicking off a decadeslong rivalry.
“It was an absolute religion,” said Ray Yanucci, a 1960 Warren Harding graduate who played football under coaches Gene Slaughter and Ben Wilson, of football in Warren. “When you were born and you grew up, you wanted to play for the Warren Harding Panthers.”
As a program, the Panthers were historically good. According to wghfootball.com, between 1892 and 1956, the Panthers recorded 28 seasons with six or more victories and won 10 of 13 games in 1922. They also went 9-1 in 1947 and turned in an unbeaten season in 1945 with a record of 7-0-2.
In those 65 seasons, some consisting of just two or three games and others with up to 13 games, the Panthers won 301 games.
But before Yanucci and Warfield put on the pads in high school, the Panthers had hit a down time. They had gone 4-6 in 1955 and improved their record by just one game a year later.
Then Slaughter came to town, and according to Yanucci, he changed the game for Warren football.
“He (Slaughter) came in and he changed the entire culture, not only of the program but of the city.” said Yanucci, who was inducted into the Warren Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
CHANGING THE CULTURE
Speaking by phone recently from his home in Palm Springs, California, Warfield fondly recalled Slaughter and how much he changed the program — and Warfield’s future.
At the time of Slaughter’s 1957 arrival, Warfield was still at junior high school. Although he had dabbled in playing touch football in grade school, he wasn’t convinced quite yet to play contact football.
At that time, the boy who ultimately became a Warren football legend was focused primarily on baseball and track and field — sports that took advantage of his athleticism without risk of contact sport injury.
“I ironically had a better background, as a 9- or 10-year-old going into junior high, in baseball. So, I probably was a little bit better at baseball and really interested in baseball,” Warfield said. “So, by the time I was ready to go to high school, I had only one year of junior high football, which wasn’t anything special. But baseball and track and field were my better sports. I knew that all the bigger boys were in high school at that point, and I certainly didn’t think I measured up to them in football.”
As Warfield was set to enter high school, the program had hit a low point, but change was coming with Slaughter preparing to put his stamp on Warren Harding football and return it to its prominence.
One of the first things Slaughter did, according to Warfield, was visiting local junior high schools to speak with young players with potential to enter the varsity program the following year.
Until that day, Warfield said he had remained unsure of his future in the program.
“What he had to say impacted me significantly. I was not very confident about what could happen for me in the football program, but his message was one that created such enthusiasm,” Warfield said. “I felt like that although I am really unsure of my ability, I had to find out what laid ahead for me.”
Slaughter’s message rang throughout the community, and the product on the field showed. Mollenkopf Stadium filled with some 14,000 fans every Friday evening.
“People just loved football No. 1, and they just loved Warren Harding football, even before Slaughter came, but it wasn’t the same before that,” Yanucci said. “He turned it into a whole new culture where football was king here.”
Over Slaughter’s three years (1957-1959) at the helm of the Harding program, the Panthers finished two of those seasons with a record of 9-1, and finished the 1958 campaign at 7-2-1.
THE CLOCK INCIDENT
Harding’s lone loss in 1957 is a game that came to be remembered as “The Clock Incident.”
Warren went into the game against Massillon with a perfect 6-0 record and was the top-ranked team in The Associated Press poll, which was used to determine state champions at the time.
After trailing by 14, the Panthers scored two second-half touchdowns to tie. Then, according to legend, a full minute was added to the game clock with around a minute remaining as the Tigers made their game-winning drive to earn a 20-14 win.
Warfield was a sophomore at the time and said he remembers the chaos when the clock went from 1:00 to 1:59.
“As we recall in Warren, it permitted Massillon additional time, and they would ultimately go on to win the ball game,” Warfield said. “The clock was supposed to go from one-minute to 59 seconds, instead of going to 59 seconds it went to 1 minute and 59 seconds, which provided them with an additional minute and they would score. Our head coach noticed it right away and tried to get the attention of the officials but was unsuccessful. I mean it was a gut-wrenching defeat.”
“We would’ve won the state championship that year, but they actually stole it from us. There are actually pictures that clock was taken back,” Yanucci claimed.
BACK ON THE RISE
The Panthers came close to another AP title two years later in 1959 when they accumulated a record of 9-1. It was Slaughter’s and Warfield’s final year at Harding, and both went on to experience extraordinary careers, beginning at The Ohio State University.
Slaughter spent a year as an assistant coach with the Buckeyes before returning to his alma mater at Capital University and becoming the program’s all-time wins leader. He is deceased.
Warfield went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career in the NFL, recording two All-Pro seasons, earning eight Pro Bowl nominations and winning two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins, including being a part of the historic undefeated team in 1972. He also played for the Cleveland Browns. Slaughter served as Warfield’s presenter during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 1983.
“I call him the ‘Godfather of football,'” current Warren G. Harding football coach Steve Arnold said of Warfield.
Slaughter’s, Warfield’s and the rest of the Panthers’ success was just the beginning for Warren football, though.