Built at Mollenkopf: A look at the Harding vs. Western Reserve rivalry
Editor’s note: Today and in coming days, the Tribune Chronicle will revisit significant points in the history of Warren high school football. Stories will highlight the Western Reserve / Harding cross-town rivalry, historic championship seasons, the teams’ eventual merger, and accomplishments of former players.
WARREN — In the early 1960s, Warren G. Harding High School was bursting at the seams.
The abundance of jobs in Warren caused a population influx in the city, leading to an increase in number of students.
The high school had become so crowded, in fact, that students were attending in alternating shifts, some starting at 8 a.m. and others at 9 a.m. and then ending at staggered times.
“We were graduating 800-900 kids and there were 12 to 13 Elementary schools,” Pat Guliano, current Northeastern Athletic Conference Commissioner and former Warren City Schools administrator said. “That had to change.”
To create space for an education experience, Western Reserve High School opened in 1966 on Warren’s west side. Beyond education, however, the move set in place one of the greatest high school rivalries in Ohio and created yet another era of Warren football.
“When the schools split, there were people that were happy about it, and there were people that weren’t happy about it,” Guliano said. “But kids were going (to school) in shifts just so they could fit into classrooms.”
A move to two high schools in Warren was needed and the opening of Western Reserve had a plethora of benefits for both the community and the football team.
With just one school and one football team, sometimes capable players who were buried on the depth charts missed chances to step on the field.
Once Western Reserve opened, more athletes got opportunities, and the depth of the talent in Warren was showcased for the next several years.
“When you divide a town up like we did, many would think the athletic programs would suffer, but just the opposite happened,” former Warren Western Reserve head coach Joe Novak said. “More kids got a chance and thrived with those opportunities. When we played Harding, then we had 14,000 to 15,000 people in the stands. It was packed. The whole town was wired up something special.”
THE GOLDEN ERA OF WARREN FOOTBALL
Between 1966 and 1974, the Harding Panthers went 58-34, turned in only one losing season — a 3-7 year in 1967 — and put together an undefeated season in 1971 to earn an Associated Press state title. The Panthers went on to blow out Upper Arlington 41-8 in 1974 to win its first computer-rankings state championship.
In the same era, the Western Reserve Raiders went 81-13, put together four straight 9-1 seasons from 1967 to 1970 and won its first state title in 1972 with a perfect 12-0 record. Led by Novak, the Raiders returned to the state title game a year later but fell to a strong Cardinal Mooney team at the Akron Rubber Bowl.
It was truly a golden era for Warren football.
“If you look at the plaques out there in the hallway (of the football building), from ’71, ’72, ’73, ’74 the state championship was in Warren,” current Warren G. Harding football coach Steve Arnold said in a separate interview. “So you had four years where it was either Harding or Reserve in the state championships, and that was a couple years after Reserve opened. So from that point, it was: Who is top dog in the city? Is it Reserve or Harding?”
Behind legendary coach Tom Batta, the Panthers finished the ’71 season with a 10-0 record and capped it off with a 27-0 shutout of Niles. They later were awarded the state title by Associated Press voters.
Their season also included a win over Western Reserve (15-8) and an exciting one-point victory over Massillon (8-7). Their victory over the Tigers was the eighth of the season, and it ended a lengthy road losing streak against their longtime rival.
Three years later, the Panthers did it again, this time capturing their first computer-rankings title as they defeated Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller 20-10 in the semifinals and then cruised to their state title over Upper Arlington.
Between Harding’s two state championship runs, Western Reserve had a special run of its own as Novak led the Raiders to an overall record of 23-1, one state championship and two state championship appearances.
The run was highlighted by players like Ross and Jimmie Browner, as well as tailback Mike Spiva and captain Calvin Washington.
In 1972, the Raiders topped Roledo Scott 23-15 in the semifinals before destroying Cincinnati Princeton in the state championship, 37-6. Western Reserve’s ’72 state championship team will be honored on Sept. 16 ahead of Warren G. Harding’s matchup against Ursuline at Mollenkopf Stadium.
A year after Western Reserve’s state title run, the Raiders made it back to the state finals after topping Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller, 20-10, in the semifinals. But, Cardinal Mooney brought the run to an end that season, handing the Raiders their only loss in two seasons.
“It was just a really special time because you had a lot of outstanding players that were just dedicated and you had a community that supported it and (who) it was important to,” Novak said. “It was important to those kids to have success in football, and it was important to the community that they had success in football, and it was just an electric time.”
That four-year stretch of football in Warren was littered with both talent and success, which further fueled the Harding-Western Reserve rivalry and grew the legend of Warren football.
THE RIVALRY CONTINUES
As the rivalry grew, so did popularity of the sport. Extra sections had to be added at Mollenkopf Stadium to accommodate the enormous crowds each weekend.
“There was so much demand, they probably could have sat 30,000 in there (Mollenkopf Stadium),” current Warren G. Harding athletic director Bill Nicholson said.
Nick Frankos, Trumbull County native and owner of Buena Vista restaurant in Warren, grew up going to elementary school in Howland, but he always knew he was going to end up playing football at Harding in high school.
Frankos today is owner of Buena Vista on Warren’s northwest side, a restaurant filled with iconic high school football memorabilia including numerous historic helmets and jerseys. Frankos played football for Harding, graduating in 1982. Frankos noted that his father, also named Nick and previously owned the restaurant, was well-known in the community for his involvement in the football program.
While sitting at the bar at Buena Vista recently, Frankos recalled how his first day of school normally would go as he would step onto the bus.
“The first thing the bus driver used to say was ‘Can your Dad get me two tickets to the Harding / Reserve game?'” Frankos said. “It was the first thing they used to say. So that’s how crazy it was.”
Over the years, no matter how good either team was, you could expect a physical, tough and exciting game when both teams walked onto the sidelines opposite of each other.
And fans needed to arrive early.
Arnold recalled that for a 2 p.m. afternoon game, the stands would be filled by 12:30.
“You had people tailgating, I remember people barbecuing ribs, hot dogs and hamburgers,” Arnold said.
LeShun Daniels, who was a lineman for Western Reserve and then for Warren G. Harding after the 1990 consolidation of the two high schools, said the rivalry games were what he remembers most from that era.
“You knew the game was going to be packed,” Daniels said. “The whole town was going to be at the game, and you wanted to see who was going to come out as the winner. You possibly had family members or good friends on each team, but the rivalry was so fierce, just the anticipation leading up to that week, you knew it was going to be a great game.”
For 23 years, Harding and Western Reserve battled on the gridiron, and community members still talk about the rivalry even today.
Many also still recall the long wait in line for game tickets at Quinby Park, game week pranks — including the increase in egg sales — and the support from respective booster clubs.
As Warren’s population decreased in the late 1980s, so did the need for two high schools.
City Schools officials faced a difficult decision to close one of the buildings and consolidate.
This challenging decision — logistically and emotionally — laid the groundwork for an opportunity again for something special in 1990.