LIMA — Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes called him one of the finest linebackers in Buckeye football history. Ironically, he would replace Hayes’ hated rival Bo Schembechler as head coach at the University of Michigan and, after resigning in disgrace from that position, he would resurrect his coaching career in the National Football League.
Before any of that, however, he was, like his brother-in-law Joe Morrison, a three-sport high-school star in Lima.
Gary Moeller was born Jan. 26, 1941, to Lloyd G. and Lucille Gruebenmeyer Moeller. He grew up in the 800 block of St. Johns Avenue almost at the doorstep of South Junior High School where early on he gained attention for his athletic ability.
On Nov. 6, 1955, Moeller led South Junior High’s “football juggernaut” as it crushed rival Central in what The Lima News called an “imitation of the old rivalry.” The previous November, Central had defeated Morrison and South in the final game between the two high schools before they merged to form Lima Senior. Following that 1955 football season, Moeller led South’s freshmen basketball team in a one-loss campaign.
He continued his success at Lima Senior, and was coached in football by Frank Hanna, who had coached South High School. Hanna, the News wrote Sept. 6, 1956, “sees potential in Gary Moeller, a 178-pound speedster who has been converted from halfback into end …” Moeller was the only sophomore to start on Lima Senior’s defense. He also played on the junior varsity baseball team and was a catcher on the baseball team. During his summers while in high school, Moeller played for Lima’s American Legion baseball team, occasionally facing Joe Morrison who, home from the University of Cincinnati, played city recreation league baseball.
Although a star in baseball and basketball (he teamed with Kirk Gooding to propel the Spartans into the regional basketball tourney his senior year), it was his football ability that attracted the most attention.
On Nov. 20, 1958, Moeller was named to the All-Greater Ohio League football team and, two weeks later, to the United Press International All-Ohio Football Team. “The 6-foot senior became the first Senior High player to win such an honor in the brief history of the consolidated school,” the News reported Dec. 4, 1958.
Woody Hayes noticed and recruited Moeller to Ohio State. “Lima’s Gary Moeller is on the list of ‘most promising’ freshman candidates as Ohio State prepares for spring practice on April 4,” News sports columnist Bud Worsham wrote March 31, 1960. Moeller made some promises himself that summer. On July 29, 1960, he married Ann Morrison, the sister of Joe Morrison.
Moeller began to fulfill his football promise as a sophomore starter on the Buckeye defense. On Sept. 25, 1960, in a game against Southern Methodist University, he made several plays to thwart SMU drives, prompting the News headline, “Moeller Sparkles in Buckeye Debut.”
Eventually, though, Moeller was benched — but still impressed Hayes. “Some people don’t realize how difficult it is to make the starting team as a sophomore. Gary did this last year for the first half of the season, then we had to make adjustments with our defense,” Hayes told the News Aug. 25, 1961. “It’s interesting to see how a boy reacts when he is benched. Gary didn’t like it one bit, and that’s why he’ll be playing a lot of football this year.”
Ohio State started the 1961 season with a 7-7 tie but ended it with eight straight wins and a national championship. “Moeller played a vital role in OSU’s plans all season, and maybe next year he will get a shot at All-America rating,” the News wrote Nov. 26, 1961.
Ohio State entered the 1962 season rated No. 1 in the country. Defensive coach Bill Gunlock told the News April 22, 1962, that Moeller, a senior co-captain, “is without question one of the top college linebackers in the country.” The team struggled but Moeller earned honorable mention All-America. “Hayes called Moeller’s play one of the reasons the Buckeyes salvaged a 6-3-0 record this season after a shaky start,” the News noted Dec. 6, 1972.
On Dec. 18, 1962, the News reported, “Gary Moeller, captain of the 1962 Ohio State University football team, today signed a contract with the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League. … Moeller is a 225-pounder called by Coach Woody Hayes ‘one of the finest linebackers’ in Buckeye grid history.”
Moeller’s NFL career was short-lived. Cut during the 1963 exhibition season after what the News called a “quick-look see,” he landed with the Grand Rapid Blazers of the United Football League, while also teaching and coaching the reserve basketball team at Grand Rapids Union High School. On April 5, 1964, Moeller told the News he was “not crazy” about another shot at the NFL. “I’m thinking along the lines of coaching now and getting my master’s degree,” he said.
The first coaching opportunity arrived in 1965 when he was named head football coach at Bellefontaine High School. “Gary and his wife, Ann, classmates at Lima Senior High, have daughters Susi and Amy, and son Andy,” the News wrote July 10, 1965. Andy Moeller played at the University of Michigan and was an assistant coach for several NFL teams.
On Sept. 14, 1965, Moeller received a standing ovation when he was introduced as Bellefontaine’s head coach. “Moeller is going all the way to the top,” a bystander told the News, “and we’ll be lucky if we can hold him here two or three years.”
After leading Bellefontaine to two conference titles, Moeller was named freshman football coach at Miami of Ohio on March 3, 1967. Two years later, when Miami head coach Bo Schembechler left to become head coach at the University of Michigan, he took Moeller with him as an assistant.
Moeller left Michigan for the head coaching job at the University of Illinois in 1977 but returned to Schembechler and the Wolverines after the 1979 season. When Schembechler stepped down after the 1989 season, Moeller took over. Between 1990 and 1994, Moeller compiled a 44-13-3 record and led Michigan to five bowl appearances, including two Rose Bowls, and was named Big Ten coach of the year in 1992.
In May 1995, Moeller resigned after being charged with disorderly conduct following an incident at a Southfield, Michigan, restaurant. He was replaced by Lloyd Carr, who had assisted him at both Illinois and Michigan. “I can’t tell you what a terrible experience it was to see this proud man defeated,” Carr told the Los Angeles Times. “But he’s tough. He will rebound.”
On June 24, 1995, he did. “Former Michigan coach Gary Moeller was hired Friday by the Cincinnati Bengals as an assistant in charge of tight ends,” the News reported. Moeller moved on to the Detroit Lions as linebackers coach in May 1997. “I’ve always felt that if you work hard and treat people fairly, life’s going to turn out for you,” he said at the time.
Midway through the 2000 season, Moeller took over as head coach when the Lions were 5-4 and guided them to a 9-7 record, but no playoff berth, and he was let go. He was hired as defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars in February 2001, but resigned in January 2002. On Feb. 24, 2002, he was hired as linebackers coach of the Chicago Bears, leaving that position after the 2003 season. Today, the 74-year-old Moeller lives in the Ann Arbor area.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.