Woody Hayes The Man, The Legend

By
From the Woody Hayes The Man, The Legend edition

This story appeared in the May 1986 issue of Columbus Monthly.

Woody Hayes seemed genuinely perplexed. A few nights before, the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Ohio had given him its annual award for distinguished service. Among the previous recipients were John Bricker, John Galbreath and Dr. Alfred Bonds. A U.S. Senator, a real estate tycoon, a university president. A football coach? Somehow that just didn’t sound right to Hayes.

“I’m just not that good,” Hayes was saying in his office in the ROTC building at Ohio State University. “I’m just an old football coach. I don’t belong up there with them. . . . Shoot, they were most gracious. They were as gracious as they could be. But I just didn’t deserve that award.”

Hayes appears puzzled at the adulation he is receiving. Yet he is no stranger to public attention; he has been famous much of his life. It has been nearly a decade now since that gloomy December evening in Jacksonville, Florida, when a right hook by Hayes to the face mask of a Clemson football player resulted in his being summarily dismissed from the only job he ever seemed to want in life—head football coach at Ohio State. But Hayes survived that, reemerging after a brief period of seclusion. He has survived strokes, heart attacks and operations. He has survived, and become an institution, a unique figure in the community and in college football. Now he virtually is confined to a chair, but the demand for his presence is greater than ever.

Earlier this year, he attended the Ohio State-Indiana basketball game in St. John Arena, and that fact was duly noted by the public address announcer. The applause began. Hayes was sitting in a choice seat in section 8A, a couple of rows behind OSU president Ed Jennings’s seat. After five or 10 seconds of applause, a few people began standing, then the entire crowd rose. Hayes sat, waving occasionally, for perhaps 30 seconds, and then he stood up, slowly. The applause picked up and turned into an ovation. Even people who hadn’t liked Hayes during his coaching days joined the tribute.

Hayes remembers the cheers of that afternoon, but he snorts at the suggestion that people were applauding a legend. “Well, kids are pretty sympathetic,” Hayes says. “Yeah, they are. I’ve been sick for the last year and I think they’re glad to have me back.”

He received a similar, warm reception a month later when he gave the commencement address to the winter quarter graduates at Ohio State—an unusual honor for a football coach dismissed in disgrace. The university that had fired him as its football coach awarded him an honorary doctorate of humanities. His past excesses seemed forgotten.

Part of the university’s changing attitude toward Hayes is due simply to the passage of time. Many of those who quarreled with Hayes or were embarrassed by his antics are no longer at Ohio State. It is no secret that former Ohio State president Harold L. Enarson had been disenchanted with Hayes’s tantrums.

“The people running the university now weren’t part of Ohio State when Woody was there,” says Kaye Kessler, who covered Hayes for the Columbus Citizen-Journal. “Ed [Jennings] can afford to take that kind of stance. Enarson couldn’t. Enarson never quite understood him. I think they’ve come to the realization that Hayes is a lot better man than his crusty exterior and hellbent actions on the field would indicate.”

Those hellbent actions, though, contributed mightily to the building of the legend. A quarter of a century ago, the late Bill Veeck lamented that the country was losing its “bigger-than-life” characters. Veeck claimed the last sports personality to fit that description was former Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams, a man of commanding presence and considerable talent. “Nobody ever ignored Ted Williams when he stepped onto a baseball field,” Veeck wrote. Nor did anyone ever ignore Woody Hayes when he stepped onto the football field. Nor does anyone ignore him now. Hayes, his protests to the contrary, has become something of a legend, a larger-than-life personality. Says former Ohio State basketball coach Fred Taylor, “If he’s not a legend, he’ll do until one comes along.”

Anyone who ever met him has a vivid Hayes memory. Greg Lashutka, a former Columbus city attorney who played for Hayes, remembers being in Los Angles to play Southern California and the team being forced to skip its customary Friday-night movie because “Woody concluded there were no good films in Hollywood.” Kessler remembers a day long ago when Hayes, enraged about his team’s sloppy practice, threw a large group of Midwestern sports writers out of his practice. Others recall the time he shoved a television cameraman. Or the time he tore up the sideline markers at Michigan because he was so disgusted with a referee’s decision. Or the time he kicked folding chairs in the stands at Michigan. Or the way he lectured anybody who would listen about great battles in history ranging from Midway to Salamis. Or the stormy disputes he had with former Ohio State Alumni secretary Jack Fullen after the latter led the fight to keep the Buckeyes out of the 1962 Rose Bowl. Or the way he passionately quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson and General George S. Patton.

No . . . he could never be ignored. The stubborn, fiery-tempered, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, Emerson-quoting football coach who always managed to find the time to help a former player or a perfect stranger could never be ignored.

The fighters always drew Hayes’s attention. Many of the men he admires—Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, for instance—are battlers, like Hayes himself. They combine intense desire to win with explosive tempers.

“Oh yeah, I do [like them] because I’ve been one myself,” Hayes says with a chuckle. “It gets you in trouble. Sure it does. But I sympathize with them.” He pauses to chuckle. “Or empathize with them.”

He always wanted people to fight back, either players or his assistants. Sometimes the results were mixed. He held three head coaching jobs at the college level—at Denison, Miami University and Ohio State—and in the first year at each school he stunned his players with his tantrums and demands for perfection. In the first year at each of the three schools, his teams rebelled against him and his won-loss records were mediocre. But he was seeking his type of player, the player who became angry with him.

“When people get emotional, they do great things,” Hayes says. “Yeah. And I wanted them mad so they’d do it. If they didn’t, I’d kick them out. I very seldom had to kick one out. They’re always better than they think they are. I’ll tell you; people want attention. Sometimes at the time they don’t appreciate it. But eventually they do. And I tried to give them a lot of attention.”

So he drove his teams relentlessly. One day Hayes might swat a player with a left jab. Another day he might rip off his ever-present baseball cap and tear it into pieces. Still another day he might punch himself in the jaw.

“Over at Denison, I’d throw a watch away occasionally,” Hayes says, referring to a gesture designed to let his players realize they would practice all night until they attained perfection. “But it would be when it was worn out. I’d throw it over there and say, ‘By God, we’re going to practice until dark! I won’t worry about the watch!’ I’d pull the watch out of my pocket and I’d throw it away.” He laughs. “They’d know what I was aiming at, though.”

Some could take it. They thrived under his coaching. Others had trouble adjusting. Quarterback Rod Gerald once was having difficulty completing a simple screen pass and Hayes finally lost all patience. He grabbed the football and shouted, “I can throw it better than you!” Hayes then feebly tossed the ball with his left hand. Later, a disconsolate Gerald sat by himself on the bench. “How would you like to be humiliated like that in front of everybody?” he asked.

Hayes often treated his assistant coaches the same way. Schembechler was his chief assistant from 1958 through 1962 and the two were known for their volcanic disputes. They even threw chairs at each other on one occasion, although today Hayes says they aimed the chairs just well enough to miss. Throughout his 28 years, the best assistants—current OSU head coach Earle Bruce, Lou Holtz, Bill Mallory and Lou McCullough—either would fight back or find their views ignored.

In 1972, Ohio State assistant coach Rudy Hubbard was convinced that a young freshman tailback, Archie Griffin, was ready to play against North Carolina. Hayes was just as firmly convinced that the best place for Griffin was with the rest of the freshmen—on the bench and out of sight. But Hayes pushed Hubbard into presenting his case.

“When Rudy Hubbard said that Arch Griffin was ready to play, I said, ‘Well, why don’t you pound the table?’ ” Hayes says. “And he did. He said, ‘All right, I’ll pound the table!’ And he said he [Griffin] was ready this week. And the damn kid went in there and was in there for four years.”

At the same time, Hayes could pound the table right back, as Bruce discovered to his consternation in 1969. In addition to coaching offensive linemen that year, Bruce also drew the duty of finding a suitable film for the team to see the night before a game. Because Hayes’s film standards were exceeded only, perhaps, by those of the Legion of Decency, finding any film could be a trying experience.

“I’d just get out the paper and try to see what started at 7:30 pm,” Bruce says. “Then it had to have no sex, there could be no musicals, no comedies and no gore. Now tell me in 1969 what movie you could go to without any of those things. That left a Walt Disney film and Easy Rider, and I didn’t even know what the hell it was about. The players said if we went to see a Walt Disney film, they’d throw me in the lake.”

So Easy Rider was the choice. Hayes did not go with the team, but when he heard the film’s contents included drugs and violence, he was livid. The Buckeyes handily defeated Minnesota the next day, but for some reason Hayes was of the opinion they should have played better. At a meeting the following Monday he was still grumbling. “Damn it,” he announced. The reason we looked so bad is because we went to that lousy show!” He instantly fired Bruce as the “movie coach.”

Hayes does not pound the table today with the same vigor of the past. But he still can be annoyed. The firing this winter of Ohio State basketball coach Eldon Miller bothered him. He says he will not forget that WCMH-TV sportscaster Jimmy Crum, an old friend, called for Miller’s dismissal after Ohio State lost to Minnesota.

“I haven’t forgiven him for what he did to Eldon Miller,” Hayes says with his voice rising slightly. “You’re damn right I like him [Miller]. He’s such a wonderful person with a wonderful family. And you never saw him make one mistake on illegal recruiting or immorality or anything like that. He was just a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man.”

Andrea Weiner is a 21-year-old senior at Ohio Wesleyan University who majors in broadcast journalism. When she came to Ohio from Connecticut, she did not even know what a Buckeye was. Nevertheless when she was required to do a major radio project, she figured Hayes would be as interesting as anybody else in Central Ohio. She went to his campus office this spring and he agreed to an interview. That evening she went home and to her horror, learned that her tape recorder had malfunctioned. No Woody Hayes interview.

“I went back two days later with my head hanging down to my knees,” she says. “I explained what had happened and he laughed and said he was glad I came back because he didn’t like the interview he had done the first time. He thought he had gotten off the track. He was so nice. He was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. I was intimidated at first. You know, the legend of Woody Hayes. But he has a friendly air about him. I felt like I was with my grandfather.”

Weiner is not the first person to discover with some astonishment that the volatile and explosive Hayes has a gentle side to him. Even in the frantic coaching days of Ohio State, he found the time to offer advice, be it to a football player, a student, anybody who happened to ask.

Shortly after Ohio State suffered a 27-17 loss to Stanford in the 1971 Rose Bowl to cost the Buckeyes a national championship, Lashutka approached Hayes on a matter that had nothing to do with football. Lashutka, who had not played football for Hayes since 1965, was undecided about attending law school or business school. Lashutka remembers finding Hayes watching films of the Rose Bowl debacle. Hayes turned off the projector and for the next two and a half hours talked about everything but football. They talked politics, law and school. In the process, Hayes made it clear that Lashutka’s future was in law school. Lashutka took the advice and later became the Columbus city attorney.

There were others. Fred Kriss played for Hayes in 1956 and went on to attend Harvard Medical School; then word got back to Hayes that Kriss was considering dropping out.

“They said I went over there and lectured to him,” Hayes says in an effort to set the record straight. “I didn’t. I was working through his wife, who told me he was down in the dumps. And I called him on the phone two or three times. . . . He was worried because they don’t give grades there. And he was afraid he wasn’t doing any good. My God, he was in the upper 10th of his class. And do you know what? His son is at Harvard now. He’s a football player. A quarterback.”

Earle Bruce was another player ready to quit school. A running back at Ohio State, Bruce smashed up his knee before the beginning of the 1951 season—Hayes’s first at Ohio State. His football career prematurely over, Bruce decided to leave school and hitchhiked his way back home to Maryland. Hayes sent one of his assistants, Harry Strobel, to comb the highways for the hitchhiker. Unable to find him, Strobel left word at Bruce’s home for Earle to return to school.

When Bruce came back, Hayes remembers him saying, “ ‘I can’t do you any good.’ I said, ‘You can do yourself a hell of a lot of good. Now you stay here.’ And he stayed. He was a good student.”

There are endless stories of Hayes taking the time to visit sick children in hospitals, although he rarely publicized them because, as Kessler puts it, “He didn’t want anybody to think Woody Hayes was soft. But he was.” During the Vietnam War, Hayes made four trips to Vietnam to show football films to American soldiers. He was on the verge of a fifth trip when, in the wake of the shooting deaths of four Kent State University students in 1970 by the Ohio National Guard, the Ohio State campus erupted into rebellion. The campus was shut down and Hayes put in a telephone call to Bill Hess, the Ohio University football coach who was to accompany him to Vietnam.

“He was just putting his suitcase in his car,” Hayes says. “And I said ‘You know, I doubt whether we should go. I think we’ve got a job to do on campus.’ He said, ‘You know, Coach, I feel exactly the same way. I think I can do a lot of good here.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you can, I can too.’ He stayed and did virtually the same thing I did.”

Hayes always claimed he helped cool the passions. Others, however, have suggested that many students simply ignored him. But one fact is beyond dispute. He did try.

He originally wanted to be a lawyer. Although he played football at Denison, he majored in English and history and applied to the law school at Ohio State in 1936. Unfortunately, the only time he could enroll was during the autumn, which would have forced him to give up his coaching position at New Philadelphia High School. He decided to postpone law school. He never would go back. He coached high school, and before the United States entry into World War II he enlisted in the Navy. When the war ended, he accepted the head coaching job at Denison. Law school was forever behind him.

But he never outgrew the desire to teach, to learn, to be a scholar. He would urge his brightest players to attend law school. He immersed himself in books on history, politics and philosophy. While he quickly earned a reputation as a military historian, those who listen to Hayes long enough realize that his true idol is not General Patton or Count Alfred von Schlieffen, but Ralph Waldo Emerson. He often would quote directly from his favorite Emerson essay, “Compensation.”

“He’d [Emerson] travel across the country and he’d get $5 for oats for his horses and he’d feed them and put them up at a livery stable and drive on west to the Mississippi,” Hayes says. “Then he’d get into a skiff and travel across the Mississippi and then start making speeches in local schoolhouses to farmers and their wives. Then he’d go out into Nebraska where they were laying the transcontinental line and he’d talk to those fellows laying the line. Not the owners. But the guys laying the line. And he could come across. He had this ability to communicate.

“I never liked Thoreau. Never have. I thought he was a cop-out. You’re damn right I did. And do you know what? I don’t think Emerson liked him. He lived at Emerson’s house for two years. But the things Emerson put in his journal, I don’t think he liked him. You see, Thoreau went there to live by himself on Walden Pond. And he was never interested in the [Civil] War, although he died at an early age and during the war. But he didn’t seem to realize why the hell we were fighting that Civil War. I don’t know. I just was never sold on him. But Emerson comes across so wonderfully. You can’t miss on him at all. He’s just super.”

When Hayes coached at Ohio State, he developed a habit of wandering into a classroom to listen to a lecture, a practice he tries to continue to this day. He says he looks forward to hearing a lecture this spring by an old friend, Jan Adams, a Soviet political history expert and the acting vice provost for International Affairs at Ohio State. He remembers attending classes taught by Sid Fisher, a Middle East historian, and the late Foster Rhea Dulles, a cousin of John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state.

Whether Hayes could ever have been happy teaching is doubtful, though. While he regards himself as a good teacher, he also acknowledges that he may have been far too competitive to spend his life in a classroom.

“I’ve always said that the two things a football coach has to have above teaching is, number one, you have to have a very close relationship with your players,” Hayes says. “And number two, he’s got to want to win. He’s got to play to win.”

Nobody ever had to ask Hayes his attitude toward winning. As he puts it, “Oh, I love to win. I just love to win.”

He learned about the game as a boy in high school. Not just on the football field, with his brawn and sweat, but away from the field, with his mind and logic. Before the age of 16, using a brand-new radio and a piece of cardboard, he developed beliefs about football from which he never wavered.

It was Jan. 1, 1929, and his family had its first radio. The Rose Bowl game was on the air—the same Rose Bowl game he would coach eight times—and he wanted to learn why teams won, he says. So he placed a piece of cardboard on a board and drew a football filed on it. Then he turned the radio on to listen to the game. While others across the United States listened to the game and cheered, young Woody Hayes was at work.

“I charted every play in a drive,” Hayes says. “What stopped the drive. I had the whole ball game on there. And I could tell you exactly what happened in that game. How many runs there were. How many passes. How you got stopped, either by a fumble or an interception or a badly called play. Something like that. And I did that from that time on.”

The cardboard football field led to his stubborn conviction that football was not a game to be won. It was to be lost, either by a fumble or an interception or a blocked punt.

“So by God we didn’t have them,” Hayes says. “We went I don’t know how many years without a blocked punt. Six or seven years.”

Thus his trademark became execution. Unlike Paul Brown and Bill Walsh, innovators who changed the game, Woody Hayes took what was simple and practiced it until it worked. Three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Pound away up the middle with the fullback until the other team cracked. Although in later years he introduced the option play and permitted some of his quarterbacks to throw, Hayes essentially recruited superior football players and harangued and cajoled them into not making mistakes. The results were painfully obvious to Ohio State’s opponents. After a 38-6 loss to Ohio State in 1975, Minnesota coach Cal Stoll slumped back into his chair and said, “That’s the easiest offense in the world to stop on the blackboard. But just try and stop it on the field.”

Most teams could not. But at times Ohio State would play its equal in ability and Hayes’s stubbornness would cost him dearly. In 1973, Hayes assembled the finest collection of players in his 28 years at Ohio State. Eight of the regulars on that team eventually would be picked in the first round of the NFL draft. Even the reserves were outstanding. For example, backup Morris Bradshaw could not supplant Brian Baschnagel at wingback, but that did not prevent Bradshaw from becoming a successful wide receiver with the Oakland Raiders. Ohio State was undefeated, ranked number one and favored to defeat Michigan in the last game of the season.

The game ended in a 10-10 tie. The Buckeyes did not fumble and their only interception was inconsequential. But Michigan arrayed its defense to stop the Ohio State running game, and time after time Hayes stubbornly sent his backs off tackle. Not until the game’s final moments did he allow a forward pass. The game left many of the Buckeye players sullen and angry with their coach. Hayes was too stubborn ever to admit his play selection was wrong. But six weeks later in the Rose Bowl against Southern California, he instructed his quarterback, Cornelius Greene, to throw the ball, and Ohio State won, 42-21.

He always was stubborn. Marv Homan, the Ohio State sports information director, remembers a day years ago when Hayes arrived late for a coaching meeting. Only one parking space was available, and from where Homan watched, it did not appear large enough to accommodate Hayes’s car. Three times Hayes tried to squeeze his car in before he succeeded. Unfortunately, the space was so tight, Hayes could not open the car doors to get himself out.

“He was trapped in the car,” says Homan. “So he started the car again, went into reverse and backed out. Then he got out of the car after shutting down the engine and putting it in neutral. Then he pushed the car into the spot. I watched it from start to finish. It was so typical of Woody. It epitomizes his ingenious mind that somehow he was going to make it work.”

Hayes never claimed to be infallible, though. He blames himself for a 24-12 loss to Michigan in 1969, Schembechler’s first year in Ann Arbor. The loss ended Ohio State’s 22-game winning streak and cost the Buckeyes a national championship. Though a year later Ohio State would beat Michigan, 20-9, in an emotion-charged game, the 1969 defeat rankles Hayes 17 years later.

“We weren’t ready to play them,” Hayes says. “See, we couldn’t go to a bowl game because we had gone the year before and we were so far out in front of the national championship it wasn’t even close. And old Bo got his team ready and they beat us. I didn’t get them high enough. That was probably the worst job I did. But we got ’em back here the next year and we made them pay. We were ready for that one, boy oh boy.”

Hayes was never to win a national championship again after 1968. The older he grew, the more he longed for just one last title. For three consecutive years from 1973 until 1975 he came close. He continued to try and in the process admits he stayed at Ohio State too long.

“I was worn out the last three or four years,” Hayes says. “I stayed a little too long. But you know one reason why I did? I had some advice from three great coaches who all felt they quit too soon. You know who they were? Bud Wilkinson. And see, he came back to pro coaching. Doyt Perry [at Bowling Green]. And do you know who the third one was? Vince Lombardi. I’ll tell you what he told me about it. After he retired [in 1967], he became the general manager in Green Bay and I saw him in Cleveland in the press box. I took my quarterbacks up to introduce them to him. And he was going nuts there at the half time. He called me aside and said, ‘Woody, don’t quit too soon. I did.’ ”

He sits in a chair in front of a large desk in a roomy office in the ROTC building. The building is on the street that bears his name and is located only a few hundred yards from the cavernous Ohio Stadium where he stalked the sidelines for 28 years. Three hours a day, five days a week, he is there, surrounded by his history books and newspapers articles about his great games. At age 73, the body is frail, but the mind remains alert. Sometimes he meets with reporters even though he grumbles that people will soon complain that “The old bastard has been in the papers a lot lately. I think people are going to get tired reading about me.”

He enjoys seeing coaches, former players, friends from his past. One day it might be Earle Bruce. Another day it might be Wisconsin coach Dave McClain, another former Hayes assistant. On still another day it might be lunch with Bill Urbanik, who played on Hayes’s 10-0 team of 1968.

How will he be remembered? As a foul-mouthed tyrant who scorned senior university officials? As a football coach who cared about people he supervised? As a scholar? A teacher?

He knows how he wants to be remembered. Simple, like his football philosophy. “I’d like to be respected for my integrity,” he says as he clutches the arms on his chair. “And respected for the interest in the people whom I coached. And I try to be a good American citizen.”

Jack Torry is a free-lance writer in Columbus.