Perspective: Bill Long's season on the brink

Bill Long

I sat on a bench in the victorious locker room, my head bowed in silent agony. As my teammates celebrated the end of our undefeated 1968 season—one of the greatest in Ohio State history—I couldn't share their joy. I knew I was being selfish, but all I felt was disappointment. On the last game of my collegiate career, after two years as Ohio State's first-string quarterback, I watched someone else, Rex Kern, lead my team to the national title with a 27-16 win over the University of Southern California. I couldn't help but think it should have been me out on that field in Pasadena, California: throwing touchdown passes, winning player-of-the-game honors, fulfilling my Rose Bowl dream.

Woody Hayes—our bigger-than-life coach, a man so many of us loved and loathed, whose mercurial and complicated nature I came to understand better during this triumphant season—raised his hands to quiet the room. “Now, for the game balls,” he said. It was a tradition for Woody to give one or several game balls after a victory as important as this.

First up was John Mulbach, whose leg was broken during the victory over second-ranked Southern Cal. My teammates cheered as Woody honored our starting center for his sacrifice. The next ball went to Jack Tatum, one of the “Super Sophomores” (including Kern, defensive tackle Jim Stillwagon and running back John Brockington) who emerged during the 1968 season. The ferocious Tatum hounded USC star O.J. Simpson throughout the second half, shutting down the Heisman Trophy winner. A loud roar erupted as Tatum, with a rare smile on his face, lifted the ball over his head.

The ceremony seemed complete—one ball for offense, another for defense—and players started to get back to their celebration. Then Woody surprised us, holding up a third ball and calling for silence. “Now,” he emphatically announced, “I would like to give a game ball to Billy Long.” The locker room hushed. “Billy was instrumental in preparing our defense to help win this game.” I looked up in disbelief and slowly walked to my coach, who handed me the ball and shook my hand. The team applauded.

Woody either believed what he said or, more likely, was looking for a way to apologize to me. The year before, I was a conquering hero, leading Ohio State to four consecutive victories to close the season, possibly even saving Woody's job. Then, with no explanation, he demoted me prior to the '68 season. Of course, it's hard to argue with the results; Woody won his third national title. But I felt I was never beaten out on the field, and I believed the outcome on this New Year's Day in 1969 would have been the same with me at the helm. I deserved better, and I suspected Woody knew that too.

My teammates headed out to continue their party elsewhere. I lingered in the locker room, struggling with my emotions. After slowly getting dressed, I decided I couldn't accept Woody's apology, if that's what it was. I stuffed the game ball in a locker and left, never to see Woody's peace offering again.

Growing up in the small town of West Milton outside of Dayton, my father, Bob Long, was my hero. He was a U.S. history teacher, the head football coach of my high school, a painter of houses in the summer, a composer of poetry who honored us each birthday with a rhyming tribute. He was a kind and quiet man who never talked about his service as a turret gunner in World War II. After the war, my dad, a Columbus native, enrolled in Otterbein College and played quarterback for the school's football team. He was a huge Buckeyes fan and idolized Woody Hayes.

You could see Ohio Stadium from my grandparents' house in Columbus. When we visited, I would sit on their front porch and stare at the 'Shoe for hours, daydreaming about what it must be like to walk through its massive stone gates. But money was scarce during my childhood. I asked my dad many times if we could go to a Buckeyes game, and for years, he and my mother Shorty (yes, Shorty Long) told me children weren't allowed in Ohio Stadium, a ruse no internet-savvy kid of today would buy for a red-hot second.

Then, at the age of 7, dad announced Ohio State was hosting a special “children's day” at the 'Shoe, and he had two tickets for the game. When we arrived at the stadium, people were yelling and holding up programs for fans to purchase. Dad bought two and handed me my own, a memento I planned to keep for the rest of my life. As we climbed the endless stairs to C deck, I could hear the fans already cheering inside the stadium. We walked through the tunnel, revealing the deep green football field far below. From that moment on, the Buckeyes dominated my dreams.

By my sophomore year at Ohio State, I was the starting quarterback for the Buckeyes. I had a good season personally, but the team struggled overall, finishing 4-5, an unacceptable record for Ohio State. After the season ended—and a week before the Spring Game—I got the call I expected. “I need to see you in my office today,” Woody said. When I came to Ohio State, Woody pledged to allow me to play baseball, too. But as our nightmare football season ended, bets were made in our locker room that Woody would press me to abandon my other sport.

I was ready to resist. I was excited to travel to California for a spring-training trip, play shortstop during the upcoming Big Ten season and, to be frank, spend some time away from Woody, who was on a rampage after our miserable year. But Woody was a master of mind games. He knew how to get into the heads of his players. And when I opened the door, I discovered he brought two secret weapons with him to the meeting: Ohio State's athletic director Dick Larkins … and my dad. When I saw my father in Woody's office—uncomfortable, embarrassed, unable to even look me in the eye—my swagger disappeared.

Woody turned to my poor dad. “Coach Long, I know I don't have to tell you how important it is to have your starting quarterback working with your team to get it ready to have a winning season.” I couldn't let this continue. I had to end my father's misery. I stood up and announced, “I'll be ready for our spring practice.”

Woody grabbed my hand with both of his. Hell, I thought he was going to hug me. “That's just great, Billy. Your commitment to our spring ball now means we're going to have a great season next year.”

And we did, though it didn't start off that way. I played spring football as promised, but I didn't completely abandon baseball. When I returned to the Dayton area during the summer, I played recreation league baseball. This was a mistake. A week before fall football practice was to begin, I tore my right hamstring stealing a base. My father and I didn't say a word to each other as I was helped off the field. We both knew hell was waiting for me.

Woody refused to talk to me after the injury. He benched me for the first game, a 14-7 loss to Arizona in Ohio Stadium, as my hamstring healed. My injury got better, but the benching continued for the next three games, which included an embarrassing 41-6 loss to Purdue and an ugly 6-2 win over Northwestern. Woody was in serious trouble. Planes were flying over the stadium with banners calling for his firing. The Dispatch ran articles doing the same.

Desperate, Woody returned me to the starting lineup for our game against Illinois. We played better, but we lost on a last-second score. Word was Ohio State would fire Woody if we lost one more game during the season. We later learned Woody prepared his assistant coaches for his possible dismissal, promising to help them keep their jobs until the end of the season if he was fired before the Michigan game.

Then something remarkable happened: We won our final four games, including two road victories against Michigan State and Michigan. In fact, if we had stopped that last-second Illinois drive during my first start, we would've won the Big Ten Championship. I had my best game of the year against Michigan, and during the postgame press conference, Woody credited me with the season's turnaround. “We were not a football team until we got Bill back in the quarterback position,” Woody said.

I entered the offseason extremely confident. I skipped spring football to play baseball without even talking to Woody. What did I have to worry about? I was the golden boy, the guy who saved the season and Woody's job. But it turns out I wasn't as golden as I thought.

While I was playing baseball, a freshman, Rex Kern, a gifted athlete from Lancaster, apparently impressed Woody during the spring. When football kicked off again in the fall, I was shocked to find my name under Kern's on the depth chart. Woody didn't explain the demotion to me, nor did I ask him; communication wasn't Woody's strong suit, and I lacked the courage to demand answers from him.

Still, I believed it was just a temporary setback. I'd be back in the starting lineup in no time, just like the previous year. Indeed, the home opener against Southern Methodist suggested as much. We jumped out to a 14-3 lead, but Kern was flat in his debut. Then, on a fourth and 7, just across midfield, Kern waved off the punting team, shocking everyone on the sidelines. “I'm back in,” I thought. “You can't stand up to Woody that way.”

On the next play, Kern narrowly escaped a sack and then scrambled for the first down, changing the tenor of the game. Jim Roman, our kicker, was standing next to me on the sideline as all this unfolded. “Well, Bill, it looks like this could be a long season for you,” he said.

I did have one brief moment of glory: running for a key touchdown against Purdue, then ranked No. 1 in the country, during our third game of the season after Kern went out temporarily with an injury. But for the most part, Roman was right. I was the odd man out, despite what I'd achieved the previous year. Memories are short in big-time college sports, especially when your replacement can't lose.

My biggest humiliation occurred two weeks after the Purdue game. Playing Illinois, the score tied at 24, Kern went down again. I ran up to Woody, ready to go in. Woody put his hands on my shoulder pads, looked me in the eyes—and then called for Ron Maciejowski, another quarterback. Before more than 56,000 people in Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Woody demoted me to the third string on the field. I was never more embarrassed. I sat alone on our bench as Jim Otis scored the game-winning touchdown with less than two minutes left on the clock.

Back in those days, two buses carried Ohio State players to and from games. Since my sophomore year, I'd ridden the bus for starters called “Bucks and Red One.” Bucks stood for first-team defense and Red One was for first-team offense. I continued to ride this bus during the '68 season despite my demotion, but I realized after the Illinois game I no longer could justify it. I was now a third-stringer, and I should be with the other benchwarmers on the “AYO bus.” AYO stood for “all you others.”

More than 1,400 people packed into First Community Church in Upper Arlington to say their final goodbyes to Woody. At the 1987 funeral service, I sat in the front of the church with other ex-OSU players. We were joined in the pews by community leaders, politicians, prominent business people, even a former U.S. president. During his eulogy for Woody Hayes, Richard Nixon recalled the first time they met: a victory party hosted by Ohio Sen. John Bricker following Woody's second national title in 1957. “I wanted to talk about football, and Woody wanted to talk about foreign policy,” Nixon recalled. The former president smiled as the audience began to laugh. Seemingly everyone in the church knew what was coming next. “Well, you know Woody, we talked about foreign policy.”

I'd benefited a lot from my association with Woody and Ohio State football. After failing to make it in the NFL, Woody wrote me a letter of recommendation that helped me get into Capital University Law School. From there, I went on to become a lobbyist in Columbus. My first job was with the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants. When I interviewed with the council's legendary leader John Mahaney, we spent the entire time talking about Woody. And I'd continue to milk my Woody stories throughout my lobbying career. When you play for someone like Woody Hayes, you have plenty of things to discuss. And if you play quarterback for him, you have more memories than anyone else on the team—perhaps even more than you'd like.

Even as the years passed, I was never brave enough to broach the subject of the '68 season with Woody. He went to the grave before I could question him about my demotion: Was Kern really a better quarterback than me? Was Woody giving Kern some playing time to groom him for a later championship run, a more logical expectation, but the Super Sophomores came through a year early? And why couldn't Woody talk to me about what happened? Didn't he owe it to me? After all, the old man might never have won the national title in '68 if I hadn't helped save his job the year before.

Nearly 50 years since my season on the brink, I still find myself thinking about Woody. He was in my head then, and he's still there today.