From the Archives: The Resurrection of Woody Hayes

Robert Tenenbaum
The September 1982 issue of Columbus Monthly

Editor’s note: In September 1982, Columbus Monthly profiled Woody Hayes as he rebuilt his life four years after his coaching career ended in disgrace.

"The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar." —William Shakespeare

With Caesar, perhaps, but not with Wayne Woodrow Hayes. Oh, sure, the big evil—that right cross to the throat of Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman on the night of Dec. 29, 1978—will live long after Woody. It was, after all, one of the most famous punches ever thrown on national television.

But as for the good being interred with the bones of the former Ohio State football coach ... not a chance.

And as for the armchair undertakers who buried Woody—either in glee or in sadness—in the days following his firing after 28 years as OSU's football boss ... well, they were wrong. If Woody was buried, he was buried alive. And at some point in the last couple of years, he quietly managed to open the coffin and sneak out while nobody was looking.

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That is no ghost that is now abroad in the city and in the land. That is the real-live Woody Hayes, and with every passing day he grows into a different kind of hero, a combination scholar/historian/community do gooder who is hailed by his fellows as a giant of a man, a benefactor of mankind, a star ... a Living Legend.

That's Living Legend, folks, and you'd have to be either the ultimate Woody-hater or have been in a coffin yourself since about New Year's Day of 1979 not to realize it.

Just in the past few months, for example, Hayes has been awarded Ohio State's Distinguished Service Award, has had a street named after him (his whole name, not just his last), has been memorialized in a bronze bust for his services on behalf of Children's Hospital, has been the keynote speaker at a Harvard-sponsored dinner commemorating the life and works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and has been the honoree at a roast that took in better than $40,000 to help underprivileged young athletes in Columbus. This November, on the night of the Michigan game, he'll become the latest in a string of sports celebrities to narrate a symphony orchestra pops concert—this one by the Columbus Symphony.

He's also been the host of a series of war movies on television, and he's turned into a political guru of sorts. In the 1981 election, Republicans screamed in agony when Hayes endorsed Democrat Ben Espy for City Council, and the Democratic powers-that-be fell all over each other in their haste to try to convince the populace that it was not merely Hayes's endorsement that had been responsible for Espy's upset victory.

All this has happened to a man whose fall from grace was so abrupt and so earth-shattering (at least that portion of the earth known as Central Ohio) that the obituaries were as maudlin as they were final.

"Great men should go out on shoulders and showered with praise, not with sorrow, head shaking, puzzlement and predicaments," wrote Citizen Journal columnist Kaye Kessler two days after Woody was summarily dismissed for his ill-advised Gator Bowl fisticuffs. “And Woody was a great man.” Past tense. Finished. The column might as well have appeared next to the death notices.

Goodbye, Woody.

Kessler's now-retired colleague, then C-J sports editor Tom Keys, asked a question that wasn't a question. "It is not my aim to make a martyr of Hayes, but there is enough compassion in me to ask a question that seems pertinent at this time: Are the great fans of Ohio State going to ignore all the good things Woody Hayes did here and remember him only as a man who was shot down without a hearing for his final, unpardonable transgression?" Check out the words. Remember. Martyr. Final.

Goodbye, Woody.

Another C-J piece, this one by sportswriter Tom Pastorius, began: "Woody is gone. To some he was a tyrant, to some he was a friend—a father image—but to one he was all these things ... and more." Gone, the man said. Pastorius should have been transferred posthaste to the obituary desk, so good was he at eulogizing the dead.

Goodbye, Woody.

Actually, it's easy to understand how the sports scribes and a lot of other people got it into their heads that the Gator Bowl incident was the end of Woody Hayes not only as a coach but as a public personage as well. The punching of Charlie Bauman was only the last in a series of ever-more-bizarre incidents—including beating up on his own players—that for years had some people screaming for OSU officials to do something about their volatile head football coach.

It had started, actually, two decades before, when in 1958 Hayes had tossed Big Ten commissioner Tug Wilson and the entire contingent of visiting sportswriters known as the Big Ten Skywriters out of one of his practices. Then-athletic director Dick Larkins wound up having to apologize formally to the league for that one.

The next year, two California sportswriters accused Hayes of throwing punches at them after an OSU loss to Southern Cal. Woody never apologized and the incident was dropped.

In 1971 came the famous sideline marker destruction. Hayes knocked over one marker and ripped the flag off another in a temper tantrum over officials' failure to call interference on Michigan cornerback Thom Darden after an interception in a 10-7 OSU loss to the Wolverines.

In January of 1973, Los Angeles Times photographer Art Rogers charged Hayes with assault, claiming that the coach had intentionally shoved Rogers's camera into his face during the Rose Bowl game. The charge was eventually dropped.

And then in 1977 came the most publicized of all the incidents. Again it was during an OSU-Michigan game at Ann Arbor … a game OSU eventually lost, 14-6. Woody's mugging victim this time was ABC photographer Mike Freedman, who was working the OSU sideline with a portable camera. A national television audience saw Hayes come toward Freedman, take a swing and send Freedman and the camera flying. For that transgression, Hayes earned a one-year probation from the Big Ten office—a probationary period that ran out, ironically, at the 1978 OSU-Michigan game, just six weeks before the ill-fated Gator Bowl appearance.

So on the morning after Woody tried to deck Charlie Bauman, it was no surprise to anyone that the number-one topic of discussion in Columbus was W.W. Hayes ... and it was no surprise that the city seemed just about evenly divided between those who felt Hayes got exactly what he deserved and those who thought the university had acted in haste and fired the old man unnecessarily.

Even many of Woody's supporters, however, agreed that the city had probably seen the last of the coach for a good long time. There were all kinds of dire and bizarre predictions. Some people said he'd never appear in public again (Kessler flatly stated that Hayes would not appear at the annual Touchdown Club dinner late in January of 1979, even though he was scheduled to make a trophy presentation). A few people even spoke sotto voce of their fear that Hayes would wither and die ... that if he couldn't be Ohio State football coach he probably couldn't even go on living.

Which basically proves how little anyone ever knew about Woody Hayes.

Woody waited approximately three whole weeks to make his first public appearance. He fulfilled a commitment he had made months earlier to address the annual meeting of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 19, 1979. Chamber president Al Dietzel never had it so good. Hayes's appearance guaranteed the chamber a full house for what is not normally one of the most exciting events in the city, and it even got the meeting broadcast live on the radio. What the city heard was a typical Hayes speech, heavy on the history and philosophy, but with an ever-so-carefully-worded note of regret thrown in.

And a mere week later, Woody showed up again, this time at the Touchdown Club's annual dinner. He had been scheduled to present the Woody Hayes Trophy for the outstanding college coach of the year to Penn State's Joe Paterno, but everyone assumed, as Kessler had written, that he wouldn't show up. He did. He was brought in from offstage to a standing ovation ... pretty much what you'd expect from a Touchdown Club audience.

But after that Woody vanished, at least as far as the local populace was concerned. He was, for all intents and purposes, a man in exile. His Elba was a small office in the ROTC building on campus—an office provided to him by virtue of the status of professor emeritus conferred upon him by the OSU trustees. He worked on a book, he began negotiating a deal for the making of a movie about his life, and he did a lot of what he had always done—speaking to various groups all over the country.

But not too many groups in Columbus. Whether he avoided local appearances on purpose, or simply didn't get many invitations, is something for Woody to know. But to the public, he wasn't around any more. And to a lot of people, that was just fine, thank you. The Clemson affair was fresh in their minds. Hayes had gone out in abject disgrace, and most people assumed he was gone for good … not unlike Richard Nixon.

In fact, it is safe to say that most Columbusites never even thought about Woody Hayes that year—until the beginning of the 1979 football season rolled around. And then there came the question: Would Woody be invited—and would he show up—for any of the OSU games in Ohio Stadium?

Every once in a while, Woody’s replacement, Earle Bruce, would casually mention that he had been in touch with his ex-boss. And Bruce never indicated he would be anything less than delighted to have Woody watch the games.

But it was not in the old coach’s makeup to show up as a spectator while someone else guided the fortunes of his team on the artificial turf below. At least not now. There was no Woody Hayes in Ohio Stadium that year … or even the next.

Hayes did make one well-publicized appearance with his old team, when Bruce invited him to attend the traditional senior tackle at the final practice before the Michigan game. Hayes showed up, was warmly greeted by the players he had coached and recruited and by about 1,000 spectators who had come to watch the ceremony. But if he watched the OSU-Michigan game the next day, he watched it on television.

The first anniversary of the Gator Bowl came and went, and Woody Hayes was still a nearly invisible figure in Central Ohio. Perhaps he sensed that the wounds were still fresh, that the city was not yet ready for the reemergence of Woody Hayes. For a man who was accustomed to being in the limelight all the time, it must have been a painful period. In February, the newspapers carried brief stories indicating Hayes had been hospitalized for “tests.” At the same time, people who saw him noticed that the old man didn’t look as healthy as he had in the past … that he was thin and drawn and seemed to lack his usual high—almost manic—energy level.

For months on end, his name was out of the papers altogether. There was a brief flurry of publicity in May when he revealed he was still negotiating for the making of the biographical film, and another in July when Hayes appeared at a fundraiser sponsored by the Republicans in the Ohio Senate, an event that featured Richard Nixon as principal speaker.

In November, now nearly two years after the fall, he appeared once more at the senior tackled. He still looked, observers noticed, quite sickly.

And then in May of 1981, the reason for his sickly appearance became known. Hayes was admitted to University Hospital for surgery to remove his gall bladder. His weight had dropped to about 150 pounds, and he had been in considerable pain, his physician reported. But nine days after the operation he was back home … only to return a week later for more surgery, this time to remove a surgical sponge that had accidentally been left in him during the gall bladder operation.

On June 12, Woody went home from the hospital again … home to recuperate. And some Woody-watchers declared that Hayes was sick, and he was aging fast and he was not long for this world.

Goodbye, Woody.

And then, almost as if some mysterious, magical force was at work, something happened. Woody Hayes stopped being a disgraced old bully and became a revered elder statesman. It was though some football-ball-helmeted version of Tinker Bell had floated above the city sprinkling fairy dust. Columbus awoke and prepared to take to its bosom a new Living Legend.

In September, the newspapers noted that WBNS-TV had announced it had signed Hayes to be the on-camera host for a series of classic war films—among them “Patton”and “The Desert Fox.”On Sept. 14, he appeared at a meeting of the Vietnam Veterans of America. On Sept. 23, he was made an honorary member of the Charity Newsies. On Sept. 29, he appeared at a ceremony naming a class of Navy recruits after him. And he started going to football games again ... yes, those games, in that stadium.

He hasn't slowed down for a minute since.

This year, Woody Hayes seemingly has been everywhere ... and virtually everything that has been written or said about him in Columbus has been of heroic proportions.

The roast of Hayes, held at the Aladdin Temple Shrine on March 4, was unlike any event seen in Columbus in a long time. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people in attendance. There were seemingly dozens of speakers. And the old coach himself spoke for a full 45 minutes, Channel 10 taped the entire event and showed highlights in a one-hour TV special. WBNS radio went even further, playing an audio tape of virtually the whole event on five consecutive evenings.

It remained for Ohio State—the university that had employed Hayes for 28 years, that had seen its football fortunes rise under him, and that had finally had to dump him unceremoniously—to play out the climactic final act in the resurrection of Woody Hayes.

On April 2, 1982, the OSU board of trustees voted unanimously to confer upon Hayes the university's Distinguished Service Award and to rename as Woody Hayes Drive the street heretofore known as Stadium Drive, which runs past Ohio Stadium on its way from Neil Avenue to Kenny Road.

Less than four years after it had fired him in disgrace, the university was paying Hayes a signal honor ... and if there was anyone complaining about it, they didn't make themselves heard.

Warren J. Smith, the chairman of the trustees, says he didn't hear anyone complain about the award and the street-naming. “If anyone would have complained," says Smith, "it probably would have been me. I voted against giving him emeritus status, mainly because several people who held that title told me they thought it was demeaning to the position to give it to someone who committed assault and battery on national television. But I thought the street thing was a fine idea."

It also got the university off a hook it had been on ever since the wee hours of Dec. 30, 1978. The administrations of both former OSU president Harold Enarson and current president Edward Jennings, says Smith, recognized something had to be done in the way of a memorial for Hayes. The timing, he says, just seemed right now.

The picture was striking. Woody Hayes, in full academic regalia, accepting his Distinguished Service Award, smiling broadly and waving both arms to the crowd that had come to watch the ceremony—in Ohio Stadium. There was no public outcry, not even any public muttering. The Citizen-Journal, which less than two years previously had editorialized that it was "too soon" for Hayes to attend a football game in the stadium, now editorialized rhapsodically about the creation of Woody Hayes Drive.

Woody, it seemed, had come back completely, greater than before, accepted ... maybe even loved. Richard Nixon should be so lucky. Woody's acquaintances—few people actually call him a friend in the traditional sense of the word—and his relatives see all this and suffer some mild bemusement.

To them, of course, Hayes was never as bad, never as flawed as many people claimed. There should never have been a need for him to be resurrected. He was a lot of things, they say now, but he was first and foremost a decent and concerned humanitarian ... one who never got the credit he deserved.

“A certain percent of the people in town always viewed Woody in a different light” (read "better in place of "different”), says Columbus City Attorney Greg Lashutka, who played for Hayes in the 1960s.

Those, for the most part, were Woody's players, and high school coaches around town, and assorted other friends and hangers-on and such. The ones who knew all the stories about the sick kids Woody went to visit in the hospital, the players he badgered to death so that they would graduate from school, the groups he spoke to without charge because he liked what they stood for even though they couldn't afford his speaker's fee.

Woody's son Steve, a judge of the Franklin County Municipal Court, says there was never any in-between with his father: "People either hated him or they loved him."

"I don't think he cared what people thought of him back then," says Steve Hayes, referring to his father's coaching career. “And I'm not sure he's concerned about it today, either."

But Lashutka thinks Woody is, indeed, concerned about it today. He sees a difference, he says, in the way the old coach reacts when people start telling the “good” stories about him. "He used to forbid people to talk about some of the things he did for them," says Lashutka. “Now he doesn't mind people telling those stories. I think he is finally basking in some of the glory."

But there remains a sense of mystery about the man. No one claims to really know Woody Hayes well, even the people who spend a lot of time around him. His son readily admits there are lots of things about his father he doesn't know. "People come up to me all the time and ask me how Woody is,” says the judge. "I always ask them when they saw him last. A lot of times it turns out they have seen him more recently than I have. When he was coaching I didn't see him much, and now I bet I see him even less. He's always going somewhere, doing something, speaking to some group."

Ann Hayes, Woody's wife of lo these many years, has never talked publicly about her relationship with her husband. And these days, she is seen infrequently in public.

And Woody just isn't the type to sit down and tell people about himself. He is a marathon talker ... but he talks about what he wants to talk about: history, football, politics, civic good works, whatever. He talks ... you listen.

Frequently these days, he can be seen around the noon hour in the OSU Faculty Club, where he sits himself down at a large table traditionally occupied by people who come to lunch by themselves and are willing to eat and converse with others in similar circumstances. When Woody sits there, it becomes his table. One faculty member reports that on one occasion he heard Hayes launch into a monologue about wanting to see the movie “Reds,”then wind up his speech by inviting—actually, by virtually ordering—all of the people at the table to go to the movie with him that night.

When he's in town, he zips around in a new Chevrolet El Camino. Son Steve recalls that back when Woody first took the OSU coaching job, a Chevrolet dealer that sponsored his television program wanted to put him behind the wheel of one of the first Corvettes ever produced. The coach turned up his nose at such pretentiousness.

"He never cared very much about money," says Steve Hayes. “I think if they had told him it would cost him $20,000 a year to coach at Ohio State, he'd have paid it. He's the world's worst businessman." Even though Woody commands a speaking fee of several thousand dollars, his son estimates that at least half of the speeches he makes—both in Columbus and around the country—are for free.

There is, of course, a delicious irony to all this. Woody Hayes became well known throughout the country because of football. He also became an object of almost nonstop controversy because of football. But he only became a true celebrity of lasting magnitude—yes, a Living Legend—when he was finally out of football. Only now ... years after he last stormed the sidelines bullying people and throwing temper tantrums ... only now are many people able to look back on what Woody was and what he has become, and to fully accept him. Only now is Woody basking in that rare public warmth and affection that so few people experience.

"When you're in the middle of the fray," says Greg Lashutka, "it's difficult to rise above a certain level. Look at Churchill. He left office at a difficult time. It was only afterwards that he became revered by his countrymen."

“I think the reason people didn't hear about some of the things he has done before was that there was too much else to write about ... the games, practices, recruiting, all of those football things," says Steve Hayes.

"Let's face it ... people look at him differently now that he's out of football," says OSU trustees' chairman Warren Smith. "I'm not sure he's any different. Maybe all of us are different."

"There probably are still people around who hate him," says Woody's son Steve. “I just think we're less likely to hear about it now."

"They're entitled to their opinion," Steve Hayes says. And it probably doesn't matter a whit to the old man. "He doesn't need anyone to defend him," his son says. “He never did."

Hello, Woody.

This story originally appeared in the September 1982 issue of Columbus Monthly.


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