Two-time All-America end and longtime assistant coach Esco Sarkkinen was once asked to describe Woody Hayes.
“How much time do I have?” Sarkkinen asked.
“Thirty seconds,” came the reply.
Sarkkinen laughed for the entire half-minute, later remarking, “You don’t describe Woody Hayes in one sentence or one paragraph, and certainly not in 30 seconds. It takes chapter after chapter after chapter.”
Although many remember Hayes as gruff and full of bluster, almost blinded to every other facet of his being by the drive to win, the legendary coach was a multifaceted man with a variety of interests on a wide array of topics.
As Ohio State celebrates the 100th anniversary of the legendary coach’s birth Feb. 14 with several special events, it is worth remembering the sum of Hayes’ life was more than just football. He was a U.S. Navy officer in World War II, a tireless fundraiser for countless charitable causes and a goodwill ambassador for the Ohio State University around the world.
Two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, now president and CEO of the Ohio State University Alumni Association, believes Hayes was much more than just a football coach.
“The first thing that always comes to mind when I remember Coach Hayes is the way he cared about people,” Griffin told BSB. “A lot of people say they care about you, but Coach Hayes not only said it, he showed it. His mantra of paying forward, for example – he put that out there for everyone as an example to follow. And what an example it has been.”
The Pay Forward Society at Ohio State, made up of donors who have given tens of millions of dollars to the university to help with the construction and/or renovation of athletic facilities, takes its name directly from one of Hayes’ favorite sayings: “You can never pay back, but you can always pay forward.”
A number of other scholarships at Ohio State bear the coach’s name, including the Woody and Anne Hayes 1968 National Championship Athletic Scholarship Fund, which provides or supplements scholarships for former varsity football players, and the Wayne Woodrow Hayes Chair in National Security Studies, a position dedicated to conducting research and educating a new generation in national security studies.
Still, it would be extremely difficult to separate Woody Hayes and college football. They are, after all, synonymous.
“The name Woody Hayes will forever be intertwined with the game of college football – and rightfully so,” OSU football historian Jack Park said. “The championships, the great players, the Rose Bowls … You think of all of those things, and as great as those things are, it barely scratches the surface for a man who accomplished nearly everything there was to accomplish in his chosen profession.”
In 28 seasons as head coach of the Buckeyes, Hayes won 205 games, coached 58 All-Americans, captured five national championships and 13 Big Ten crowns and, according to at least one biographer, was “the subject of more varied and colorful anecdotal material than any other coach past or present, including fabled Knute Rockne.”
The coach’s pearls of wisdom read like scripture for anyone who fancies himself a member of Buckeye Nation.
There was the philosophical: “You win with people.”
There was the pragmatic: “There’s nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell knocked out of you.”
And the just plain Woody: “Show me a good guy that the players love all the time and I’ll show you a loser.”
There are also the legendary stories, some of which are so steeped in scarlet and gray lore that whether they are fact or fiction seems meaningless.
One often-told story among former players is the way the coach with his bare hands would destroy his trademark black ballcap or stomp on his wristwatch when things weren’t going well during practice. Only years later was it discovered those fits of pique were only for show. The coach not only stocked up during the summer on cheap, dime-store watches, he instructed equipment managers to use razor blades to slice strategic parts of his cap, making it easier for the coach to rip it to shreds.
Other stories deal with Hayes’ legendary temper. Wooden chairs were apparently no match for him, as a handful of players learned during one afternoon practice session in the Horseshoe.
After the coach became displeased with a particular drill, he trained his focus on a handful of players sitting on chairs around the track. As Hayes stomped toward the group, the players scattered for their lives while the coach turned the chairs into kindling.
Then there was the day Hayes split his pants trying to show to a kicker what he thought was proper form. Or the time he instructed groundskeepers to turn hoses on the practice field to prepare for less than ideal weather conditions and wound up with a muddy quagmire nicknamed “Lake Hayes” that forced practice indoors on an otherwise perfect afternoon.
Not all of the stories portray the brusque side of the coach, however.
All-America quarterback Rex Kern has often repeated the story of Hayes being stopped one day while shopping in Upper Arlington. A man came up to him and told him how much he and his wife loved the Buckeyes and how he just wanted to shake the coach’s hand.
“Well, where is your wife?” Woody asked. “I’d like to meet her.”
The man told him she was dying of cancer in Riverside Hospital. That evening, when the man went to visit his wife, the coach was sitting by her bedside.
“I’ve heard all of those stories and a lot more just like them,” said former OSU sports information director Marv Homan, who worked with Hayes throughout the coach’s entire 28-year tenure at Ohio State.
“Some of those things have maybe taken on a life of their own over the years. But most of the stories you hear, there is a lot of truth in them. Coach Hayes was such a larger-than-life figure, so it stands to reason most of the stories about him would also seem larger than life.”
EVERYONE HAS A STORY
From former players and assistant coaches to the everyman on the street, it seems everyone has a Woody Hayes story, but Earle Bruce has more than most.
While he was still a student at Ohio State, Bruce broke into the coaching profession at the behest of Hayes. (See related story, page 31.) Later, after he had become an accomplished high school coach in Ohio, Bruce returned to Hayes’ staff in 1966.
But while Bruce, who succeeded his mentor as head coach of the Buckeyes in 1979 and went on to earn election to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002, has enough fond memories of Hayes to fill a library, there are some things he would just as soon like to forget.
During Bruce’s third season as a full-time member of Hayes’ staff, the Buckeyes went undefeated during the 1968 regular season and topped things off with a Rose Bowl victory over USC and Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson to win the national championship. But while nearly everyone associated with the team was celebrating the title run, Bruce was miserable.
“Every year during the six years I was an Ohio State assistant, Coach Hayes had one coach selected for his doghouse,” Bruce said. “The national championship year of 1968 was my year in the box.
“I got to the point where I would have taken a job flipping hamburgers, that’s how bad it was. When Coach Hayes was picking on you, your life was a living hell. Every day of 1968, all day long, was my year of hell.”
Things reached such a fever pitch that the young assistant began to entertain malicious thoughts.
“Woody lived in my subconscious,” Bruce said. “I frequently had this nightmare that I’d be sitting on top of the practice facility when Woody came to work at 6 o’clock in the morning to look at film. In my dream, I’d drop a concrete block on his head. Oh, my God, I had that dream over and over and over.
“I remember his wife, Anne, was once asked if she’d ever considered divorcing him. ‘Divorce? No,’ she said. ‘Murder? Yes.’ I knew what she meant.”
Another member of Ohio State’s 1968 staff – often called the greatest accumulation of coaching talent in college football history – has similar memories.
College Football Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz was a first-year assistant with the Buckeyes in ’68, and the defensive backs coach made an early impression on his new boss.
“My first staff meeting, I’m smoking a pipe,” Holtz remembered. “Somebody said I’d better put it out because, in his words, ‘Coach Hayes will make you swallow it.’ So Coach Hayes comes in and sees me and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m enjoying my pipe.’ And he said, ‘You couldn’t work for Paul Brown because Paul Brown says anybody that smokes a pipe is lazy and complacent.’
“Well, I said, ‘That’s why you’re smarter than Paul Brown because you don’t believe that.’ And I smoked the pipe the whole time I was there.”
Still, Hayes managed to make a lasting impression on Holtz later that same day, using a totally different approach.
“At that same staff meeting, he got mad and he threw the (film) projector through the window – right through the glass-door window there,” Holtz said. “From then on, it was chained to the table. He claimed it was chained so nobody could take it away, but I think (athletic director Richard) Larkins probably chained it.
“Later that day, there was a near fistfight between Coach Hayes and an assistant coach that had to be broken up. It had to do with academics, I think, but I walked out of there thinking, ‘What in the world have I gotten myself into?’ ”
That Hayes would get into a heated discussion about academics wasn’t all that unusual. Walt Adamkosky, an Ohio State alumnus who wrote the stage play “Woody: His Life, Times and Teachings,” said the coach stressed academics above all else.
“What surprises most people about Coach Hayes is that he saw himself as an educator first, even ahead of being a football coach,” Adamkosky said. “He viewed coaching as teaching and the gridiron was his classroom.”
Griffin agreed, remembering that throughout his recruiting process Hayes would often discuss academics more than football.
“The first time we ever had dinner, he never once mentioned football,” Griffin said. “All he talked about was school and getting an education. When he left, I told my father I didn’t think he wanted me to play football for him because he never said one thing about it.
“My father, who wanted me to go to Ohio State for sure, just said, ‘Well, don’t you think that just means he cares about you as a person and not just a football player?’ I had never thought of it like that, and I didn’t know it at the time, but my father was right.”
The emphasis on academics wasn’t merely a talking point during the recruiting process, either.
“He stayed on us all the time about school,” Griffin said. “He had assistant coaches pay attention to what you were doing in the classroom, but he was also hands-on about it. He knew all the professors and spent a lot of time at the Faculty Club, so when you came to practice, he would already know how you’d done in any particular class.
“He would sit down at the table with you at lunch and ask how things were going in school, and you had better be honest with him because he already knew the answer. You weren’t going to pull the wool over his eyes.”
As a result of his emphasis on academics, the vast majority of Hayes’ players earned their degrees from Ohio State.
There were occasionally those who did not graduate, however. Many went on to play in the NFL or were successful securing jobs in other professions – more than a few thanks to a letter of recommendation from Hayes. Still, they never escaped their old coach’s reach.
“He was always after players who hadn’t quite gotten enough credits to graduate,” Park said. “Some of them had been working for years and were in their 30s, but that didn’t matter. He badgered them to get that degree, and it’s my understanding he could be downright nasty about it. He would tell them, ‘I’m personally taking you to the registrar’s office. I’ll see you at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning in my office,’ and then throw the phone down.
“I don’t think there has ever been a football coach who realized the importance of academics like Coach Hayes – not just in terms of keeping your eligibility while you were playing for him, but what that degree did for you later in life.”
The nearly three decades that Hayes held court at Ohio State featured some of the highest points in the program’s 123-year history.
After posting a rather pedestrian 16-9-2 record during his first three seasons, Hayes celebrated the first of his national championships in 1954 with a perfect 10-0 mark that included a 20-7 victory over USC in the Rose Bowl.
Three years later, the 1957 team shook off a season-opening loss to TCU and charged to the national championship thanks to nine straight wins to close the season. Included in that streak were wins over fifth-ranked Iowa, No. 19 Michigan and a highly-regarded Oregon team in the Rose Bowl.
Hayes and his team were poised for another trip to Pasadena following the 1961 season, but the university’s faculty council voted against accepting a Rose Bowl invitation and the Buckeyes had to settle for only the United Press International’s share of the national championship.
That was a bitter pill for Hayes to swallow, and the faculty vote was used against him and his program for several years on the recruiting trail. As a result, the coach was forced to rethink his strategy, something that led him to expand his recruiting focus into the high schools of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. That change in strategy ultimately laid the groundwork for what many consider the finest recruiting class in school history – the 1967 class that eventually became known as the “Super Sophomores.”
That class, which featured such stars as Kern, Jack Tatum, John Brockington and Jim Stillwagon, became the backbone of the 1968 national championship team and touched off a resurgence in Ohio State football.
Between 1967 and 1969, the Buckeyes had a school-record winning streak that eventually reached 22 games. From 1972 through 1977, the team earned six consecutive Big Ten championships or co-titles, a conference record streak. And in the middle of that streak, Ohio State became the first Big Ten team to appear in four straight Rose Bowls, and Griffin became college football’s only two-time Heisman Trophy winner.
But while the accolades kept coming and the victories continued to pile up one after another, Ohio State never again won a consensus national championship during Hayes’ tenure. The 1970 team was awarded a version of the title by the National Football Foundation, but several seasons during the later stages of the coach’s career were marred by a single defeat that cost Hayes as many as three or four more national championship rings.
And then came the 1978 season, a campaign that ended in disaster.
During the final moments of what was an eventual 17-15 loss in the Gator Bowl, Clemson middle guard Charlie Bauman grabbed a game-clinching interception and headed upfield with the football before being forced out of bounds in front of the Ohio State bench. As Bauman popped to his feet, he stood facing the sideline with the football in his left hand. A split-second later, a national television audience watched as Hayes suddenly appeared and struck the Clemson player, throwing a right foreman just below Bauman’s face mask.
In the blink of an eye, Hayes’ career was over. University officials had no choice but to fire the 65-year-old coach, who returned to Columbus and remained in seclusion for several weeks.
In the meantime, Ohio State conducted a search for his successor. Holtz was the early favorite, but he decided to remain head coach at Arkansas. The university eventually settled on Bruce, who had been head coach at Iowa State.
On the evening before Bruce was formally introduced as Hayes’ successor, he received a phone call from his old boss and mentor.
“I was struck by how upbeat he sounded,” Bruce said. “He said he was happy that I’d been chosen and he would be there for me whenever I needed support. That was a gracious gesture and gave me a great feeling about coming to Ohio State.”
AN EVERLASTING ICON
Despite how his coaching career came to an end, Hayes continued as a revered figure at Ohio State for the remainder of his life. He was made a professor emeritus by the university and retained an office in the old Military Science building, just a short walk from Ohio Stadium.
In 1983, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. That same year, he became one of only a handful of “civilians” to dot the “i” in Script Ohio when he performed the honor at halftime of the homecoming game against Wisconsin.
That appearance was made even more special by the fact Hayes wore one of his trademark black ballcaps and made a conscious effort to salute the American flag as well as the fans assembled in Ohio Stadium that day. The coach said years later that wearing the ballcap was not his idea, while saluting the flag was a spur-of-the-moment thing.
Just six days before Hayes was to dot the “i,” more than 240 U.S. servicemen – including 220 Marines – lost their lives when terrorists detonated two truck bombs at the Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
In his book “Woody Hayes: A Reflection,” longtime Columbus Dispatch sportswriter Paul Hornung wrote, “On the way down to the field, he thought about saluting the flag, especially since that national symbol he loved and respected so much flew that day at half-mast to honor the Marines who had died in a terrorist bombing in Lebanon.”
As far as the ballcap was concerned, that was the idea of professors at the Faculty Club.
“They had asked me (the Friday before the game) if I was going to wear the baseball cap,” Hayes recalled later. “I hadn’t thought of it, but they said I had to do it. So I went down to (longtime equipment manager) John Bozick, got a cap and wore it.”
The rest is simply another iconic picture of Hayes – clad in a scarlet sports coat and gray slacks – striding confidently onto the Ohio Stadium turf one more time. The coach shakes hands with drum major Bruce Hart and then turns to salute the flag. Hayes then turns to the home sideline, tips his cap and takes a well-deserved bow.
“When you get recognition like that, or any reward,” Hayes said the next day, “you start looking back at all the people who have had a part in it – your players, your coaches, the administration, the university, the fans.
“I found out that I did become emotional out there yesterday because I thought of all the great victories we’ve had and all the great people we’ve had. It makes you realize how doggone lucky you are.”
Hayes suffered a heart attack in 1985 and his health began to deteriorate. One of his final public appearances occurred March 14, 1986, when Ohio State awarded him with an honorary Doctorate of Humanities degree. During commencement ceremonies, a frail Hayes gave a heartfelt speech that stressed the value of education, the worth of a diploma and the need for good acts in the community. It resonated with even his harshest critics.
“Today,” he began, “is the greatest day of my life. I appreciate so much being able to come here and talk to a graduating class at The Ohio State University – a great, great university.”
A year later, almost to the day, the coach was gone. Hayes died March 12, 1987, at the age of 74.
“That news just hit me like a bomb,” Griffin said. “Everyone knew he had been sick, but it was still a shock. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was driving to work that morning, and I had to turn around and go back home. I had to collect my thoughts and just get myself together.”
Some 15,000 people attended a memorial service at Ohio Stadium in his honor, and among the mourners at the funeral was former U.S. President Richard Nixon, who gave a touching eulogy.
“God, I miss that man,” Kern said. “The day he died was the saddest day of my life. Even now, it brings great sorrow to me.”
More than a quarter-century after his death, Hayes remains the iconic figure he was in life. And he continues to inspire debate, especially when those who knew him best discuss how he might fare in today’s game.
Several of his former players espouse the view that Hayes would not or could not conform to the socially-driven media of the modern age. But others believe the coach’s strengths would transcend any era.
“I think he would be even better today than when I played by virtue of his organization and discipline,” All-America offensive tackle John Hicks said. “I think the kids would love him even more. I find today that people want that kind of discipline and leadership.”
Hicks is not alone in that assessment.
“Coach Hayes was about the old-fashioned values of education, hard work and paying forward,” Adamkosky said. “It’s about how to be a success in life – on and off the field. And if that sounds corny today, the undeniable fact is it still works.
“(His) messages never go out of style. And they may be more relevant – and needed – today than ever.”
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