Column: Missing out on Woody Hayes

I did not truly grab a hold of college football in the early 1990s. My parents owned season tickets to Penn State games so I was able to attend a few games, but before I actually learned about the game I often got bored and was ready to leave at halftime (much to my father’s chagrin). As I grew up I wised up of course and now today I can’t get enough of the sport.

Woody HayesMuch of what I learned about the sport growing up I learned by watching Penn State football, led by Joe Paterno. Watching the games with my dad also carried some influence, as my dad would teach me why Miami had all the bad guys in the sport and why I should never root for Ohio State. Again, as I grew older I learned to form my own opinions on the game, its players and coaches and mechanics and more. But I also wanted to learn more about the game, where it came from and just why my dad thinks I should hate Ohio State.

If 11-year old me read what I am about to say in my next sentence, he might go ahead and tell on me.

Woody Hayes may be the one coach I wish I had a chance to watch or cover in person. Without question.

If you could pluck any former coach and plop him in today’s game, who would you choose? Knute Rockne and Paul “Bear” Bryant would be easy choices. Hayes and Schembechler may be right in that same mix. Rockne would likely be a media darling, and Schembechler’s cap and glasses would be an iconic image captured in brilliant HD every week. Bryant and Hayes though might have a hard time fitting in with today’s game being as popular and saturated with media coverage as it is. Bryant would be a curmudgeon but he would win, and nothing else would matter. But Hayes, oh my. He would be a firecracker on a routine basis.

In the 1978 Gator Bowl Ohio State was trailing Clemson by two points, late in the game. Buckeyes quarterback Art Schlichter had Ohio State within field goal range to potentially take the lead but Hayes opted to gamble for a first down on a 3rd and 5 rather than set up a favorable angle for a field goal. Schlichter’s pass was intercepted by Clemson’s Charlie Bauman, who was run out of bounds on the Ohio State sideline on the return. As he got up from the ground and looked toward the Ohio State sideline, Hayes landed a punch straight to the throat of Bauman, igniting a brawl. Hayes was livid, going after the refs and turning on his own player and having to be restrained by his assistant coaches after being ejected from the game.

This incident is unfortunately one of the more visible memories of the game, and an ugly moment in the storied history of Ohio State football. Hayes, a man who had coached the Buckeyes to five separate national championships, four Rose Bowl victories and 13 Big Ten titles, was asked to resign immediately after the game by Ohio State’s athletic director Hugh Hindman, someone who had played for Hayes while coaching at Miami Ohio prior to arriving in Columbus. The request was met with one more heated exchange, with the player offering his former coach a chance to hold on to any ounce of dignity that may be left under the patented black cap with scarlet “O.” Hayes stubbornly refused.

“That would make it too easy for you,” Hayes reportedly said to Hindman. “You had better go ahead and fire me.”

So that is what Hindman did. Following the conversation Hindman met with Ohio State’s president at a nearby country club in Florida and an agreement to fire Hayes had been made overnight. The next morning Hayes was informed of the decision and after returning to Columbus he cleaned out his office but he remained a part of the school by taking a position with the Navy ROTC. He occupied an office with a clear view of Ohio State’s football field, so the game never really left his eye.

“Nobody despises to lose more than I do,” Hayes would later say, reflecting on his successful, yet controversial, career. “That’s got me into trouble over the years, but it also made a man of mediocre ability into a pretty good coach.”

Some would say a great coach. But as he admitted, his fiery passion for the game would sometimes put Hayes in the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons.

There was the time Hayes took a swing at a Los Angeles sports writer following a loss to USC, only to miss his intended target and hit someone else instead.

There was the time he was close to scuffling with Iowa’s athletic director at a Big Ten meeting.

This was a man was suspended three games for shoving a camera in to the face of a news photographer before the 1973 Rose Bowl in addition to receiving a hefty fine and subpoena from the state of California as some unwanted souvenir items.

Would a coach be able to get away with such actions at a prestigious program today? Depending on the level of accomplishment and the university, perhaps. But it may not be likely in my opinion. Schools today are quick to move on from coaches who put their program in a poor light. Just ask Mike Leach. Of course, Hayes is a much more successful head coach than Leach has ever been. The problem comes when a football program is being held to such a high standard that it overshadows the rest of the school’s focus. Perhaps ironically enough, Hayes may have played a role in trying to keep football from becoming larger than the university.

In 1961 Ohio State had won the Big Ten championship, and with it the automatic berth to the Rose Bowl. In an age before 30+ bowl games, skipping out on a trip seemed unfathomable. Ohio State had not been to a bowl game since the 1958 Rose Bowl and despite finishing the regular season as the No. 2 team in the country, Ohio State faculty voted not to send the football team to Pasadena, 28-25. An alumni group led the charge to not spend the money to send the team to the Rose Bowl out of fear of tarnishing the school’s academic reputation with an over-emphasis on football.

This from the same school that today has a player who once tweeted “We ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are pointless.” My how the times have changed.

The decision did not come lightly. Suggestions that it would be a waste of money to send the team to the Rose Bowl to face a UCLA team the Buckeyes had already beaten in the regular season (13-3 in Columbus) were not enough to quiet those who protested the decision, which sparked minor rioting in and around the campus. Today you would expect a coach to argue for playing in the bowl game at all costs, but in 1961 Hayes remained  calm. He vented his frustrations with the alumni speaking out against the bowl game but he was respectful with the faculty and urged the students to let it go.

Honestly, I could not imagine a coach confronting that issue today the way Hayes did over 50 years ago. Of course, the game has evolved and is quite different than it used to be. I would be curious to see how Hayes would handle such a decision. Of course, I also imagine Ohio State alumni would have a completely different stance today than they did half a century ago.

To me, knowing what I do know now, Hayes is a character I would love to see in today’s game. He was a straight shooter, not afraid to hold anything back and tell it like it is. No filter. Urban Meyer has ruffled a few feathers in the Big Ten since taking the job, and the Buckeyes certainly have a coach more than capable of taking Ohio State to glory once again. But what I would pay to have seen Woody Hayes in the Big Ten with Brady Hoke at Michigan and when Bret Bielema was at Wisconsin. Hayes vs. Bo Pelini? Yes please.

I missed out on Hayes. All I have now are the stories of the past and YouTube clips. While his career may have been clouded by his ugly incidents, we should also remember his accolades. If I could have just one season of Hayes in Columbus, or anywhere for that matter, I would watch. Wouldn’t you?

About the author

Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com and managing editor of Crystal Ball Run. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.