Woody, not Bo.

In the Freep, Bill McGraw visited Woody Hayes’ grave. (If I’d known, I’d have had him wave to my friends Jeff and Craig Clark, brothers, buried just a few doors down at Union Cemetery. AIDS, if you’re wondering. Both of them.) He spent a second entry remarking on the epitaph etched on the headstone:

And in the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love hears the rustle of a wing.

The author is Robert Greene Ingersoll. McGraw said it seemed “slightly out of character” for Woody, and I guess if all you knew about him was his football persona, it does. “Three yards and a cloud of dust” might seem more fitting, but you didn’t have to know much about Woody Hayes to know he was a lot more than the bullnecked coach you saw on the sidelines.

He was what you might call old-school, a student of classics who made his players keep their hair trimmed. He didn’t allow them to appear in Playboy’s Pigskin Preview. After his famous flame-out at the Gator Bowl he laid low for a while, then emerged as an elder statesman. He lectured at Harvard on the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which he used in his coaching.

The best thing I ever read about Woody Hayes was a column by Columbus Dispatch columnist Mike Harden, written after Woody’s death in 1987. It’s almost 20 years old now and I’m going to quote from it liberally, probably busting copyrights all over the place, but what the hell, I just paid $3 for it from the Dispatch archive and I’m giving credit where it’s due. Here’s how it starts:

When Woody Hayes wheeled his Chevy into Glenn Webb’s Shell Station in West Jefferson, Ohio, he paid scant attention to the loitering locals, the scrawny kid resting his back against the Coke machine. But the kid noticed him, and so did the locals. With the possible exception of an occasional horrific wreck on Rt. 40, not much stirred in the Madison County hamlet. So when Woody Hayes, the Woody Hayes, pulled in for a fill-up on that lazy summer day in 1963, the news traveled up Main St. to Smitty’s bar before the coach’s gas tank was half-filled and was already old gossip at Doc Mellott’s Rexall by the time Glenn had scrubbed the last dead bug from the coach’s windshield.

Sidling up to the car, the kid peeked into the window at a back seat buried beneath a pile of helmets and pads. It was proof sufficient. Timidly, he made his way around to the driver’s side.

”Are you Woody Hayes?” he asked the thickset driver in the white short-sleeved shirt.

The coach turned slowly to size up a youth whose name would never appear on his recruiting schedule. He formed a fat, fearsome-looking fist, then slowly flexed his arm until a great hummock of bicep was the only thing that stood between his grin and his gape-mouthed admirer.

”What do you think?” Woody asked, nodding toward the muscle.

…In my youth, my opinion of Woody Hayes was a mixture of personal awe coupled with the echo of comments voiced by my father and his cronies as they sat around the radio nursing longneck Strohs and listening to the game. To them, Woody was half prophet, half good ol’ boy — Moses with Charlie Weaver’s voice. It was not that they thought him above reproach, for their hindsight refinements of the plays Woody called were always good for another six-pack after the game was finished. Years later I would recall my father’s post-game dressing down of Woody, aimed, as it was, at the radio speaker of the Philco. I was seated in the stadium watching the coach as he paced the sideline studying what appeared to be an index card. He called three consecutive power slants into the line, gaining four or five yards at the most. The punting team ran onto the field, and Woody was still contemplating the card when the fan seated next to me shouted, ”Dammit, Woody, turn it over. There’s plays on the other side.”

If you grew up in Columbus in the Woody era, you know that scene like you know Christmas morning. He was simply part of the fabric of life, whether you attended OSU or not, whether you liked football or not. But of course, the times they were a-changin’; Harden continues:

Woody Hayes and Ohio State football were congenitally joined at the hip; yet, the first time I personally heard him speak in public, it had nothing to do with the game. It was the spring of 1970. My first quarter as a freshman at Ohio State was about to be cut short by the campus riots. The Oval was filled with strikers, gawkers and campus cops. Some firebrand revolutionary who wouldn’t have known Lenin from Irving Berlin was admonishing the crowd to seize the moment as they chanted, ”On strike! Shut it down!” There in the throng, sandwiched amid the tie-dye revolutionaries, stood Woody Hayes. Arms folded across his chest, he listened quietly to several speakers until one of the organizers spotted him and summoned him to the platform.

To the strikers, it was intended to be a moment of high camp. They had spotted Quasimodo in the bell tower and hauled him down to make sport of him.

As Woody stepped to the microphone to catcalls and hisses, the strikers taunted, ”First and ten, do it again. First and ten, do it again.”

I can’t remember precisely what he said, but it had something to do with sportsmanship and fairness as those ideals applied to the crisis at hand. It was an appeal to reason squandered on a group to whom Woody represented the father who never liked their politics, their hair or their music.

Of the myriad of feelings I had experienced growing up with Woody, pity was a new one. How, I wondered, could he ever have imagined that a fatherly pep talk would have calmed that hellbent rabble?

…I was watching the Gator Bowl at a friend’s house in 1978 the night Woody took the swing that ended his career. He went down, a writer friend of mine observed, like Melville’s Ahab, a man pinioned to his obsession. It was sad. All of my life, he had been bigger than life. I was not merely witnessing a man losing his job. Popes are supposed to remain popes till they die.

I fully expected Woody to become an embittered recluse, whiling away his last days watching old game films in a darkened room like some latter-day Philip Nolan in E.E. Hale’s The Man Without a Country.

He did not, and, peculiarly, what transformed him from exile to elder statesman was his tenacious hold on the values and ideals I had thought so shallow on that spring day when he took on several hundred campus protesters.

Compensation. The pay-forward theory. It had seemed like some flimsy platitude penned by a greeting card company for a high school graduation card. Not for Woody. He lived it, breathed it.

I don’t know why I’m thinking about Woody Hayes today. Bo Schembechler is the one who just died. But I didn’t grow up with Bo, except as once-a-year nemesis. I grew up with Woody.

UPDATE: I assembled most of this entry last night but didn’t post it, for two reasons: I wanted the Tibetan girls to stay at the top of the blog for at least 24 hours, and I wanted to see if the Freep’s star columnist could top Harden. He wrote approximately four times the length, but it should not surprise anyone who’s read both writers to know the answer is: No.

Posted at 9:39 am in Current events, Media |

14 responses to “Woody, not Bo.”

  1. James said on November 18, 2006 at 10:17 am

    I remember Woody Hayes.

    I particularly remember taking my sister Leslie to a shoe store at “Kingsdale” (was that it?) shopping center, and all the clerks were huddled around this gnomish guy and apparently his grand-daughter. There were 2 or 3 clerks, and they wouldn’t take time out from assisting Columbus royalty to help us.


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  2. dawson said on November 18, 2006 at 11:26 am

    Quick story about Bo.
    Miami of Ohio, where Bo was head coach before heading to U of M.
    My Columbus-native mom in cord shorts, knee socks, Jackie K hair. The practice field is in the quad and the team is way down on the other end, so my mom cuts the corner of the other end on her to way to French. Big Bo booms:
    “Hey. Lady. Stay off fucking field,” or some such.
    Still on the field, she pivots on her loafers and flips Coach Bo the bird.
    Go Bucks!

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  3. Judith said on November 18, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    I was a teenager in Northwestern Ohio when Woodie Hayes came to our area to give one of his famous lectures. Yes, we all revered him, and the silence of all except his voice was profound. The audience was mixed, from us teenagers to grandparents. But the message is still fresh in my mind. “Be the best you can be, whatever you choose to do.” He went through several occupations, even farmers , the mainstay of our community. He said that if we choose to be the best, we would be at the top, because the majority of people would not put forth that much effort.
    I kept that goal as I went through college and taught in elementary schools. I taught my son to see that those who had succeeded were those who constantly tried to be their best. He is now a succesful R&D engineer who has steadily risen in his company.
    The advice is not original to Woody Hayes, but he made it so exciting and so logical, like that was the way to live. He inspired countless people through his long life, and many were not on the football field.

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  4. MarkH said on November 18, 2006 at 8:06 pm

    Thanks for this post, Nancy.

    I was seven years out of Columbus when Woody died. I’m sure the best remembrance published in the Dispatch at the time was Harden’s and not Bob Hunter’s or Tim May’s. Very good in any case.

    While at OSU, I would see Woody every now and then, and it was usually on a Fall evening, outside a student dorm with him holding court with some players and a few other students. Once I stopped to listen for a minute or so, and it was a quiet conversation was about his family and a student’s family; just students and teacher, no football stuff.

    Another memory of Woody is the Woody Hayes Show on Channel 10, Saturday nights after each game in the ’70’s. Anyone whoever watched the show has to remember how Woody took over, and walked all over, his players and hapless host and WBNS sports director, Ted Mullins. What a hoot that was.

    His eternal image will be on the sidelines, metal-rim glasses, white short-sleeve shirt, narrow black tie, black hat with the red ‘O’. And, oh yes, the tantrums. Too bad few knew he was such a student of history, taught it while at OSU, and did have a lasting impact on people outside of football. Columbus-based mega-zillionaire Les Wexner claims his success was fashioned on Woody’s philosophy.

    A good tome on Woody is a book this post motivated me to get out and peruse again: “Buckeye”, by Robert Vare, published in 1974. Critical, yet honest, it’s a great read if you can find it on a used shelf somewhere.

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  5. Kirk said on November 18, 2006 at 9:22 pm

    the first car was torched within a couple of minutes after the game

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  6. nancy said on November 18, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Because that’s how Buckeyes CELEBRATE, dammit. If they’d lost, the whole city would be burning by now.

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  7. Connie said on November 18, 2006 at 9:47 pm

    Bo’s death also had me thinking about Woody Hayes. I finished grad school at Michigan and took a job in Upper Arlington in late summer 1978. (1977, Michigan 14, OSU 6). We took a certain amount of flack around town just for having Michigan plates on our car that Fall. The firing of Woody brough great schadenfreude upon us.

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  8. nancy said on November 18, 2006 at 9:53 pm

    After Woody was fired, every newspaper in the free world reported he was fired. Except the Columbus Dispatch, which ran a notorious Page One banner: WOODY HAYES RESIGNS. It made the paper a laughingstock, but the editors stood by it the way Ben Bradlee stood by Woodward and Bernstein. They always said that that’s what Woody told their reporter — “I quit” — and that’s the way they were going to play it.

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  9. Dave said on November 19, 2006 at 12:58 am

    Somewhere, probably at my parents house, that book Buckeye is lying around. I bought it from a Little Professor bookstore shortly after it came out, I don’t recall it being all that kind to Woody.

    I, too, grew up with Woody and watched his TV show, his players would try to answer sometimes but Woody would pretty much answer for them. I couldn’t imagine a Ohio State without Woody but all things do pass, don’t they.

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  10. colleen said on November 19, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    How come anytime I read an Albom piece or see him on tv, no matter his supposed topic, the vibe I get is that it’s about him, NOT his subject.

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  11. John said on November 19, 2006 at 9:00 pm

    I started reading Mitch’s obit and thought, wow, this isn’t bad. But man did it get off track fast. It wandered all over the place until I realized that it read like … a first draft by a pretty good writer who didn’t have time, or make time, to write a second draft to get rid of all the lame cliches.

    Thanks for all the Woody stuff …. enlightening for a New England boy.

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  12. MarkH said on November 20, 2006 at 2:34 am

    Not “all that kind to Woody” could be in the eye of the reader, Dave. I’m a (not rabid) Woody fan, but felt the book was fair and accurate. Speaking of “not all that kind”, Vare was particularly harsh on the rah-rah section knows as the Columbus sportswriters, who were (are?) a fawning bunch, indeed, in all things Woody and OSU.

    Further to Nancy’s point on how the Dispatch treated Woody’s firing in ’78: any negative or controversial OSU sports news, if it was covered at all, was summarily buried. I remember an aquaintance who played a backup position for Woody, was disgruntled with a number of things on the team, among them probably not being a consistent starter. Toward the end of the ’74 season he threatened to go public with his complaints, then did. I guess being a senior he felt he had little to lose. The story did run; small, below the fold on page 11, bylined to the AP.

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  13. Dave said on November 20, 2006 at 4:48 pm

    MarkH, I read that book thirty years ago, or whenever it came out, I really don’t have an ironclad memory of it in my mind. I DO also remember Dispatch coverage of those years and I’m sure my memory of it is accurate, everything you say is true, Woody was God in Columbus to the sports media but then, what did the Dispatch report negatively on in those years? Mayor Maynard Sennsenbrenner, perhaps (whose quotes used to crack me up but I can’t remember a one today).

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  14. MarkH said on November 20, 2006 at 11:12 pm

    Sensenbrenner, ha, what a character. I didn’t live there when he was mayor, as I arrived I arrived in ’72. That’s right, the famous Tom Moody years. The only stories of Sensenbrenner I do remember revolved around his dancing around the goal posts at OSU games, in colorful clothing, I think. Then another clown came in after Moody just to spice things up; Buck Rinehart, no? Nancy and others here may have a better memory of all this.

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