History will record that Woody Hayes (who died March 12, 1987) and I began our careers at Ohio State the same year, 1951. No one in the press has taken note of this fact, and history is always slow about such things, so I will climb down from my pedestal that the world may be aware of this famous juxtaposition. I write of him as one who was a friend, albeit one who, unlike Woody, has always avoided controversy. I left Ohio State after 13 years—in 1964—to the warmer and greener pastures of southern California, but Woody enjoyed another decade of great achievement in Ohio before ending his career with both a bang and a whimper. Alas, a national television audience watched him slug a Clemson player who had intercepted an Ohio State pass in the 1978 Gator Bowl, two minutes before the end of the game, which Ohio State lost, 17-15. And so ol’ Woody passed into the night, defeated in the end by the only one who could defeat him: himself.
Woody’s career, and its inglorious ending, somewhat resembled that of his hero: General Patton. Patton had become something of an anachronism at the time of his meaningless death in a jeep accident, shortly after the end of World War II. He was an anachronism because, at the very moment we grasped the hands of our Russian allies in victory, Patton declared that they had never been our friends, and were now our enemies. Of course, it was little more than a year later that President Truman declared much the same thing that Patton had declared, but when he died Patton was out of favor with all enlightened thinkers.
Woody was never popular with the Ohio State faculty. He was popular with the Ohio State legislature, and with the alumni and with the townspeople of Columbus. I do not believe that there was a single unsold seat in Ohio stadium during his entire 28-year tenure. I remember one bitter November Saturday when there were some empty seats—which was regarded as scandalous—but they were not unsold. This of course made him very much persona grata with the administration. In 1961 Ohio State won the Big Ten championship and the invitation to go to the Rose Bowl. By some fluke, however, the contract between the Big Ten and the (then) PAC 8 had lapsed, and university rules (which I believe had never applied, before or since) required a vote of the faculty to accept the Rose Bowl bid. The faculty voted the football team down. Ohio State did not go to the Rose Bowl that year, and Woody’s recruiting was badly damaged in the years that followed. In fact, Woody’s recovery from that episode, his coaching Ohio State to an undefeated and untied season, a Rose Bowl victory, and a national championship in 1968, is one of the great unsung comeback stories in sports history.
I remember the 1961 episode vividly. A typical liberal arts professor at—Ohio State—in those years—lived his life in Woody’s shadow. Most of those professors were not Ohioans and had earned their doctorates at Ivy League universities. They regarded Columbus, Ohio, as a kind of frontier outpost where they were temporarily exiled. Woody and his Saturday circus, they regarded as a Neanderthal ritual of the natives, from which they shudderingly held aloof. But what they resented most of all was what happened when they went abroad, anxious to tell the world of culture and light about the success of their fastidious efforts to preserve the purity of their souls amidst the bourgeois barbarism of Columbus. But the world of culture and light, alas, was often more interested in hearing about Woody and the team. Pity the plight of the poor literary scholar, who has labored years to produce a monograph on “The Use of the Circumflex in the Early Provencal Chanson.” He arrives at the meeting of the PMLA, burning with the fire of anticipated recognition, only to discover that his professional colleagues, once having done their professional duty, turn the talk once again in the direction of Woody. I say I remember the episode vividly. I campaigned as best I could for Woody and the team, but it was a lost cause. Yet in some ways this was Woody’s finest hour. There was an ugly mood on campus. This was before the campus riots of the later sixties, but it was something of an augury of things to come. The team had played its heart out to go to the Rose Bowl. The entire Columbus establishment (and Columbus, remember, is the State capital) felt that the team belonged to them, and to Ohio, and not to the rotten outsiders who by a quirk of fate had had the power to vote them down. But Woody stood against them. Before a great rally—in the light of the bonfire in which the crowd would gladly have immolated the objects of their anger—Woody defended the faculty. They had done their duty as they saw it, and we must accept the decision of the vote, he said. What they represented in the life of the university, he told the angry crowd, was far more important than the football program. He told the crowd to disperse, and the students to go back to their books. That ended the matter. Woody was a team player, and the university was his team. There was neither bitterness nor condescension in his manner. And I never heard of him complaining about it afterwards.
In 1956 Ohio State was placed on a one-year probation because of Woody’s having given money to some of his players. I took my two boys to a pre-season warm-up with Woody at the Faculty Club that fall. In the course of the evening we asked him for his explanation of the episode. I have never seen that explanation in the press, and I give it here for what it is worth. This, mind you, was in the mid-fifties, long before the anti-discrimination laws of the following decade. Woody said that he got summer jobs for many of his players, but that it was often the case that the black athletes received less for the same work than the white athletes. When that happened, he said, he made up the difference out of his own pocket. He was proud of having done so, he said, and if need be he would do it again. Many I know who read this will regard it with cynicism. I can only say that I believed Woody then and still do. However brutally he may have treated them sometimes on the practice field, Woody’s devotion to his players—whatever their race, creed, or color—was legendary. One story may stand for many others. One of his protégés had been admitted to Harvard Medical School, and was half way through his first semester. He had found the going rough, as so many first-year medical students do. And he was on the point of dropping out. Woody heard about it and took the next plane out of Columbus for Cambridge. And he did not leave Cambridge until he had the young man’s promise to stay in school—the young man who is now no longer younger, but a very successful and distinguished member of the medical profession.
Farewell, Woody. Whatever his faults, we may say of him, as Antony said of Brutus, “This was a man.”
Harry V. Jaffa
January 3, 2003