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Hayes strikes and he's out
Hayes produced champions, controversy
By Alex Fineman
Special to ESPN.com
"When you see a guy ripping up sideline markers, you think he's a maniac. When you see a guy punching that kid in the Gator Bowl, you think he's nuts. But he's not. We're talking about the most awesome coach in the history of college football," says former Ohio State player Tom Skladany about Woody Hayes on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Woody Hayes was a raging perfectionist, a prisoner of his own famously volatile temper, a military history buff who coached football like Patton soldiered GIs. He produced champions and controversy in equal lots. He turned Ohio State into a perennial powerhouse, winning three national championships and 13 Big Ten titles in his 28 seasons there.
He favored an unrelenting ground attack that crushed opponents, who in turn weren't sure whom to fear most, the Buckeye steamroller or the combustible man who directed it.
"I'm not trying to win a popularity poll," he said. "I'm trying to win football games."
That he did -- 205 of them at Ohio State, against just 68 defeats and 10 ties.
For venting purposes, an empty water jug was usually on his desk, within easy reaching distance when he needed something to hurl. Spare jugs were usually handy, for that supply was always in danger of running out well before his temper did.
"The Old Man," as he became known, said, "The minute I think I'm getting mellow, I'm retiring. Who ever heard of a mellow winner?"
Hayes' temper ultimately got the best of him, and he never had the chance to retire mellow. In the 1978 Gator Bowl, after a late Clemson interception sealed Ohio State's loss, Hayes erupted. He punched the Clemson defender who picked off the pass.
There was a firestorm of criticism across the country, and embarrassed university leaders were forced to take action. Hayes was fired the next day. He never coached another game.
Ironically, Wayne Woodrow Hayes came into the world on Valentine's Day in 1913. He was born in Clifton, Ohio, to Wayne and Effie Hayes, and was raised in Newcomerstown, Ohio. There, Hayes became intertwined with the game of football.
He played center for the high school team. From there he moved on to Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he continued his playing career. After graduating in 1935 with a B.A. in English and history, Hayes became an assistant coach at Mingo Junction High School in Ohio that fall. He remained there for two seasons before moving to New Philadelphia High School, also in Ohio, as an assistant coach there. While at New Philadelphia, he met Anne, the woman who would become his wife.
In 1938, Hayes was promoted to head coach at New Philadelphia. Three years later, he enlisted in the United States Navy, where he developed a passion for military history.
Hayes saw combat duty in the Pacific and finished his tour as a lieutenant commander in 1946. He returned to his alma mater and he coached Denison for three seasons, including back-to-back undefeated years (9-0 and 8-0) in 1947 and 1948. Twenty-six years later, Hayes was honored for his contributions to the football program as a member of the first class inducted into the Denison Athletic Hall of Fame.
At 36, he became head coach at Miami of Ohio. In Hayes' first season, in 1949, the Redskins went 5-4. The next year, Miami tore off an eight-game winning streak, capping its 9-1 campaign with a 34-21 victory over Arizona State in the Salad Bowl.
One player on this team, Bo Schembechler, went on to become an assistant under Hayes at Ohio State, and then coach at Miami and later at Hayes' fiercest rival, Michigan.
After this outstanding 1950 season, Hayes was invited to join the big time by Ohio State in February 1951. The university was known as the "graveyard of coaches," having had five in the previous 11 years. But Hayes would soon change that.
Accepting the Buckeyes' head coaching job, he said, "I'm not coming here looking for security. I came here for the opportunity."
In his first year the Buckeyes had trouble adapting to the T-formation that Hayes preferred, and finished with a 4-3-2 record. The next season, however, Ohio State improved to 6-3. More importantly, the team snapped an eight-year losing streak against Michigan, a victory that endeared Hayes to the Buckeye fans.
In 1953, Ohio State finished with the same 6-3 record even though its starting quarterback, John Borton, suffered a season-ending injury in the third game. Hayes came away from the campaign a strong believer in a powerful running game, and the smash mouth style of football -- what he called "three yards and a cloud of dust" -- became his trademark.
Hayes also began to view the pass as something not to be trusted. "There are three things that can happen when you pass, and two of them ain't good," he said.
The next season, Hayes and the Buckeyes ran all the way to a national championship. The 1954 team beat Southern Cal, 20-7, in the Rose Bowl to finish at 10-0. Part of the reason for Hayes' success was his accelerating integration into his team, a practice he continued throughout his career.
From 1955-58, the Buckeyes racked up another national championship (1957), a Big Ten record 17 consecutive victories (1955-56), and a Heisman Trophy winner (Hopalong Cassady, in 1955). On the down side, in 1956 the Big 10 placed Ohio State on one-year probation for paying some players for work they didn't do.
In 1959, Hayes suffered through his worst season at Ohio State at 3-5-1. He would have only one other losing season (1966).
Many consider his 1968 team Hayes' greatest. That squad routed Michigan, 50-14, and came from behind to beat Southern Cal, 27-16, in the Rose Bowl, earning Hayes his third -- and final -- national championship. The title came amid a 22-game winning streak.
In June 1974, Hayes suffered a heart attack but recovered in time to be on the sidelines for the season opener. Later that season, Michigan State beat Ohio State to spoil the Buckeyes' bid for an unbeaten season.
"I wanted that undefeated season more than anything I ever wanted in my life," he said. "I'd give anything -- my house, my bank account, anything but my wife and family -- to get it."
His reign as the Old Man of Ohio State football ended after the Gator Bowl on Dec. 28, 1978. With the Buckeyes trailing 17-15 late in the fourth quarter, Clemson noseguard Charlie Bauman made an improbable interception -- the first and only one of his career. He ran out of bounds onto the Ohio State sideline, where he met a sudden punch from the 65-year-old coach. The next morning, Hayes was fired.
In 1979, columnist Red Smith looked back on Hayes' career and wrote, "Evidently nobody in authority realized that a full-grown man who attached such importance to a game was, at best, immature, not to say a case of arrested development. The saddest part of the whole affair is that nobody at Ohio State saw the denouement approaching and protected Hayes from himself."
He is remembered as much or more for his outburst on national television as for his career accomplishments. Hayes, whose 238-72-10 lifetime coaching record is one of the best in NCAA history, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 6, 1983.
On March 12, 1987, a heart attack claimed the Old Man. He went to his grave never having apologized for his actions in that fateful Gator Bowl. His headstone in Union Cemetery in Columbus reads, "And in the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love hears the rustle of a wing."
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