Clemson and Ohio State meet for just the second time ever in Friday's Discover Orange Bowl. But the two programs will be forever linked in history because of a punch thrown 35 years ago in another Florida bowl game.
That punch ended the career of legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. That punch brought Charlie Bauman unwanted celebrity. That punch overshadowed everything about the 1978 Gator Bowl, including a breakthrough win for Clemson. And that punch was the first thing participants in the first game thought about when this year's Orange Bowl pairing was announced.
"Not very many people remember much about the football game itself," said Steve Fuller, who was Clemson's quarterback in the 1978 game. "It was an important game for us to establish ourselves as a national program.
"But at the end of day, that's not what people remember. It was the Woody Bowl."
'What did you do that for?'
The contrast between the coaches in the '78 Gator Bowl could hardly have been more striking. Ohio State was led by the 65-year-old Hayes, who had won 205 games and five national titles during his 28 seasons in Columbus. Clemson countered with 31-year-old Danny Ford, who'd been promoted from offensive line coach to interim head coach for the bowl game after the regular season when Charley Pell left for Florida.
"I was scared to death," Ford said. "He was an icon and a legend. I was just a kid. In the press conferences leading up to the game, I was like a reporter. I just sat in the back and listened while he talked."
But Clemson had the better team that season, and the Tigers' gassed defense desperately clung to a 17-15 lead with about two minutes to go. Ohio State already had reached field goal range at the Clemson 24 and called for a seemingly safe play on third-and-5. The tight end would clear the linebackers, leaving the running back open for a short pass over the middle. Quarterback Art Schlichter had the option of throwing the ball or running it.
But Schlichter, a freshman, faced pressure up the middle and threw the ball right into the hands of Clemson's backup nose guard, Bauman.
"The rest," former Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau said, "is Gator Bowl lore."
Bauman returned his only career interception toward the Buckeyes' sideline, where he was tackled by Schlichter near the feet of Hayes. Clemson linebacker Bubba Brown, who was running right behind Bauman on the return, said he heard Hayes yell at Bauman, "You SOB, I just lost my job!"
Bauman jumped to his feet and looked toward the stands. Hayes pulled the back of Bauman's jersey toward him, then swung his right arm at Bauman's throat.
"You could see the disgust and anger coming off his face," Brown said. "Charlie said, 'What did you do that for?'"
A brief melee ensued between players and coaches from both teams. Ford ran over to help break up the scrum and says one of the Ohio State players ripped the ball cap off his head.
"I think he thought I was a manager or something," Ford said. "I picked my hat up and got back to the sidelines in a hurry."
If such an incident happened today, Twitter would detonate, and we'd see millions of instant replays. But the punch happened on a crowded sideline with fewer camera angles available in 1978. The ABC announcing team of Keith Jackson and Ara Parseghian never mentioned Hayes' punch during the broadcast. Several players and coaches had no idea what had happened until much later on.
But Ohio State guard Jim Savoca was right in the middle of the scene, getting ready to send in the next Buckeyes play that never happened. He grasped the significance right away.
"I knew he was done," Savoca said. "I knew it was over."
'You couldn't cross that line'
Wayne Woodrow Hayes saw combat duty in the Pacific during World War II and coached football like he was MacArthur storming the islands.
He threw a legendary tirade during the 1971 Michigan game, destroying the sideline down markers. He shoved news photographers out of his way. His own players and coaches knew to watch out for his bursts of anger and intensity.
"Everybody who played for Ohio State probably got slugged in the stomach or slapped by Coach Hayes," Savoca said. "It was the era. We would joke about it and say, 'Circle right to get away from that left hook.'"
"I think if you spent four years at Ohio State and Woody didn't hit you, you felt cheated," said Glen Mason, who was Hayes' first-year offensive line coach in 1978. "Most times, he was hitting guys in the shoulder pads with his bare hands. He probably hurt himself more than anything."
Yet the Buckeyes still couldn't quite believe what they saw that Dec. 29 night in Jacksonville against Clemson.
"He didn't hurt Charlie," Cousineau said. "It was like a mosquito. But it was the intent. You couldn't cross that line. It's different when you kick a sideline marker or push a cameraman. We expected him to be that animated with us, but never with the opponent."
Immediately following the game, the Ohio State locker room was so quiet that it was "kind of eerie," Mason said. The assistants stood in a hallway as Hayes and athletic director Hugh Hindman met in the small coaches' office. When Hindman walked out, Mason recalled, he paused and said calmly to the assistants, "Expect the worst."
The next day, the team traveled to the Jacksonville airport without Hayes, which was unusual because "we never went any place without Woody," Mason said. Hayes was driven to the team plane by Florida state troopers. While the team was in the air on the way to Columbus, Hindman announced that Hayes had been fired.
When the Buckeyes landed, TV trucks filled the tarmac. Hayes got on the plane's loudspeaker and told his players to drive home carefully and be ready to return to school on Monday. Finally, he added, "I'm no longer the head football coach at Ohio State."
Cousineau had left the stadium that night in his uniform, pausing only to grab a duffel bag out of the locker room. He flew to Hawaii early the following day to play in the Hula Bowl and didn't know the magnitude of what had happened until he landed in Honolulu and was greeted by reporters.
"When I hit the ground, I was like the main feature," he said. "I remember being very, very sad that it would end that way for a great coach and a great person."
'He didn't hurt me or anything'
Bauman never wanted the notoriety that he unwittingly achieved and has rarely talked about the punch. He declined all interview requests this month through the Clemson sports information department, and attempts by ESPN.com to reach him were unsuccessful. Bauman's last known interview came in 2008 for a Florida Times-Union story on the game's 30th anniversary.
"I don't have anything bad to say about coach Hayes," Bauman told the Times-Union. "He made a mistake. We all make mistakes. I mean, he didn't hurt me or anything."
Ford said Hayes called him the Sunday after the Gator Bowl to ask for Bauman's phone number. Bauman acknowledged in a 2003 interview with Orange and White Illustrated that he spoke with Hayes shortly after the game. Hayes didn't apologize, but the two had a respectful conversation, Bauman told the publication.
If he has any hard feelings about Hayes or Ohio State, Bauman has chosen an odd way to show it. The New Jersey native lives outside of Cincinnati and said in that 2003 interview that he often attended Buckeyes home football games.
"I'm real proud of Charlie," Ford said. "He doesn't like to talk about it. It took a lot for a man like that to never say anything."
A few weeks after the game, Fuller and Tigers star receiver Jerry Butler were among several players honored at a banquet by the Columbus Touchdown Club. Hayes attended the event. Fuller said no one at the banquet ever mentioned the punch.
In the summer of 1979, Hayes spoke at the South Carolina high school coaches association clinic. True to form, he didn't apologize for punching Bauman and even admonished several high school coaches in attendance for their facial hair. Ford said the coaches gave Hayes a standing ovation.
"He was accepted by the coaches for who he was, not for what had happened," Ford said.
Savoca ran into Hayes at different functions over the years and said Hayes would always ask him, "I was going for the ball, right?" Savoca would respond, "Yes, sir. Going for the ball."
"He never apologized, never ran from it," Savoca said. "He just owned up to it and got on with it."
The Clemson players on that 1978 team wish more people remembered that the Gator Bowl was a pretty special moment for them.
The Tigers were blown out 34-3 by Pitt in the same game the previous season. Beating a nationally recognized program like Ohio State signified a breakthrough and gave the program its second-ever 11-win season. Three years later, Ford would lead Clemson to its lone national title.
"The freshman group in '78 were the seniors on the national title team," Fuller said. "They got the idea of what it was like to win and play in important games from that season."
Brown registered 22 tackles that night against Ohio State and said his lasting memory of the game is how the defense found the fortitude to make the key stop against the Buckeyes. But the Hayes punch also informs Brown's decisions as a high school coach in Michigan.
"If I ever get hotheaded for some reason, I tell myself to cool down because that incident comes to mind," Brown said. "There are certain lines you can't cross."
Cousineau believes Hayes' diabetes played a role in his outbursts. He said Hayes never managed the disease properly and that perhaps the stress built up to a breaking point at the end of a long football game.
"He was, I think, a pretty noncompliant patient," Cousineau said. "During my tenure, he had episodes that got worse and worse."
Whatever the reason for his infamous loss of composure, Hayes never lost popularity among Ohio State fans. He maintained an office on campus for several years after his firing. He remained a revered figure and wildly popular guest at Buckeyes functions until his death in 1987. Ex-players and assistants will tell you that for every controversial Hayes explosion, he performed countless more acts of kindness and generosity, often quietly. Ohio State's football complex is named after Hayes.
"There are moments in time when people lose it," said current Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith. "But I'm one of those people who believes that one incident in a person's life, unless it's a certain level of a crime, shouldn't define who they are. His legacy is beyond that incident. It's not just what he did for our football program but for the hundreds and hundreds of men he served. They all loved him, and that's rare."
Former Ohio State players hope that when the video of the punch is invariably shown over and over again in the buildup to Friday's game, that won't be the only thing people associate with Hayes. It was such an overwhelmingly strange moment, however, that it can't help but enter the conversation when these two teams reunite for another Florida bowl. Until the Buckeyes and Tigers create some new memories this week, the Hayes punch will continue to link the two programs.
"I don't know that you can overstate it, because it ended the career of a legend and an icon," Ford said. "I don't like to remember it like that. I don't like to say it was his last game. But that's history and that's what happened, and you can't change that."