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Original Issue


Woody Hayes was an apostle of primal struggle

After I heard the news that Woody Hayes had died, my thoughts returned to an autumn afternoon in 1970, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, when my team, Northwestern University, was leading Ohio State 10-3 just before the half. I was a cornerback and was standing only a few yards from Hayes. He looked at me, and I could feel his loathing—for me, my teammates and everything else that stood in the way of his Buckeyes. The winner of this game would likely go to the Rose Bowl, a place Hayes's team seemed to visit every other year but to which Northwestern hadn't been since 1948.

Hayes was at the peak of his fame back then; the NU coaches referred to him as the Fatman, partly out of hatred, largely out of envy. He had won national championships in '54 and '68 and was well on his way to becoming the fifth-winningest college coach ever. He was already a legend for chewing out his players, snarling at the press, smashing projectors and cheap watches and ripping up pre-torn baseball caps. And he already had issued his famous edict: "Three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad."

I personally had proved him right that afternoon, having intercepted two of quarterback Rex Kern's passes. For the half Ohio State would pass 10 times, completing only three, with three interceptions. Hayes was almost out of his mind with rage. And yet his passing attack was so primitive, so readable that there was little we defenders could do but catch the ball or bat it down.

As I looked at Hayes just before the gun sounded, it struck me that perhaps he had planned it this way. Like a child, he had guaranteed the failure of a system he hated. "See, Mom, I told you it wouldn't work!" In the second half Ohio State threw just two passes. The offense came out in a tight T formation—the gridiron equivalent of the bulldozer—and plowed us into the ground.

"The most deceptive course in football is straight at the goalposts," Hayes had stated. "When the Germans went through the Argonne, it wasn't an 18 sweep, it was a 10 trap." Undefeated OSU 10-trapped us into submission that day, then went to the Rose Bowl and lost to an over-achieving Stanford team which relied heavily on that despised thing, the forward pass.

To me the point was clear: You can always crush a weakling; it takes guile and innovation to defeat an equal. Hayes built his record by beating up on the Little Eight in the Big Ten, saving his greatest fury for those season-ending tractor pulls against Michigan. His style of power football, conceived in simpler times, may have set the Big Ten back a decade in relation to other conferences. In the Rose Bowl alone the PAC-10 has defeated the Big Ten 16 of the last 18 years. Hayes's final rage at the vagaries of the forward pass occurred in the last moments of the 1978 Gator Bowl when he slugged Clemson noseguard Charlie Bauman, who had just intercepted a last-gasp OSU pass. Chicago Tribune columnist—and OSU grad—Bernie Lincicome has written of Hayes that that was "the night, truly, that his life ended."

The essential conflict of Hayes's life was neatly encapsulated in the run-pass dilemma. The one form of attack personified the earth, primal struggle, atavism, simplicity, things that could be controlled; the other embodied air, lightness, modernity, freedom and risk. Hayes was of the earth, an old-fashioned toiler. "I despise gimmicks!" he often roared. A 250-pound fullback was not a gimmick. A pass was.

I do not think Woody Hayes was a great football coach. He won a lot, but what does that mean? And yet, having said that, I think it is likely he was a great football man. He had many virtues. He was honest. He affected people. He believed in scholarship. He had no pretenses. He and his wife, Anne, lived for 36 years in the same house, with few possessions. In classes he taught at Ohio State he told his students how Socrates would walk happily through the marketplace saying, "Look at the things I don't need."

Like all great men he gave us a target. He was unashamed to do what he felt was right. When Hayes eventually got around to calling Charlie Bauman on the telephone, he did so not to apologize but to find out what defense Clemson was in when Bauman made the interception. The top brass at Ohio State understood the hubris-ridden, unique man for what he was. Six months after firing him as coach, for the Bauman incident, the board of trustees voted him professor emeritus, and Hayes kept his small teacher's office at OSU until the end.

It has been reported that Hayes died in his sleep, quietly and at peace. I hope that is true. And I hope that somewhere the coach is smiling; it's first and goal at the one, and the big fullback has the ball.