Monday, December 27, 2004

Bobby Knight grabbed one of his players by the shirt and twisted. Frank Beamer slapped a player on the sideline. Leo Durocher and Earl Weaver screamed at umpires until their faces turned purple. But no coach or manager in America’s often violent sports culture ever lost it as completely as Wayne Woodrow Hayes.

Dec. 29, 1978, Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, Fla.: Hayes’ Ohio State team is trailing Clemson 17-15 but threatening from the enemy’s 24 in the final minute until Tigers linebacker Charlie Bauman intercepts a pass by freshman quarterback Art Schlichter. End of threat, but not of excitement.

Bauman’s teammates cluster around him after he was knocked out of bounds on the Ohio State sideline — rubbing helmets, exchanging hand slaps and doing all the other congratulatory things football players do. Then so suddenly that ABC’s cameras didn’t pick it up clearly, a white-haired man wearing a jacket and baseball cap charges into the midst of the melee and throws a right-hand sucker punch that lands on Bauman’s collarbone.

The assailant is Woody Hayes, and the moment he delivers the punch, his 28-year career as an icon in Columbus and throughout Ohio is over at age 65. By the time the team returns home the next day, Hayes has been fired after winning 205 games, two national championships and making eight trips to the Rose Bowl. At the Columbus airport, police escort him from the plane to a car waiting on the tarmac, and he is driven off — to his house and into uncharacteristic obscurity.

Yet 26 years after the incident and 17 years after his death, many Ohioans still venerate Hayes. He is remembered as a rough, tough, gruff coach who idolized Gen. George Patton — but also as a man who cared about his players and who never pretended to be anything but what he was.

One of Hayes’ admirers was Richard Nixon, and vice versa. At Hayes’ funeral in 1987, the former president delivered the eulogy as more than a few tears fell. The old coach’s rock-rumped methods appealed to a president just as singular and just as controversial.

Once Nixon called Hayes after an important victory and was put on hold until Woody had finished addressing his team. Another time, Nixon invited Hayes to the White House. Said the president afterward: “I wanted to talk football, and Woody wanted to talk foreign policy. You know Woody — we discussed foreign policy.”

Was it more than a coincidence that Hayes’ career ended just as disastrously as Nixon’s had four years earlier in the aftermath of Watergate?

“It’s sad that Woody finished the way he did, because he was a great man,” recalled former Ohio State nose guard Jim Stillwagon. “A lot of people only remember him for that one thing. They never saw all the great things he did for people. … He always had a lot of great advice like that for us, but I wish he would have taken some of it himself.”

Hayes never publicly apologized for the punch, but his fiery temper was well known. On other occasions, he had tossed right hands at an ABC cameraman and a Los Angeles Times photographer for real or imagined offenses. This kind of behavior typified a man who said things like “I will pound and pound and pound you until you quit.”

Even Hayes described his boringly efficient offense as “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Bauman’s interception of Schlichter bore out Hayes’ famous remark that “only three things can happen to you when you pass, and two of them are bad.”

Years after his career ended, Hayes noted, in a rare flash of humor, “I don’t say that anymore. I found out four things can happen on a forward pass. The fourth is that you can get fired.”

Former Ohio State linebacker Randy Gradishar insisted that Hayes rued his attack on Bauman, saying, “He was very sorry for what he had done. He felt bad about his actions, and for Woody that was big.”

Bauman himself bore Hayes no ill will. In an interview two years ago with the Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal, he said graciously, “Woody was such a competitive man. I don’t know — maybe if I had been in his shoes, I would have done the same thing. … He made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes.”

In a book called “Quotable Woody,” Hayes attempted to define himself. “Nobody despises losing more than I do,” he said. “That’s what got me into trouble over the years, but it also made a man with mediocre ability into a pretty good coach.”

Hayes’ iron-fisted if ham-handed approach won him admiration from many of his peers. Said Bo Schembechler, a former Ohio State assistant and Woody’s equally hardboiled archrival at Michigan: “I love the man, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

Archie Griffin, who won two of the four Heisman Trophies claimed by Hayes’ players, described his old coach perfectly: “Woody is a God-fearing man. It’s nice to know he’s afraid of somebody.”

As with President Nixon, time erased some of the stigma attached to Hayes’ name and career. In many ways, he was a good man. He made sure his players fulfilled their academic obligations. He often turned down raises so his assistant coaches could get them; during his final season, his Ohio State salary was a mere $43,000. He made numerous visits to comfort the sick in Ohio hospitals — and probably threatened to slug any reporter who wrote about it. Yet as with Knight at Indiana, his fearsome temper finally did him in.

In 1983, after being elected to the Football Hall of Fame, a mellower Hayes was brought out to dot the “i” as the university’s marching band spelled out “Ohio” during its halftime performance. The cantankerous old coach called it one of the greatest days of his life.

Three years later, in a supremely ironic moment, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the school that had fired him. In his acceptance speech, he stressed the value of education and the need for good works in the community as even former detractors cheered.

When he died at home the following year, following his second heart attack, a funny and perhaps insightful story made its way around the state. In it, a man goes to heaven and sees a fat, old guy in a baseball cap jumping up and down on the sideline at a football game.

“Who is that madman?” the newcomer asks St. Peter.

“That’s God — but he thinks he’s Woody Hayes.”

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