Tarnishing a Legacy

The third version of the College Football playoff takes over New Years Eve again this year.  Next year, the semi-finals will actually be played on New Years Day as the Rose Bowl hosts one of the two semi-final games.  This year’s version matches top seed Alabama and 4th seed Washington in the first game in Atlanta, and I caution anyone who thinks that Washington can’t win this game to think again.  The second game comes in what is known as the “PlayStation Fiesta Bowl” in Glendale, Arizona matching 2nd seed Clemson and 3rd seed Ohio State.

This is just the third time Clemson and Ohio State have ever played with both of the previous meetings  also coming in bowl games, but the two schools will be forever intertwined by an incident which occurred on December 29, 1978 at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida where a coach who spent a lifetime forging a legacy managed to ruin it in front of a national television audience with one unfortunate action.

That night Clemson defeated Ohio State 17-15 in the Gator Bowl.  Late in the game then Ohio State freshman Quarterback Art Schlichter (who would go on to battle his own demons in the form of a gambling addiction) had his team driving for what would be the game winning score when he threw a pass that was intercepted by Clemson’s Charlie Bauman.  Bauman returned the ball toward the Ohio State sideline where he was run out of bounds.  When he got up, Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes punched him in the throat setting off a bench clearing brawl where Hayes actually went after the referee and then his own player who tried to restrain him.  The next day, after 28 seasons as the head coach at Ohio State, 238 career coaching wins against 72 losses and 10 ties, 5 National Titles and 13 Big Ten Championships, Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes was fired as the head coach at Ohio State and would never coach again.

For his part Bauman didn’t think much of it and shrugged it off.  That wasn’t the case for Ohio State.  In those days, there wasn’t much college football on television as the NCAA kept a tight control on television appearances in some apparent fake belief that television could harm attendance.  We now know that to be a complete fallacy.  There was basically one televised game or several regional games in a Saturday afternoon slot on ABC usually at 1:30 p.m.  That was it. ESPN was still in the talking stage, cable was just gaining footing, and of course there was no Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or anything else that your average high school student wastes time on per day. No cell phones with cameras as most of us had the old rotary dial phone on the kitchen wall.

But, the Gator Bowl wasn’t controlled by the NCAA and thus had it’s own television deal and a primetime spot on ABC that December night.  In an era when the three major networks provided most, if not all, of the programming Americans saw in primetime, a large audience saw Hayes’ punch and Ohio State left with no choice.

Hayes Athletic Director Hugh Hindman had actually played for Hayes at Miami of Ohio and was a former assistant coach for him for seven years.  After the game, Hindman tried to privately meet with Hayes to tell him that it appeared he had made one mistake too many and offered Hayes a chance to resign.  Hayes responded by aggressively telling Hindman that he wouldn’t do that and the school should just fire him.  After meeting with the school President that night, the next day Ohio State did just that.  At the time, the school president said he didn’t believe there was any university in the country that would tolerate a coach physically assaulting a student-athlete.  If that was the case in 1978, it’s truly the case today.

Up until that point, Woody Hayes was Ohio State Football.  He was old school to be sure.  A graduate of Ohio’s Dennison College (now a Division III school) Hayes first job was as a high school coach before enlisting in the United States Navy during World War II.  A tough, born leader Hayes rose quickly through the ranks to Lieutenant Commander, helping command a couple of fleets in the Pacific theater.  When his time in the Navy was done, Hayes returned to Dennison as a head football coach in 1946 before moving to Miami of Ohio in 1949 and then Ohio State in 1951.  It was Hayes and one of his former assistant coaches, Michigan’s Bo Schembechler who ignited the rivalry that is Ohio State versus Michigan.  From 1968 to 1978 either Ohio State or Michigan won or shared the Big Ten title each season.

As an old school coach with a hot temper, Hayes is probably going to be best known outside of Ohio State for his sometimes bizarre behavior, including the Bauman punch, than what he actually was able to accomplish not only on the field but off at it as well.  Hayes was one of the first coaches to recruit African American players and one of the players he recruited running back Archie Griffin remains the only two time winner of the Heisman Trophy.  He also believed strongly in academics working as a professor of Military History at Ohio State, a job he kept even after losing his head coaching job.  His office remained in the ROTC building across the street from Ohio Stadium, and his students didn’t call him coach, but instead called him professor.  One of his students at OSU was basketball player named Bobby Knight, who like Hayes would be undone by his own temper as a head basketball coach at the University of Indiana.

The Bauman incident was just the last in a string of incidents that unfortunately will define Hayes’ career.  In 1959, he threw a punch at a Los Angeles sportswriter, missing him but hitting the guy behind him in the back.  He also nearly started a fight with Iowa’s Athletic Director at a Big-10 meeting one year; at the 1973 Rose Bowl he shoved a camera in the face of a photographer earning him a three game suspension, a $2,000 fine and a subpoena issued from a California Court; and in 1977 after his team fumbled late in the game against Michigan, he charged at an ABC cameraman who was getting the typical coaches’ reaction shot.  That incident earned him an ejection from the game, probation from the Big Ten Conference and another $2,000 fine.  He could be both vindictive and belligerent.  One season when his team was just pounding Michigan late in the game he went for two after a late touchdown in an attempt to run up the score on the hated Wolverines.  When asked why did that, he said because he couldn’t go for three.  He reportedly also did interviews after losses or ties completely naked I guess to scare off reporters.  That would have done it for me because I hated locker rooms and there is no place in this world for a naked old man.  His behavior prompted his wife to reportedly say one time that she never considered divorcing him, but on numerous occasions did consider murder.

There’s no questioning Woody Hayes’ accomplishments as a mentor and football coach.  He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.  In 1987, he died of a heart attack at his home at the age of 74, just one night after introducing his old friend and rival Schembechler at a function in Dayton, Ohio.  In this era where we are clearly raising “soft kids” who are all told how great they are and get a trophy when there team doesn’t win a game we could use coaches like Woody Hayes who are demanding, but not demeaning.  Hayes never figured out how to be one without the other and apparently could never control his famous temper.  Ohio State will always swear by him and they should because he’s a legend of College Football, but unfortunately for most of the country watching ABC on December 29, 1978, Hayes’ final mistake will be his lasting legacy and that’s truly unfortunate.

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