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Sport: Violent World Of Woody Hayes

5 minute read

A combative coach is sacked

He had always been an outsize figure on autumn afternoons, fiercely aggressive, his chin thrust forward in defiance. He wanted to win. He wanted to win, in the end, more than anything, and it was the flaw that ruined him. The denouement came on a Friday night in a meaningless bowl game. Coach Wayne Woodrow Hayes, 65, the autocrat of Ohio State football for 28 years, was fired after assaulting an opposing player. Sadly, the incident that ended his remarkable career in disgrace surprised virtually no one who was familiar with Woody. “Hayes had become a caricature of himself,” said Max Brown, editor of the Columbus Monthly in the home city of Ohio State. “He was deteriorating in front of everyone’s eyes. What happened was inevitable.”

Violent outbursts were a hallmark of his coaching career. “Woody’s idea of sublimating,” an acquaintance once said, “is to hit someone.” In 1956, following an Ohio State loss to Iowa, Hayes manhandled a Cedar Rapids television cameraman. Three years later, after losing to Southern California, he took swipes at a Los Angeles sportswriter and a bystander. While Michigan was beating his boys in 1971, Hayes menaced an official, then broke a sideline marker over his knee. Before the 1973 Rose Bowl, he pushed a camera into the face of a newspaper photographer. “That’ll take care of you, you son of a bitch,” the coach was quoted as saying. In 1977 the Big Ten put him on one year’s probation after he slugged an ABC cameraman.

Anyone else would have been dismissed long ago, but at Ohio State, where the game is a religion and a $6 million annual business, Woody Hayes continued to be backed by the administration. Critics with the temerity to question the university’s sense of values in keeping on a man with such a temper were shouted down by the legions of his supporters. Some proudly wore scarlet and gray O.S.U. T shirts proclaiming: WOODY’S UNIVERSITY.

The people closest to him never seemed to lose patience. “Divorce, no,” quipped his wife Anne, when asked if she ever considered leaving him. “Murder, yes.” Hayes certainly was not volunteering to retire. “When I do, I’ll die on the 50-yard line at Ohio Stadium in front of the usual crowd of 87,000,” he said a few years ago. “If you do,” someone interjected, “I sure hope the score’s in your favor.” Replied Hayes: “If it isn’t, I won’t.”

To Woody Hayes, life, like oldtime football, was three yards and a cloud of dust. “I may not be able to outsmart too many people, but I can outwork ’em,” he frequently said, and he was right. But whatever his intellectual insecurities, Hayes was confident that he was receiving life’s message loud and clear. Rectitude, he was certain, lay in Midwestern values, rock-ribbed Republicanism and college football. Just as surely, permissiveness led to social cataclysm, liberalism to national weakness. He built his personal philosophy on the lessons of war and football, and he saw numerous parallels between the two. His heroes were Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, naturally, General George Patton. “This whole country,” the coach liked to say, “has been built on one thing—winning.”

True to his gods, Woody won: more victories (238) than any active big-time coach except Alabama’s Bear Bryant; undefeated national championships in 1954 and 1968; 13 Big Ten titles (six shared); college, coach of the year in 1957 and 1975. His players captured three Heisman Trophies, and 58 made the All-American lists. Hayes was fanatically loyal to his athletes, who usually were loyal in return, and he was genuinely respected in Ohio for his personal integrity and little-publicized acts of charity and kindness.

Yet he was always frighteningly—even pathologically—at the mercy of private demons. “When we lose a game, nobody’s madder at me than me,” he said five years ago. “When I look into the mirror in the morning, I want to take a swing at me.” Literally. After losing to Iowa in 1963, Hayes slashed his face with a large ring on his left hand. Pacing the sidelines, he sometimes bit into the fleshy heel of his hand until it bled. Even a heart attack in 1974 did not make Hayes ease up.

In recent years the pressure took a greater toll, and his ruminations about the sport became more strident. “This game of football used to be pretty important to me. It isn’t any more. Now it’s just damn near everything,” he said last month. The past season was especially frustrating: his young Buckeyes had a mediocre, for him, record of 7-3-1, and he lost his third straight game to archrival Michigan. What’s more, the losses came after Hayes introduced a passing offense, a strategy he used to ridicule as “frivolous.”

Still, Ohio State was invited to play Clemson in the Gator Bowl, and there, with 1 min. 58 sec. left to play and a national television audience looking on, Woody’s volcanic temper erupted yet again. Clemson’s Charlie Bauman, young enough at 20 to be Hayes’ grandson, intercepted a pass to halt an Ohio State drive and preserve a 17-15 victory. On the play, Bauman was forced out of bounds right in front of Woody. Bauman did not taunt the old coach, as some accounts had it. He did not have to. For Hayes, losing was goad enough. He swung his hefty right forearm at Bauman’s throat, then beat on the face mask of one of his own players who tried to restrain him.

At 7:45 the next morning, Ohio State fired its fallen idol. Kelton Dansler, one of the coach’s top linebackers, later tried to find the right words for what had happened. Loyally, he called Woody Hayes a “great man,” but then he said of his coach: “He pushed a little too hard and tried to hang on a little too long.” That was summing it all up as kindly as possible.

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