Woody and Winning: a Fire Was Burning Inside

The Washington Post

Woody Hayes, the former Ohio State football coach who died early on the morning of March 12 of a heart attack, was a winner, that’s for sure. A few years ago, when I was driving with him through a snowstorm in southern Ohio, headed for his third speaking engagement of the afternoon, he asked me what my father did for a living, and I said he’d been a high school football coach for more than 15 years before becoming a junior high school principal.

“Izzat so?” Woody said and cleaned his gray, horn-rimmed glasses with a handkerchief. He was greatly impressed. Whenever Woody Hayes said, “Izzat so?” he was impressed to the point of incredulity. “A coach, you say?” he said.

“He was pretty tough, from what I remember,” I said.

“Well, did he win?” Woody said.

“He won more than he lost.”

“Not everybody does that, you know. Not everybody wins more than he loses.”


Woody also said this about winning: “Without winners, there wouldn’t even be any goddamned civilization.”

Of course, it would have been improper for just anyone to refer to him simply as “Woody,” for he was “Woody” only when you spoke of him behind his back. Face to face, he was “Coach Hayes” or “Coach,” and no one knew this better than the young men and assistant coaches who worked and played with him during his 33 seasons at Denison University, Miami of Ohio and Ohio State.

He won 238 games during those years, lost only 72 and tied 10. He was the fifth-winningest coach in the history of college football, trailing Eddie Robinson, Paul (Bear) Bryant, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Glenn (Pop) Warner, and he might have won more had he not lost his temper during the 1978 Gator Bowl and slugged Charlie Bauman, the Clemson nose guard, after Bauman intercepted an Ohio State pass in the closing minutes of the game.

The university fired him a few hours after the incident, and Hayes, who never much minded being compared with Gen. George S. Patton, another tough old warrior, refused to apologize.

Woody Hayes lived with a fire inside, and one might have assumed this fire to be everlasting until his wife Anne discovered him dead in bed. This fire often burned and hurt Hayes more than it did those around him, and he was known, especially in his last years, to acknowledge it and use it as an explanation for his unpredictable behavior. Hitting Bauman, he said, hurt Bauman less than it hurt Woody Hayes. Bauman was wearing a helmet and shoulder pads, and there he was, Woodrow Wayne Hayes, naked to the world.

As a coach, his style was often raw and tempestuous. He seemed to forget that great crowds watched his every move on the sidelines, that television cameras awaited his outbursts of fury, that every sports critic and commentator would be quick to snort and spout off with righteous indignation at his human failings, his loss of control, his mean-spiritedness.

Angry, Woody was often seen shouting and waving his arms and punching the bright air. He stomped his feet. He threw clipboards. He howled, barked, danced a mad fandango. He once ripped apart yard markers in the waning moments of a humiliating loss at Michigan, the Buckeyes’ big rival. He attacked the yard markers because he wanted the officials to call pass interference against Wolverine defensive back Thom Darden.

He might have enjoyed remaining out on the playing field long after the crowds were gone and indulging in a fabulous fifth quarter, just him and his boys against you and your boys--last one standing wins. He was the sort of fellow who played hard and knew well how to win within the confines of the game, but who sometimes failed to recognize the limitations of the game.

To be sure, Woody Hayes was not beyond the bad romantic practice of drawing comparisons between football and war, where any act is done for the sake of victory. A student of military history, Hayes once remarked that Patton’s casualties amounted to about one-third of those of the other generals. You had to fight for him, he marveled, but you didn’t have to die. Just saying this made Woody’s chest swell with pride, and one might have thought he’d just said something very profound and revealing about himself.

His teams were huge and methodical. He produced two Heisman Trophy winners, Howard (Hopalong) Cassady in 1955 and Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975, and 58 All-Americans. And he, the coach, towered above them all, a legend in silver and red. When I was at Louisiana State and playing football, the coaches on our staff once ran a documentary on Woody Hayes and Ohio State football in our film room. The movie lasted little more than an hour, and it depicted Hayes at practice, pounding his fists against the shoulder pads of players who missed blocks and tackles and mishandled the ball, shouting at assistants, raging.

“The man’s crazy,” somebody said.

“Relax, Woody,” somebody else said.

Our coaches laughed. They reversed the tape and played the toughest parts of it over and over, and I felt mildly grateful to be here and not there, not with Woody. But at practice, working in the sun, smelling the familiar churned-up earth smells and sweat and wild-animal fear, the coaches never screamed or cussed louder, and we, the players, never ran or hit harder. This was football, was it not? This was what it took. This was how you played it if you expected to win.

Woody Hayes was 74 when he died. He seemed a lot older, but only because he had played so hard, reached so high and done so much.