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Woody Hayes left his mark on Rose Bowl

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What Woody Hayes liked most about coming to the Rose Bowl was winning it, which meant he didn’t always like it.

He often left at screaming-mad war with California and all its distractions and niceties.

On Hayes’ last trip west, he left out the back door.

The legendary Ohio State coach broke even in eight Rose Bowl appearances, starting in 1955. His Buckeyes defeated USC, 20-7, in conditions complicated by the bane of rain.

The headline in the next day’s Los Angeles Times: “Hayes Belittles Trojans, Mad at Marching Bands.”

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It was the beginning of Hayes’ complicated, and not always beautiful, relationship with the Rose Bowl.

On his first trip, Hayes ingratiated himself by saying he thought there were six schools in the Big Ten better than our local float entry: USC. He complained the bands had made “a quagmire” of the wet field with their halftime entertainment antics.

“Eighty million people saw these bands on television in the parade this morning,” Hayes quipped. “So why did they have to march on that muddy field at the half?”

Ohio State has returned to Rose Bowl for the first time since defeating Arizona State on Jan. 1, 1997. The Buckeyes will play Oregon on Friday.

You can’t talk about Ohio State in Pasadena, though, without envisioning Hayes prowling the sideline, winning national championships here but also losing them, arguing with officials, sparring with journalists or anyone who got in the way of winning.

Others came for the parade and the scenery, but not Woody.

Phil Strickland, a sophomore guard on the national title squad of 1968, remembers flying out for the 1969 game against USC.

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His story picks up after the jet wheels lifted off in Columbus.

“He had the trainers tape everyone up on the plane,” Strickland recalled. “That meant we were going to go directly to the practice field.”

To Hayes, the game meant extra practice for the following year’s game against Michigan.

“The Rose Bowl wasn’t any fun for us,” said John Hicks, a two-time All-American offensive lineman in the 1970s who played in three Rose Bowls. “We were going out to work. It was two-a-days, mini-boot camp.”

The festivities surrounding the Rose Bowl were impediments to Hayes’ compulsive desire to control the football environment.

Hayes, literally, put his squad under lock and key.

Dave Leggett, the most valuable player of the 1955 game, was the first to recount Hayes’ sequestering his players at a monastery. It was a night-before-the-game tradition that continued until Ohio State started losing Rose Bowls.

The Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, still operational, was established in 1924 on 83 acres in the foothills in Sierra Madre. The monastery, built in the 1930s, was torn down after the 1991 earthquake. The property was taken over by the Army in World War II and used as a weapons staging area and a place to quarter wounded soldiers.

Hayes could not have found a better place for solitude -- never mind that the monastery scared the wits out of many of his players.

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“I’m an inner-city boy,” Strickland recounted of his stay before the 1969 game. “We’ve got noise all night, buses running, dogs barking. When it gets quiet, you get real nervous.

“I didn’t sleep the night of the game. It was like being in a Lon Chaney movie or something. We rolled up to this place. I think it had a gate, where you knocked, or rang a little bell. You’d go into the door, through the chapel, there were crucifixes on the wall and candles. I’m a Baptist boy, I wasn’t used to all that stuff.”

Hicks returns this year for his induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. He was the first player to start in three Rose Bowls, after the 1970, ’72 and ’73 seasons. During a recent phone interview, he wanted to know if the monastery still existed because he wanted to take his wife there to prove he wasn’t making up the stories.

“A bed, a Bible and a toilet,” Hicks recalls of his room. “It was a Spartan life.”

He remembers hearing coyotes howl and seeing priests (Hicks called them “monks”) on their early-morning strolls.

“I didn’t sleep at all,” he said.

You couldn’t make some of this up.

“I hear there were some shenanigans that went on around here,” said Elizabeth Velarde, the retreat’s current administrator.

Hicks said the team always watched a movie the night before the Rose Bowl. One year, the movie was “Shaft.”

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“They were having this sex scene, right there on the wall of the monastery, and the old man [Hayes] was outside talking to the monsignor,” Hicks recalled. “And he caught that sex scene out of the corner of his eye. He came in and threw the projector and made us all go to bed. He didn’t even turn it off. He just threw it. It was so funny.”

When Ohio State returned to Pasadena for the 1974 game, Hicks and others begged Hayes to skip the annual monastery stay. Hayes relented on one condition.

“He said, ‘OK, but you married guys can’t stay with your wives,’ ” Hicks said.

This year’s Ohio State squad is staying at a luxury hotel, although Buckeyes Coach Jim Tressel said last summer that he sort of preferred Hayes’ itinerary.

“I don’t mind the picture of me taking them to a convent,” he said with a smile.

If Tressel changes his mind before Jan. 1, the monastery might still be an option.

“We could probably do one night, based on the story line,” Velarde joked. “I certainly would be open to the proposal.”

Hayes inspired other Big Ten coaches to take their teams on retreat. Giving a visiting reporter a tour, Velarde pulled a football off the top shelf of a glass case in the retreat center’s meeting room.

She wasn’t sure how long it had been there. It was a Rawlings ball with the inscription, “1968 Rose Bowl.”

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Was it Hayes’ Ohio State team?

Nope.

A subsequent check of the players who scribbled their names on the pigskin revealed they were members of Indiana’s only Rose Bowl team, which lost to USC on Jan. 1, 1968.

Hayes’ Rose Bowl legacy spanned three decades.

His powerful 1957 team defeated undermanned Oregon, 10-7, in the 1958 Rose Bowl, a game most Ducks fans would call a moral victory. Hayes was miffed that Oregon’s Jack Crabtree was named the game’s most valuable player.

Hayes said it should have been Ohio State kicker Don Sutherin.

“The best team always wins,” Hayes said. “And we won.”

In 1973, Hayes had an infamous pregame incident in which he shoved a camera into the face of Times photographer Art Rogers.

Hayes’ larger-than-life persona and combustive personality made him a perfect foil for Timescolumnist Jim Murray, who incessantly skewered the Buckeyes coach.

Before the 1975 game, Murray wrote: “A lot of people were surprised to hear that Woody Hayes suffered a heart attack last spring, because they didn’t think he had one.”

Hayes was often combative with the media, and kept his players under close guard.

Could you blame him?

Murray called Columbus “a place where if you buy a piano at a certain music store, they throw in a free shotgun.”

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Murray wrote that Hayes’ squad was “not a team, it’s a horde.”

Hayes was portrayed as a primitive.

“Woody is the Piltdown man of football,” Murray wrote. “He didn’t walk erect until he was 24 years old. . . . If he ever saw Raquel Welch, he’ll grab her by her hair and take her home and cook her.”

You could see why Hayes would have mixed feelings about coming to California.

“He liked going out there,” Strickland said. “He also knew the pitfalls. He would say to us, ‘Now look, don’t just be walking around accepting accolades. All they’re trying to do is soften you up with all the nice weather and nice people. You’ve got to remain focused.’ ”

Things didn’t end well for Hayes. After winning his first three Rose Bowls, he lost four of his last five. The most bitter may have been his final appearance, when UCLA cost undefeated Ohio State a national title with a shocking 23-10 upset on Jan. 1, 1976.

Afterward, Hayes didn’t speak to the media.

Times columnist John Hall wrote that Hayes “chose to suffer in silence, sitting alone in a back room of the Buckeye dressing quarters, then sneaking out a back door to board the team bus in silence and fleeing into the night.”

Hayes did release a statement: “UCLA played a great game. They just beat us. That’s it.”

For Hayes and Pasadena, that was also it. He was forced to resign as Buckeyes coach in 1978 and died in 1987.

The Rose Bowl continued without him, but for a lot of reasons it’s never been quite the same.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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