Beyond the Gridiron -- The Life and Times of Woody Hayes

photo of Alan Natali

Subject: Alan Natali
Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
Transcript: Alison Rostankowski

The segments included in this interview excerpt were recorded during October 2002, as part of Beyond the Gridiron -- The Life and Times of Woody Hayes. The documentary is a co-production with the Crouse Entertainment Group and WOSU-Columbus, Ohio. Alan Natali is an Assistant Professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania and the author of Woody's Boys.

Can you explain America's fascination with college football? Why is it so popular and what does it say about us?
It's a ritual. Its this really deeply ingrained ritual that has to do with battle, but has to do with achieving manhood, that has to do with the evolution and the change the natural evolution of our own lives. I mean heck if I'm a college football fan I always can go back can't I? I can always return to when I was twenty or when I was nineteen, when life was much less complex, when life was much less difficult. I can paint my face. I can put on a funny hat. I can don the colors of my team and I can go to the tailgate party and I can have a couple of cocktails and I can chant and I can sing and I can meet my old friends there. And I can always return to a time when life was less difficult. I am guilty of this myself. I love to watch college football because I love to participate in that ritual. There's something atavistic about that ritual-atavistic as far as culture is concerned-it's the same ritual every year! It changes in degree. It changes in some of its specific trappings, but the ritual itself never changes. And so we return to this time as a culture, but I can also return to his time as a person. I can return to my youth.

In a nutshell, how would you describe Woody Hayes to someone who knows little or nothing about him?
I would have to describe him as passionate, committed, and in a way naive. There was a lack of sophistication in his view of the world He assumed that everybody saw the world in the same simplistic way that he did. He was unsophisticated in the sense that he did not understand how differently people viewed him. He thought that if he did the right things, if he won, if he treated his players properly, if he cared about their education and cared about them as human beings then everything else would have to fall in line. But that's simply not true. The world is a much more complex place than that. There are forces at work all the time around all of us that are not always in our best interests and I don't think he understood that at all. I think for all of the complexity of his personality there was kind of a lack of sophistication. He was very well read. He was a very bright man. He was a very complex man in his own right, but there was a lack of sophistication of his view of the world as a whole. He did not see all the intrigue. He did not see all the subtlety. I think because he himself did not participate in intrigue and was in no way shape or form a subtle man. He almost reminds me of Othello in that way. Othello believes that if he just does the right things his virtues will triumph. He does not understand the subtleties of the Venetian court around him and certainly he does not understand the subtleties of Yargo and people like Yargo because he himself has no intrigue. He himself has no subtlety. He is alldirect, up-front, and on the table.

What was the general reception when Woody Hayes came in as a new coach?
As it always has been in Columbus people were very suspicious of him. He was not an immediate success. In retrospect sometimes it seems that we believe that he was immediately successful that the moment that he walked through the door he commanded everyone's respect and began a series of national championships. It wasn't true. He had some rough times early on. A number of people, including sports writers and his players, were suspicious of him and wondered why he was so direct and so hot tempered at times and many thought he was going to fail here. For a while it seemed as if he was just going to be another in a succession of coaches who attempted to turn Ohio state into what the populace wanted it to be and was going to fail at it.

How did Woody Hayes' differ from predecessors like Paul Brown? What changes did he bring to the program?
Hayes was much different from his predecessors. He differed from Paul Brown for example in almost every way two men can differ from each other. Paul Brown was aloof, he was calculating, he was also commanding, but in a more cold and calculating way. He was an enigma. You never knew what Paul Brown was thinking and he was not about to reveal what he was thinking to you. Woody Hayes on the other hand never held back on any of his emotions and I think eventually that's what won the city of Columbus, the university, the state of Ohio, if not the entire nation over to Woody Hayes. It's also what repelled him people from him at times. But there was a complete open honesty about Woody Hayes. You knew what he was thinking all the time. He was never trying to hide anything from you and I think that openness, that direct approach, found a home here in people's hearts.

You've equated Woody Hayes' approach with a Republican conservative outlook and strategy. How did you come to that conclusion?
Well, he was he was a naval commander during the war, but he was an infantry commander em as far as football was concerned. He did not like to throw the football. I mean he is credited with being the one who said when you throw the football only three things can happen and only two of them are bad! He bunched everyone in tight, he was most comfortable handing the ball to a fullback; a Champ Henson, a Pete Johnson, over and over and over again and having them as he called it, grind meat up the middle. He wanted to hold onto the football, he wanted to play conservatively, he wanted to beat you down with a huge offensive line and a big full back, and he wanted to play really good defense, and he was as happy to win 10-7 as he would be 45-7. So it was all conservative.

You've also talked about him embodying values like patriotism and hard work. How did you reach this conclusion?
Well, with Woody Hayes you don't have a great deal of trouble reaching a conclusion. Whether it's a negative or a positive conclusion. Mine happens to be a very positive conclusion. He was very forthright and very obvious in the views that he espoused and in the values that he espoused. He believed in order. He instilled order in everything around him, sometimes excluding himself--but there were reasons for that and completely explicable reasons for that. He believed in the American way. He was a patriot. He was a true patriot, I mean he served in World War Two. He made numerous trips to Vietnam. He espoused marshal virtues to his players. He was deeply knowledgeable about history and very knowledgeable about historical figures. He seemed attracted to military figures such as William Tecumseh Sherman. So I think it was fairly obvious, as was usually the case with Woody Hayes, what he really believed in.

How did Woody Hayes feel about the money and prestige that came with such a high profile position?
From everything everybody has told me and from everything that I read and believe me I read everything, everything! And from every statement he made and from every statement that was made about him--he had no real understanding of money. He didn't care about it. When he died his wife went through his sports coats hanging in the in the closet and found tens of thousands of dollars in uncashed checks that were fees for speaking engagements. He'd take the check, stick it in his pocket and forget about it. And it wasn't a matter of twenty dollars or fifty dollars, but thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars in checks that he had never cashed for his speaking engagements.

Woody Hayes had a contentious relationship with the media. Why was that the case?
The same antipathy that exists between football people and non-football people is accentuated when it is carried over to football people and football reporters--the people who write about it. Woody believed, all football coaches believe this, whether or not they admit it, they all believe this that if you're not writing good things about us you're not with the program. That you're job as a reporter is to espouse the coach's point of view. And if you don't do that you're not on the team. Well for a time that was true. There was a long period in the history of sports writing in which sportswriters were indeed cheerleaders. That's what Woody wanted but that's what every football coach wants, that's what every athletic coach wants. They want a sports information department even if that local sports information department happens to be paid by a local newspaper or a local television station or a local radio station. Any time somebody reported in a way that made Woody unhappy he reacted in the Woody way. He became furious. He became angry about it. On the other hand, he is the best friend these people ever had because he always gave good copy. He always gave good interviews. He didn't hide things from you! He told you exactly what he thought. Now what happens so often with Woody was he would tell you exactly what he thought and then when he saw it in print he would become angry about it! Woody was not sophisticated about the media as much time as he spent with it. So he'd tell you these outrageous things. You would print them and then he would be mad at you for printing them!

Woody Hayes was a complex and multi-faceted man but the public and the media never seemed to see him that way. Why?
It's too complex. It's too difficult. It takes up too much ink. It takes up too much tape. It takes up too much time. We want the quick easy stereotypical broadly drawn characacture of everybody. With Woody he made it easy. He made it easy for the media to draw a stereotypical picture of him. He made it easy by being so emotional, by being so up front, by being so direct, and by being so extreme. He also made it easy however by hiding this other aspect of his personality. Part of it is that he did not want people to know that he was visiting hospitals. He did not want people to know that he was visiting shut-ins. He did not bring the film crew with him when he went down to children to pass out footballs among all the other things that he did. He did not bring a reporter with him when he went to visit some shut-in who was the grandmother of an old friend who said, "boy she really admire you Woody. Why don't you stop in and see her some time?' Well he would do it but he wouldn't bring the press along with him and many times he would deny that he had even done it. So he made it very easy for this stereotypical picture of him and this broadly drawn picture of him to be created.

Was there an inherent hypocrisy on the part of those who criticized Woody Hayes?
There sure was hypocrisy in those who criticized Woody Hayes. It's really at the root of the phenomenon that I was researching. What I was very interested in from the time I wrote the epitaph for Woody that I published in Ohio Magazine just after he died, the phenomenon that I was looking at is this tendency that we have in American culture to exalt people and to turn normal every day flawed human beings into demagogues. And we elevate them to a certain height and place them on a certain pedestal and at that point they become targets for us. We excuse them on the way up. It's not as if Woody Hayes's temper exhibited itself for the first time at the infamous Clemson game. It was there all along. But as long as he was winning to a degree that fans wanted himto win, they were willing to ignore his shortcomings-- "Oh that's just Woody-- that's the way he is." But when he lost at Clemson he lost in a second rate bowl game and he lost at the head of a program that was from everybody's perspective on the way down, not on the way up. At that point, everybody jumped on him. That's just not right. That's just unfair. He was this way all the time! It's hypocritical to ignore someone's flaws as long as that person is meeting some need of yours and the moment that person stops meeting that need of yours then suddenly this flaw becomes inexcusable. So that's the phenomenon that I first started looking into as far as Woody Hayes is concerned and it is deeply hypocritical.

Woody Hayes was coach during the anti-war movement. How was he influenced by these events?
As he once put it he preferred the nineteen fifties when the air was clean and sex was dirty. He was confused by them. He was perplexed by the kind of player he was getting. This was a new generation. Wasn't the military itself perplexed by the kind of soldier it was getting? I imagine there were a lot of teachers perplexed by the kinds of students they were getting. Gradually it developed that you were coaching, teaching, leading, young men who no longer accepted your every word as divine decree. There was question. Having come of age at this time I know this, every institution around us seemed to be failing: The government, the military, the church, our educational system. Everything seemed to be failing at this time so it was only natural that the same kinds of questions that we directed towards those institutions were going to be directed towards our coaches, our teacher, our religious leaders, our parents. It confused him and it upset him but wouldn't that be the case with somebody who began coaching in the nineteen fifties, at least in this arena. He had become used to a certain kind of player, had become used to a certain kind of student, had become used to a certain kind of respect. Well it baffled him that players would question him, would argue with him, would not accept at face value every one of his decrees. But it's not as if he was the only person who was confused by this. It was a confusing time. It was a confusing time to be eighteen. I'm sure it was a confusing time to be fifty-five. So it doesn't make him uncommon. What made him uncommon probably was the degree of his reaction. And the degree of his reaction was always the superlative! It was always the most extreme it could possibly be, plus he is in a high profile position. So we looked at him as if he were the only one who was suffering under this phenomenon when everybody else was too.

Coach Hayes had a great love of military history. How did this effect his thinking and belief system in his coaching?
His hero was Sherman. Probably the counterpart to his approach and philosophy to football was Sherman's march to the sea. I mean Sherman cut the south in half. Along the way he made sure that he destroyed everything he possibly could that the south could use to rebuild itself. He burned orchards, he burned crops, any lumber mills, and any goods that the south could use to rebuild he destroyed. Well in a way Woody did the same thing. He would beat you ninety to nothing if he possibly could Why would he do that? Well I think a lot of it was about recruiting. That he wanted to beat you that bad as bad as he possibly could because he wanted to go the good recruits and say, "wow look what we did to this team--look what we did to that team." So he wanted to not only defeat you, but he wanted to plunder your store while he was doing it as well.

Can you explain the Charlie Bauman incident?
I think some place in the book I referred to him as a hopelessly protean creature. He was defined by those who looked upon him. He had many facets to his nature and you could as his observer take your own beliefs, your own values, and apply them to one facet of Woody Hayes. Because there were so many sides to him and so many obvious sides to him, including the one he hid which was a kind of rumor about him about how nice a guy he really was. When he did it, what happened at Clemson, and I spoke to a lot of people about what happened there that night and I read everything about what happened there that night, and its a kind of metaphor for what his existence had become down towards the end. As I say where people were applying their own perspectives, their own values, their own ethics, their own mores, to one aspect of his personality and seeing him only in the light of their own beliefs. Undoubtedly he struck at Charlie Bauman that night. You talk to the people who were there and they tell you various things. They'll say well Bauman taunted him. Or they'll say he just lost it. I think that the actual truth of what happened that night has kind of gotten lost in the whole idea of people observing and interpreting and applying their own interpretation to what happened that night.

What few people know and what I did not find out until later, actually Tom Matte the Ohio State quarterback told me this, that nobody knew until years later that Woody Hayes had indeed apologized to Charlie Bauman--something that he refused to do publicly, that privately he had always done what he refused to do publicly. And he had said that he was sorry. Now what came out that night was not a side of Woody Hayes that was never there before. He had done these things before. He had shoved cameras in photographer's faces; he had gone up in the stands looking for a fan that had taunted him. He had punched goal posts. He had done a number there, he had torn up yard markers and thrown them out on the field, So it's not as if this incident was something that was completely out of character for him. He had done things like this before. The thing was he did it in a at a time in his life and a time in his career and in an arena that people were just not going to forgive this time. He had almost handed those that disliked him the opportunity to crucify him, to vilify him--and they did.

What did Woody Hayes do with his life after football?
I think this is one of the great triumphs of Woody Hayes. It's not as if it was entirely undeserved but his fall was hard. He was treated in many ways, and people like to forget this, but he was treated in many ways, as if he were a pariah-- as of he were an outcast. Not by those closest to him... But by the public at large he was scorned. A lot of people were heart broken--true. But there was a certain element, which was happy to see him go, that was gleeful at his demise and it seemed unfair. It was sad. But he didn't come to a sad end. He never became embittered by this. He was determined to help the university in any way he possibly could. What a wonderful em day it was when he dotted the "i" on script Ohio. So he didn't slink off into a corner some place and die a lonely broken sad pathetic victim of his tragic flaw. I think its one of the wonderful things about his life that he came back to be a public figure, that he came back to be a deeply respected figure beyond that. I mean who can you compare him too? Maybe Bear Bryant in the south? Boy I'm hard pressed. Maybe Knute Rockne? That's about it. He returned to what Woody Hayes was and that's the triumph. One of the great triumphs of his life was his ability to rebound from what would've killed many of us. I can't imagine what that would have done to me to make that kind of dramatic tragic mistake in that kind of public arena and to destroy not only my career but seemingly my reputation in one flashing red violent moment and then to wake up that next morning and to realize what had happened to me. You would be tempted to slink off some placed and just die in a dark and lonely corner. But it didn't happen to him. He faced it and he came back and he died with the respect that he deserves.