In my years at Buckeye Sports Bulletin, I have had the privilege to talk to many of Woody Hayes’ former players for various stories, and those interviews yielded all kinds of nuggets about the man.
On what would be the 100th birthday of Ohio State’s greatest football coach, I thought I would share a few of the best.
Tom Matte played quarterback at Ohio State from 1958-60 before becoming a star halfback in the NFL. As a Baltimore Colt, Matte used to play host to Hayes when the coach would be on the East Coast for recruiting trips, and he made no bones about his feelings for Hayes now more than 50 years later.
“I loved the guy. I hated him when I played for him because he was tough. He was tough on me, and I was a little bit crazy at the times, so he straightened the hell out of me.
“When I got away from him, he made sure I graduated. He called me three times during the season and told me I had to go back and make up six hours to graduate. I had gotten hurt my rookie year – someone jammed my neck and I crushed a couple of vertebrae – and I went back and not only did I graduate winter quarter but spring quarter he said, ‘You know you might not be able to play. What do you want to do?’ He got me into law school. I had to take some prelaw classes for spring quarter and if I wanted to come back for the following quarter he said he would make sure I had a scholarship to go to law school. That’s the kind of the guy he was.”
“He was tough to love sometimes, but when you got away from him you learned to appreciate that what he was doing was trying to help you grow up is all.”
Rex Kern, an All-American quarterback who led the Buckeyes to a consensus national championship in 1968, two Rose Bowls and a share of three Big Ten titles, laughed when I asked him what it was like to be the quarterback at Ohio State.
“It was a little more difficult to deal with Woody than it was to be the star quarterback.”
“Woody was a very unique special person to deal with. Many people saw probably a different side of Woody than what we as quarterbacks saw. We got to see the benefits of the good and the bad. The quarterbacks spent lots of time with Woody. You had to know your game plan.
“Woody had the tremendous scope of keeping us focused. Being the quarterback at Ohio State put you in the spotlight – maybe a neon light – but I was more concerned about the Michigan State Spartans or Minnesota Golden Gophers than anything off the field, and Woody always had us focused in on those particular games and those particular people. I think it’s a matter of being focused on the task at hand and that was winning football games.”
The late Bill Mrukowski was also a quarterback along with defensive back for Hayes. Suiting up for the Scarlet and Gray in the late 50s and early 60s, he like many had his ups and downs with the coach but came away with positive feelings.
“I really enjoyed playing for Woody. We had our disagreements my junior year and my senior year because I didn’t play quarterback. I was playing defensive half. I’ll never forget my senior year he didn’t take me to Iowa. I didn’t go. I stayed home, and in the first quarter he yelled out Mrukowski get in there, and I was at home. Someone said, ‘Coach, you left him at home.’ They got beat pretty bad that game.
I got back to college that night and he called me on the phone and said I want you to know you’re my quarterback for the rest of the year and I expect you to be over here within the hour. I want to go over some stuff.
“He was up and down that way, but he got me into the East-West Shrine Game and the Hula Bowl (all-star games) after my senior year. He had his way of paying back. I didn’t play enough that year at quarterback to really be honored with that, but he got me in it anyway.”
“There was a lot of good stuff and very, very little bad stuff. He treated you rough. He treated the team rough, and if he liked you, you played. If he didn’t like you, you might not play. That’s just the way he was.”
Bill Conley walked on as a lineman at Ohio State in 1968 and was later an assistant coach at his alma mater. The current head coach of Ohio Dominican recalled, “One thing that I really got from him was work ethic. I remember he always said I may not be the smartest coach in the world but I can outwork anybody.”
Bruce Jankowski was a wide receiver for the Buckeyes in the late ‘60s and said his old coach is often a topic of discussion when there are reunions. “The funniest thing in life is when we got back and start telling Woody stories. If they could put it on tape, they could sell it by the millions. He was a great man, but there are some funny stories.”
Having played basketball for Hubie Brown in high school and Hank Stram in the NFL, he felt blessed to have been exposed to such great minds.
“I had a good home life, but Woody had such a huge impact on me in life as far as doing the right things, being there, being on time, living the right way, doing what you say you’re going to do. I was just very lucky on that one.”
“He really took an interest in my parents. He talked to me, sure, but he took a very strong interest in my parents and my high school football coach.”
“It made me feel good that he showed such an interest in my family. It was different than a lot of others. He spoke about an education. He said, ‘Sure, you’re going to play football, and we’re going to work you hard, and we’re going to make sure you get an education.’ He always instilled that to us. Things like that stood out to me.”
“He was a caring person. He used to always tell us go talk to elderly people. They’re lonely. They don’t have a lot of family typically, so say something. Say hello to them. Ask them how they’re doing. I do that today still.”
“It’s a shame they remember what happened on TV. He was not healthy. He shouldn’t have been coaching at that point, but people who know him, who have really had an opportunity to know him and have been around him love the man. They really do.”
Paul Warfield turned into a Hall of Fame wide receiver in the NFL, but he was a halfback for most of his career at Ohio State. He recalled Hayes focusing on more than just football.
“The great thing about playing for Woody Hayes for me was, No. 1, he never allowed us to forget the reason we were going to school there, to gain what he called a quality education. That was his commitment to all of our parents that he would make sure we got the best we could out of Ohio State University.
He would support us however we needed it, but by the same token he never let us forget that we were there to get an education. He always was concerned with how we were doing in classes
He saw himself as a coach and a teacher but also a teacher and developer of young men at a very important time in our lives. He understood perhaps better than any of us…. that the real job was preparing us for the life once we got out of the university, preferably if we were going to stay in the state of Ohio and be productive in society as a whole.
“Sometimes all of us didn’t understand it because he was so demanding, but we knew that he was in our corner. And as a result many of my former teammates who once thought he was too tough sent their sons to play for him.”