With the uniquely college football topic of claimed national titles in the news recently, I got to thinking about whether or not Ohio State football could or should give itself credit for more than the seven it lists in its official records. The result was this story at BuckeyeSports.com (below), but it is worth noting some of Ohio State’s best arguments for a potential national title fall outside this “To claim or not to claim?” debate because no one, legitimate or not, has tagged them No. 1.
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.”
Of course you know by now the major topic of Ohio State football this offseason has been the installation of Urban Meyer’s spread offense. As a football strategy junky, I have found it fascinating to talk to the new coaches about their plans and the players about how they have absorbed everything. You can find example of that in our BuckeyeSports.com archives and in past issues of Buckeye Sports Bulletin (see here).
But before we go any farther, I thought it would be fun to take a look back this summer.
Although Ohio State has been known as the home of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses for more than half a century, there have been plenty of evolutions over the years, some that will probably surprise you.
Woody Hayes took over for Wes Fesler, a former Buckeye who was a star end at Ohio State in the late 1920s. Fesler is one of eight three-time All-Americans to wear the Scarlet and Gray, but he fell out of favor in Columbus when his Buckeyes lost to Michigan in the “Snow Bowl” in 1950.
Fesler’s offense featured a mix of single wing and the T depending on the situation, but Hayes was strictly a practitioner of the T.
The switch proved to be a painful one as the Buckeyes offensive output slipped from 31.8 points per game to a meager 12.1. Their 109 points in nine games were the fewest for the team since Fesler’s first OSU squad managed only 60 in 1947.
The move had a notable negative effect on Vic Janowicz, who won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1950. Featured often out of the single wing, Janowicz led the Big Ten in total offense (703 yards) and scoring (48 points) in conference play in ’50 but became just a cog in Hayes’ machine as a senior. He led the team in rushing (376 yards) but quarterback Tony Curcillo took over the passing lead. Janowicz touched the ball 138 times in ’51, 60 fewer than the year before.
Hayes eventually got that T formation humming, of course. It helped produce national championships in 1954, ’57 and ’61, but his program hit a snag in the early ’60s after a decision by the university faculty council denied the Buckeyes a trip to the 1962 Rose Bowl.
That hurt recruiting in the short term, but Hayes rallied to bring in what would prove to be one of the best classes of all time for 1967. Its members were ineligible to play as freshmen, but they began to build their legend during practices that fall when they would give the varsity a run for its money.
When the youngsters were ready to take over in ’68, Hayes gave them a new weapon courtesy newly hired assistant coach George Chaump, who suggested he supplement his venerable T attack with the I formation being made famous by USC.
The move turned out to be a good one: The Buckeyes doubled their scoring output (from 16.1 to 32.3 points per game), went undefeated and won the national championship.
Rex Kern, a sophomore who took over at quarterback in ’68, told me in a past interview that did more to take advantage of the talent Hayes had accumulated.
“The I formation gave you the opportunity to get around the corner much quicker,” he said. “The old-timers will remember the old button-shoe (his term for the Fullhouse T) offense was from tackle to tackle. The I formation was really from tackle to sideline, so it really just expanded the field and gave us more attack points. We could put our skill people against our opponents’ skill people versus us putting our interior line against the interior defense. We were good at either one, but this just gave us a better opportunity. Then when we got into short yardage, we went back to our pure button-shoe offense and attacked from tackle to tackle.”
(Aside: I found this fascinating in light of today’s move from the I formation to the spread. Similar principles at work. We’ll discuss that more in the future…)
Kern threw for 972 yards and ran for 534 more in ’68 while fullback Jim Otis rumbled for 985 yards and halfbacks Leo Hayden, John Brockington and Dave Brungard 732 more.
The end of the Hayes era gave way to the leadership of one of his former assistants, Earle Bruce. The men shared many common traits when it came to coaching football, but Bruce recognized he needed to open things up some to take advantage of another sophomore quarterback who like Kern wore No. 10.
This time it was Art Schlichter, one of the most ballyhooed recruits in Ohio history and a freshman starter in ’78.
While the basic offense remained the same, Schlichter was allowed to show off his famous right arm a bit more often.
After complete 87 of 175 passes for 1,250 yards in ’78, Schlichter went 105 for 200 for 1,816 yards as a sophomore.
Schlichter told me in an 2009 interview the offense became more complex under Bruce, but there was one thing that stayed the same: All of the passing was out of play action, regardless of down and distance.
“That was a result of our protection,” said Schlichter, who likened the offensive progression to moving from the Ice Age to the Stone Age. “Coach Bruce liked the turn-back protection. He thought it protected the quarterback as much as anything, so we used that protection to play-action pass. Third-and-long we were throwing out of a play-action set, which I had hoped that we would have gotten away from that, but we never really did.”
Schlichter, who has run into repeated serious legal problems since the conclusion of his college career and is awaiting a return to prison at this time, ended up with just about every Ohio State passing record before he was finished. His single-season record of 2,551 has since been broken three times, but his career marks of 7,547 yards, 951 pass attempts and 46 interceptions remain school records.
This might be hard to believe today, but an actual headline in the April 1988 issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin declared, “OSU Offense To Drop-Back This Season.”
That’s right: new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto’s plan to install a drop-back passing game for new head coach John Cooper was big news less than 25 years ago.
“All we’re trying to do is give the offense a few more weapons to try and play the game with,” Colletto said then. “The drop-back will open up the game and make it more difficult for defenses to gang up on us. We’re trying to become a proficient drop-back passing team.
“And we will pass on first down. That is something we keep careful track of.”
Although everyone left spring practice saying the right things that year, early results were not too promising.
The passing game actually lost some proficiency (from a 54.1 percent completion rate to 51.8) from 1987 to ’88 and the offense managed only five more total points (229). The Buckeyes stumbled from 6-4-1 in Bruce’s last campaign to 4-6-1 in ’88 under Cooper, but the offense was hardly to blame for that.
Cooper commented openly about his surprise at the lack of talent he found on the roster, and he was forced to break in a new quarterback that season in sophomore Greg Frey (who spoke glowingly of the new attack as one similar to what he had run at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati under the guidance of a young intern named Urban Meyer).
For more on how these changes were implemented and how they panned out, be sure to check out the next print edition of BSB scheduled for publication in the first week of July. We also examine the move from Cooper’s version of the pro-style offense to Jim Tressel’s.
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I spent part of a day last week compiling numbers on Ohio State’s 10 coaches since the school joined the Big Ten in 1913. What I’m going to do with those numbers I am not yet sure, but it didn’t take long to find a few things worth sharing.
Thanks in part to coaching nearly twice as long as anyone else, Woody Hayes predictably leads the way in most categories I studied. That includes wins (205), national championships (five), Big Ten championships (14), first-team All-Americans (59), first-team All-Big Ten selections (131), Silver Football winners (four) NFL draft picks (162) and College Football Hall of Famers (12).
Some of those numbers – I’m thinking particularly of the draft picks (although the draft had many more rounds back in Hayes’ day) and the All-Big Ten players – are simply staggering.
Hayes also amassed one other number that surprised me a bit: With eight Rose Bowls, an Orange and a Sugar, he still finished ahead of Jim Tressel in terms of total BCS or equivalent bowls. Of course, coaching for 28 seasons helped give him plenty of time to rack up major bowl appearances, but don’t forget Big Ten teams were not allowed to appear in the Rose Bowl in back-to-back bowls or go to any other bowl for the first two decades Hayes stalked the Columbus sidelines. The 1955 Buckeyes were undefeated in Big Ten play but had to stay home because of a Rose Bowl appearance the year before, and the ’69 team that was stunned by Michigan would surely have gone to another nice bowl regardless were it allowed (though they would not have gone to the Rose Bowl even if they hadn’t suffered the most devastating loss in school history to the Wolverines). Don’t forget the fate of the 1961 team, either. Hayes’ second undefeated team stayed home for the holidays because of a vote by the school’s faculty to decline a Rose Bowl invitation.
Tressel leads the way in average Big Ten finish (1.7) and is tops in winning percentage (82.8) if you remove Carroll Widdoes, who went 16-2 but only coached two years after taking over when Paul Brown left to join the military effort during World War II.
Hayes won twice as many Big Ten titles as Tressel (14 to 7), but Tressel has three more than mentor Earle Bruce, who comes in third. The other two coaches to win multiple Big Ten titles at Ohio State are John Wilce, whose tenure coincided with the Buckeyes’ joining the conference in 1913, and John Cooper. Both won three.
One of the surprising figures I found was Tressel’s 66 draft picks in 10 years besting Cooper’s 61 in 13 seasons. Although both are regarded as excellent recruiters, Cooper hung his hat on being able to acquire NFL-caliber talent a bit more overtly than did Tressel. While Cooper had a couple of teams that seemed to underachieve based on raw ability, Tressel was often regarded as getting a little more out of his players than was expected on national signing day.
Of course, their draft numbers are linked by the overlap of the careers of many of their players. To that end, I found it interesting that 26 of the players drafted after Tressel became coach were Cooper signees. On the other hand, only 11 of Cooper’s draftees began their Ohio State careers during Earle Bruce’s career. (That covers all of the draftees in ’89-91 plus Scottie Graham, who redshirted in 1987.)
There’s more than meets the eye, of course, as each coach faced different challenges in different eras, but I thought it would be fun to check out what the numbers look like anyway because you can bet the farm the discussions about which coach is the best in Ohio State history have just begun.
With 59 All-Big Ten selections, Tressel edged Bruce (55) and Cooper (53) for second most.
Brown only coached Ohio State for three years, but he and Hayes are tied for most Pro Football Hall of Famers to play under their tutelage. Brown coached Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli and Bill “Deke” Willis, while Hayes mentored Jim Parker, Paul Warfield and Dick LeBeau.
Luke Fickell is the fourth Ohio State graduate to become head coach at the school, and he will hope to be more like Earle Bruce (1979-87) than Sam Willaman (1929-33). Willaman is the only person to coach Ohio State for more than a year and fail to win at least one Big Ten title. Bruce was unceremoniously fired before the Michigan game in 1987, but he won 75 percent of his games and four Big Ten titles in eight years. His average Big Ten finish of 2.33 is better than that of Hayes (2.46).
Fickell is advised to exceed the output of the other former Buckeye to lead the scarlet and gray, too. That would be Wes Fesler, who led his alma mater to a Big Ten championship and its first Rose Bowl victory after the ’49 season but resigned under pressure less than 12 months later. During Ohio State’s time in the Big Ten, Fesler has the worst winning percentage (57) of any OSU coach to hold the job for more than one year, but his departure after a stinging loss to Michigan in the “Snow Bowl” in 1950 cleared the way for the beginning of the Hayes era.