Ohio State has viewed Michigan as its great opponent for more than a century, but the modern rivalry really took its shape when Wayne Woodrow Hayes became the head football coach at Ohio State in 1951. It was Woody Hayes who schemed all year for the game against That Team Up North, Woody Hayes who purportedly pushed his car back to Ohio rather than buying a tank of gas in Michigan, Woody Hayes who attempted a two-point conversion rather than an extra point in a beat-down of the Wolverines and, when asked why he went for two, responded “Because I couldn’t go for three.”
That’s why, for members of Buckeye Nation who are my generation or older, Michigan Week really is Woody Week. From the Ohio State side, Coach Hayes is the inescapable colossus who helped to define what the ultimate rivalry in sports was really all about. You can’t help but think about him as The Game draws near.
But there is more to the story than that. Woody Hayes was always a complex figure — professorial and intellectual, a student of military history who was likely to quote Emerson, yet possessed of a volcanic temper that propelled him into embarrassing sideline outbursts, including the furious punch that cost him his job. A man who was the iconic face of Ohio State football but didn’t insist on large contracts and happily lived in the same tidy Upper Arlington house for years, who was gracious to the timid students who knocked on the door of his office and asked if the Coach might sign a football for their father or uncle, who mentored his players and hectored them into getting their degrees and pursuing post-football careers as doctors, politicians, and lawyers. Living in Columbus, you inevitably encounter people who were touched by the generosity and decency of Woody Hayes, whether it involved an unpublicized hospital visit to a sick child or an encouraging word to a struggling young person.
Over the years, my perception of Coach Hayes changed, and I think I’m not alone in that. For me he began as a too-conservative football coach whose temper-fueled antics often made Ohio State the butt of jokes, then became the modern Greek dramatic hero whose passion led inexorably to his downfall. Now, as the stories of what he did are told and retold, he has become a venerated figure whose failings are forgiven, if not forgotten, because his strength of character and good deeds vastly outweighed them.
For those of us who have made mistakes in our lives — a population that includes me and most of the billions of people on planet Earth — the story of Woody Hayes is a warming and ultimately encouraging human story of the possibility of redemption and how good deeds can live on as blunders fade away. It’s a good story to remember each year during Michigan Week.