Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Punch Heard 'Round the Football World

"Evidently nobody in authority realized that a full–grown man who attached such importance to a game was, at best, immature, not to say a case of arrested development. The saddest part of the whole affair is that nobody at Ohio State saw the denouement approaching and protected Hayes from himself."

Red Smith (1905–1982)

Red Smith is one of my favorite journalists. I guess it is appropriate to call him a sports journalist, and he probably accepted that during his lifetime, but he wrote that he always "wanted to be a newspaperman and came to realize I didn't really care which side of the newspaper I worked on."

Frankly, I felt the same way. Smith had a philosophy about sports journalism that I tried to keep in mind when I worked on the sports side of newspapers.

"[P]eople go to spectator sports to have fun and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun all over again," he wrote. "I've always tried to remember ... that sports isn't Armageddon. These are just little games that little boys can play, and it really isn't important to the future of civilization whether the Athletics or the Browns win."

Thirty–five years ago, Woody Hayes would have been smart to heed those words, especially the part about how sports isn't Armageddon. If he had, Hayes' 28–year coaching career at Ohio State might not have come to an end when it did.

Hayes had a reputation for being a disciplinarian, a man who would take young men and mold them into leaders. He was a military historian who often applied principles from military history to his coaching.

It was known that Hayes had a temper that he couldn't always control. He once tried to punch a sportswriter following a loss, but he missed and hit the brother of the sports editor of another paper instead. A few years later, he almost got into a fight with the athletic director of another school during a meeting of Big Ten Conference athletic directors and coaches.

Late in his career, he seemed to have a particular animosity for photographers. He shoved a camera in the face of a photographer before a Rose Bowl game, leading to a three–game suspension, and about a year before the 1978 Gator Bowl, he took a swing at a TV cameraman late in a loss to Michigan.

In spite of his history, no one suspected, when Dec. 29, 1978 dawned, that the Gator Bowl between #20 Ohio State and #7 Clemson in Jacksonville, Fla., that night would be Hayes' last game as a college football coach.

But when Clemson's Charlie Bauman intercepted a pass late in the game to seal a 17–15 victory, Hayes punched him in front of God and the TV cameras — and, at that moment, I knew Hayes was finished.

I'll never forget that night. I was in my grandmother's home. My family had been visiting her for Christmas, but we were frantically preparing to leave Dallas ahead of an ice storm that was expected within a few days. That night, for whatever reason, my father and I decided to stop packing and watch the football game. We both watched in utter disbelief as Hayes struck the opposing player.

An era was ending in college football. It had been kind of a comforting, reassuring era when the giants from the ranks of college coaches were always there on the sidelines of the truly big games. One by one, though, they were stepping aside, and the next generation was taking over.

It was an inevitable transition. It happens in all walks of life with the passage of time, but we all know that people still get sentimental about endings. It is true of coaches, too; people are always wistful when longtime coaches leave. The coaches themselves are often wistful. It is a bittersweet time.

In many ways, the sports world is the same as it was when Hayes walked the sideline. But in other ways it has changed dramatically. One has to wonder, in hindsight, if Hayes could have remained the Ohio State football coach for much longer.

In the years after the legends of the 20th century roamed the sidelines, that drill sergeant mentality gradually fell out of favor with college athletic directors. There may be a few of them out there, but, for the most part, they have vanished.
"... Charlie Bauman intercepted a pass and went out of bounds right where the Ohio State coach stood. That architect of young manhood laid hold of Bauman and fetched him a roundhouse right to the chops. Fists flailing, he tried to charge onto the field, but his own scholar athletes, already bruised and bleeding from their pursuit of culture, overpowered him."

Red Smith

Hayes, it was said more and more frequently, physically assaulted his players during practice, and that did bother some people at the time, but most folks were willing to ignore it as long as he didn't do that kind of thing in public. After all, this was football, a man's game, and men are tough.

Today, a college coach who struck an athlete, whether in view of only his peers or a national TV audience, would most likely get the boot regardless of who he was. Politics — and political correctness — won't tolerate that sort of thing.

Three decades ago, schools were more protective of their star coaches, firing them only when they had no choice. And, on this day in 1978, Ohio State was left with no choice.

There really wasn't anything special about the 1978 Gator Bowl. It was the first time — and, until Clemson and Ohio State meet in Friday night's Orange Bowl, the only time — the schools faced off in football.

But the game set no records for scoring or anything else, as I recall. It is remembered only for Hayes' punch.

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