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Woody Hayes: The man who built Ohio State


Tim Griffin - San Antoinio Express
Web Posted: 12/25/2004 12:00 AM CST
URL: http://www.mysanantonio.com/sports/football/stories/MYSA122504.1C.FBCalamo.woodyhayes.3cfb0250.html

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Robin Gulcher still can't understand or explain the vivid dream he had nine years ago, shortly after moving into his new home.

Gulcher, a Columbus advertising executive and Ohio State graduate, has as much reverence for the Buckeyes as anybody in the football-crazy state. But it didn't explain why former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes was yelling at him through his sleepy haze.

Was it a ghost?

Or, was it just a dream, with a ranting Hayes showing up to rattle Gulcher in his subconsciousness?

"There was no ghost running around the house," Gulcher said. "The place was in the constant state of remodeling, and it grounded me with all the images of the people who had lived there before me.

"I wasn't talking to the coach — it was just some kind of scrambled dream."

In many ways, Gulcher is not alone.

Even though it's been 26 years since Hayes coached his last game at Ohio State, and it's been 17 years since he died, many loyal Buckeyes fans feel his presence.

He coached the Buckeyes for 28 seasons, and five times his teams received national championship mention, either by the wire service polls, the National Football Foundation or the Football Writers Association.

Under Hayes, the Buckeyes won 13 Big Ten championships and played in eight Rose Bowls.

Rarely was there a dull moment with Hayes, known for his bombastic temperament, his aggressive style and his will to win.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, whose team is in San Antonio for Wednesday's MasterCard Alamo Bowl, said the Hayes legacy is secure in Columbus.

"Today, you stand in the Woody Hayes Training Center where we work out, and right next to the stadium is Woody Hayes Boulevard," Tressel said recently. "Ninety percent of the former players who stop by to talk to us played for him. We're all measured against him. It was a different era, but you still measure yourself against his record and what he accomplished here."

Hayes was a larger-than-life figure at Ohio State. His teams were designated as wire service national champions in 1954 (Associated Press), 1957 (UPI) and 1968 (AP and UPI). Other titles came in 1961 and 1970.

After a 205-68-10 record and taking the Buckeyes to 11 bowl games, he was fired after the 1978 season.

Jack Park, an Ohio State football historian and commentator on the Buckeyes' flagship radio station, WBNS, noted that the school had five head coaches in 11 seasons before Hayes took over in 1951.

"Before he got here, it was known as the 'Graveyard of Coaches,'" Park said. "But he stayed for 28 years, and his success has helped breed the success of the program over the years."

Conflicted legacy

To some outside Ohio, Hayes was viewed as a tyrant who bullied referees and his own players with his hair-trigger temper.

Hayes was fired after slugging Clemson player Charles Bauman along the sidelines late in the Buckeyes' 17-15 loss in the 1978 Gator Bowl at Jacksonville, Fla. The 26th anniversary of the incident is Wednesday — the day the No. 24 Buckeyes face Oklahoma State.

Despite the ugly incident, his former players and legions of Buckeyes fans revere Hayes' enduring spirit. People still drive slowly past his old house. Long after his death in 1987, they stop by his gravesite.

Fans have memories of the Hall of Fame coach tooling around Columbus in a pickup truck or prowling the sidelines in short sleeves during a raging snowstorm.

"His legend will never be diminished among Buckeye fans, or should it ever be," said former Ohio State player Bill Pollitt, a member of Hayes' 1968 national championship team. "I could sit here for a week and tell you stories about him."

Pollitt remembers walking out of Ohio Stadium in 1967 when the Buckeyes were struggling with a 6-3 record. The fans heckled Hayes after a loss, and several started singing "Goodbye Woody," as the coached trudged up the tunnel.

"All you could see was Coach waving his fist at them as he left," Pollitt says with a chuckle. "That was the kind of person he was."

Pollitt, a Columbus municipal judge, said Hayes remained close with his former players after their football careers.

"It may not fit the stereotype of a football coach, but he really cared," said Pollitt, who briefly worked as a graduate assistant under Hayes before starting law school. "A lot of places would only be interested in the players when they were eligible. It wasn't like that with him — he took a lot of interest in you after you left. That built a lot of loyalty among the guys who played for him."

Modest memories

For Gulcher, moving into the coach's old neighborhood had little to do with the Hayes legend. Gulcher was interested in strong schools for his son, Griffin, and thought moving only a few blocks from his old childhood home in Upper Arlington would be ideal for his growing family. Little did he know that his choice in housing was a landmark for Ohio State fans — as well as Hayes' home for the last 34 years of his life.

"We would spend some time on our side porch during the summer," Gulcher said. "My wife and I would be out there and we would see a car drive up and then slow down and come back to take a long, slow look at the house. My wife said that at any other place, you would be worried about it, but you can tell that Woody did make quite an impact."

With green shutters, white siding and a green and white chimney, the house looks almost like it did when Hayes lived here. It's a modest home built in the 1930s, about two miles from the Ohio State campus. It has a brick fireplace, three bedrooms and old oak floors. Hayes used to walk through the neighborhood to and from work every day — even in the most inclement Columbus weather.

In the neighborhood, Hayes was known for erratic driving. He backed into the house while pulling out of the driveway and backed into the neighbor's fence several times. With the house's historic nature, Gulcher chuckled that he has kept the dent there — almost as a memorial to the coach.

"The house is still green and white and appears very much like it did when he lived there," Gulcher said. "It's not like I'm a caretaker to a museum, but after having gone to Ohio State and grown up in the neighborhood around here, I don't want to change it too much."

Part of the fabric

For inspiration after big victories, fans still flock to Hayes' grave at Union Cemetery — a couple of long touchdown passes away from Ohio Stadium.

Shortly after the Buckeyes' 2002 national championship victory in the Fiesta Bowl, Hayes' grave was decorated with a floral arrangement with a football and a bag of corn chips from Tostitos, the bowl's sponsor. Other fans have brought copies of sports sections to drape across the ground at his tombstone.

"We get quite a few visitors daily, especially close to the big games," said Paul T. Walker Jr., the cemetery's general manager. "People stop at the front with their scarlet and gray (school colors) on, and we pass out quite a few maps. Coach Hayes still seems to get a lot of visitors."

Hayes' picture hangs over the cash register at diners and gas stations across the state. Ohio is among the nation's largest states in terms of population with only one team in a Bowl Championship Series conference. That expands the rooting interest for the Buckeyes among millions of sports fans.

"It's just a way of life around here," said Drew Smith, the manager of the Buckeyes Hall of Fame Sports Grill, a 50,000-square foot bistro and memorabilia trove dedicated to Ohio State. "I can remember growing up, listening to the games on the radio with my father while we were raking leaves in our back yard. It's that way for everybody — a very Norman Rockwell-like experience, thinking about Coach Hayes and the Buckeyes."

Smith, who later played sousaphone three years for the Ohio State Marching Band, said entering Ohio Stadium for the first time bordered on a holy experience. Other Buckeyes fans recount similar tales — many years after first visiting the horseshoe-shaped facility.

Today, Smith's restaurant helps cherish those memories with several displays dedicated to Hayes and his former teams. The restaurant was built on the grounds of the Jai Lai restaurant, a legendary Columbus supper club that once was one of Hayes' favorite hangouts.

Though Gulcher insists that he did not see an apparition of the old coach, Smith jokes that that Hayes' spirit has been known to haunt his old haunt after last call.

"The closing managers have told me they don't like to be here late at night by themselves," Smith said. "It's a vast restaurant, and they are afraid they might run into Coach Hayes' ghost late at night, sitting back where his favorite table used to be."