We all know Wayne Woodrow "Woody" Hayes as the most legendary coach in the history of the Ohio State football program. Hayes was a winner on the Ohio Stadium field (205-61-10) and off the field.
But when Hayes' name is mentioned, it's rarely about his service as a World War II Navy lieutenant commander. It's not about staking his claim to five national titles and 13 Big Ten titles. Or about inspiring so many young men to excel not just on the football field, but in life.
Rather, Hayes is best known for a bad decision he made at the 1978 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. On December 29, 1978, the most legendary coaching career for one of the nation's most legendary programs came to an end with one right hook.
An Eerie Feeling
"I'm not trying to win a popularity poll. I'm trying to win football games. I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." - Woody Hayes
Jack Park, commentator for 97.1 The Fan, stated, "Had Ohio State won (the 1976 Rose Bowl against UCLA), some people have voiced their opinion that Hayes was ready to retire. But since he didn’t win, he wanted to come back and win one more (national title)."
The Bruins defeated the Buckeyes in Archie Griffin's final game. The loss denied Hayes and the Buckeyes a national championship and started a downward spiral for Hayes.
The Buckeyes went 9-2-1 and 9-3 in the next two seasons and won the Big Ten title in each season. However, Hayes dropped back-to-back games to his former assistant Bo Schembechler and "that team up north" and never again competed for a national title under Hayes.
Prior to the 1978 season, Hayes' assistants and those close to the program felt something was coming, but they didn't know what it was.
"Those closer to the program at that time, one of them was a longtime sportscaster by the name of Jimmy Crum, told me that the assistant coaches had told him that they felt (leading up to the 1978 season) something was going to happen," Park said.
"Hayes was just different," he said. "He had trouble with some things and just blew his top a lot more. They were not completely surprised when something bad happened."
Park strongly believes Hayes' health had a lot to do with what happened in Hayes' fateful, final game.
"He was a diabetic, I don't think most people know," Park explained. "I think (age, stress and lack of success on the field) plus health contributed to what happened (at the Gator Bowl)."
The 1978 Gator Bowl
"Football is, after all, a wonderful way to get rid of your aggressions without going to jail for it." - Woody Hayes
The score was 17-15. Clemson was leading Ohio State. With under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Hayes had to abandon his beloved running game and rely on freshman quarterback Art Schlichter.
Schlichter dropped back and tried to get the ball to a receiver crossing over the middle. But Charlie Bauman cut in front of the pass and intercepted it. Bauman was tackled in front of the Ohio State sideline, and in the ruckus that ensued, Hayes threw a punch into Bauman's throat.
Those watching from the stands and those watching on TV were not privy to what actually happened in the scrum on the Ohio State sideline.
Harry Blaine was at the game and recounted what he saw after Schlichter's pass was intercepted.
"(I was) on the opposite side of the field from Ohio State's bench, so all I could see was that something was going on," Blaine recalled. "We saw the Clemson player run up to Woody, then a real ruckus with players and coaches milling around. Then calm was restored and the game went on."
Park had a similar experience watching on TV.
"On television, it was hard to understand what had really happened," Park recounted. "The announcers Keith Jackson and Ara Parseghian didn’t know what had happened. They knew that there was a disturbance and shoving, but they didn’t know that Woody Hayes had hit a player."
After the interception, Clemson was able to run out the clock and win the game. But shortly after, the talk changed from Clemson beating Ohio State to what Hayes had done on the sideline.
"I don't apologize for anything. When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there. I just despise to lose, and that has taken a man of mediocre ability and made a pretty good coach out of him." - Woody Hayes
"Pretty soon after the game, news came through (that Hayes had punched Bauman)," Park said. "I think all around the country, the leadoff story that night was that Woody Hayes had hit a player."
Ohio State's athletic director Hugh Hindman held an impromptu press conference the morning after the game. While the team was on the plane at the Jacksonville airport, Hindman announced Hayes would no longer be the coach.
Would you have fired Woody Hayes?
Park said the team was not aware their coach had been fired until they arrived back in Columbus.
"It was time for Hayes to go, but the way the Ohio State University handled (the firing) was extremely poor," Park asserted. "I think the right thing to do was to wait a little bit (to let tempers cool). Then ask Hayes if he would consider retiring, and if he wouldn't, maybe then you force him to retire."
Blaine, an alumnus of Ohio State and a faculty member of the athletic council during the late '70s, was told that is what happened. But Hindman didn't allow any time for emotions to settle.
"(Hindman) later told me that he had asked Hayes to retire," Blaine explained. "Woody replied 'I'm not doing your damned job for you. If you don't want me here, fire me."
Blaine maintains that had the decision been under the purview of the athletic council, which is a policy board not involved in the day-to-day running of the athletic department, he would've opposed Hayes firing.
"I do believe that Woody would not have been fired if he still had been a supremely successful coach," Blaine declared.
The Lasting Legacy of the Legend
"Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it." - Woody Hayes
Despite the firing of Hayes, which Park said took him nearly a week to comprehend, Hayes never lost popularity.
"He was almost held in higher esteem after he wasn’t coaching because he did so much for the university afterwards," Park said. "What Hayes did didn't damage the program; it gave it a little bit of a black eye. But the biggest damage was probably the embarrassment Hayes brought to himself and Mrs. Hayes."
For Buckeye fans that grew up during the Hayes era, the punch will remain as one blemish to an otherwise outstanding man and coach.
"Monetary wealth and possessions really didn’t mean a lot to him," Park explained. "But, yet if you could measure in some way what he did for other people throughout his lifetime, he was probably one of the richest people in this world."
Ironically, 32 years after Hayes was fired, another Buckeye coaching legend resigned as a result of a scandal. Jim Tressel, who ended Ohio State's national title drought in 2003, coached with a similar style and also had a good standing in the Buckeye community.
But it wasn't just the winning of those two coaches that made them so influential in Ohio State's future. Interestingly enough, the firing of Hayes and the resignation of Tressel both played a role in bringing Urban Meyer to Ohio State.
When Hayes was fired, Ohio State hired Earle Bruce. In 1986, Bruce hired Meyer as a graduate assistant, a two-year stint that may have played a role in increasing Meyer's love for the Buckeyes program, a program that Meyer joined as head coach just 11 months after he retired and seven months after Tressel resigned.
"To me, Urban Meyer coming to Ohio State like he did is a tremendous coincidence," Park said happily. "I don’t think (Ohio State) could have found a better coach if it had taken 100 years."
In Ohio State lore, Hayes was more than just his 205 wins and his championships. He was a legendary man that took a sleeping giant and made it into one of the greatest programs in the country. Not only were his successes great, but his greatest failure also didn't sink him or his beloved program.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.