Woody Hayes' Ohio State Commencement Speech Honored by NPR as One of Best Ever

By Jason Priestas on May 20, 2014 at 4:34p

Declaring this “a golden age of the commencement speech,” NPR assembled the 300 greatest commencement speeches, ever, into a searchable database.

With speeches going all the way back to 1774, the entire project is well worth your time. The commencement speeches of eight current and former presidents make appearances. As do speeches from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Bill Gates, Colin Powell, Fred Rogers, George C. Marshall, Kurt Vonnegut, Steve Jobs, and many others.

But only one speech from a football coach made the cut and that's the commencement address Wayne Woodrow Hayes delivered to Ohio State graduates on March 14, 1986. Seven years removed from a 28-year career that saw Hayes win national championships and coach Heisman Trophy winners, he opened with, “Today is the greatest day of my life.”

And he meant it. Archie Griffin later said Hayes had tears in his eyes when he told him that he had been asked to deliver the speech.

Hayes used what he saw as a precious opportunity to convey his messages of outworking others and paying forward whenever possible. It was vintage Woody.

Here's an excerpt:

I am so grateful and so appreciative to be here today, I just can't tell you how much.

I would like to start out with something that I use in almost every speech, and that is the idea of paying forward.

Paying forward - that is the thing that you folks with your great education from here can do for the rest of your lives. I was so happy the other day when I saw in the paper about Jim Lachey, who played here one year ago and comes back after one year of professional football to give a six-figure gift to the University. And what he said was, "I received a great education here and I got to play great football under Coach Bruce, and under a great football system here. I want to help some other youngster to do the same thing."

Take that attitude toward life, because so seldom can we pay back - those whom you owe - your parents and other people - will be gone. Emerson had something to say about that.

He said you can pay back only seldom. But you can always pay forward, and you must pay line for line, deed for deed, and cent for cent. He said beware of too much good accumulating in your palm or it will fast corrupt. That was Emerson's attitude and no one put it better than he did.

I might mention a couple of people. Jim Lachey is one who is already paying forward. Two weeks ago in Michigan, a former football player of ours passed away. He was in his 60s. He had been in the Marine Corps during World War II, on Okinawa - there were only 30 from his outfit that survived. That made a difference in him. He came back to coaching and he was a great coach. His name was Jack Castignola. He sent his son, Greg, here as one of our quarterbacks. Jack Castignota won nine championships - undefeated season, and all that - but he did something bigger: He coached 126 players who went on to college. One hundred and twenty-six players went on to college and that was his way of paying forward.

We had a great dean of agriculture here by the name of Roy Kottman, who retired a couple years ago. And on his retirement, he and I were having lunch one day in the Faculty Club, and I said, "Roy, how did you happen to go to Iowa State?" "Oh," he said, "I was working back during the Depression for $1.50 a day pumping gas and I couldn't save any money. But an old man in that community in Iowa came to me and said, 'Roy, if you'll go to Iowa State, I'll pay your tuition.' So I went to Iowa State and worked for my room and board, graduated, went into the service, came back, got my master's, my doctorate, went to West Virginia as dean of the agriculture college, and then I came to Ohio State." He was here 23 years, and in those 23 years, he virtually doubled food production in Ohio. On top of that, he graduated thousands of youngsters. On top of that, he helped to feed hungry mouths all over the world. All because that old man back in Iowa said, "Roy, if you'll go to Iowa State, I'll pay your tuition." That's paying forward.

You know, I might give you a little advice today - not too much, but a little bit. One thing you cannot afford ever to do is to feel sorry for yourself. You can't do it. You cannot feel sorry for yourself because that's what leads to drugs, what leads to alcohol, and those things that tear you apart.

In football, we always say, "That other team can't beat us. We have to make sure that we don't beat ourselves." And that is what a person has to do, too - make sure that they don't beat themselves. It takes an awful big man to beat you. So many times I've found people smarter than I was. I found them in football - bigger, they could run faster, could block harder, they were smarter people than I.

But you know what they couldn't do? They couldn't outwork me. They couldn't outwork me! And I ran into coaches that I coached against who had a much better background than I did, knew a lot more football than I did, but they couldn't work as long as I could. They couldn't stick in there as long as I could.

You can read the full speech at graduationwisdom.com.

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