Sports is put in perspective during days like Monday – Memorial Day – when those who gave their life for their country are thanked, remembered and celebrated for their heroism. A week ruined because Ohio State lost to Michigan or got bounced early from the NCAA Tournament seems shallow when real-life troubles are considered.
But sports have always provided a needed escape in trying times. That was never more apparent than 2001 when Major League Baseball produced some of its finest moments weeks after unspeakable tragedy in the United States. In an era of wars and unrest around the world, athletes understand – though not always – their place in society.
During Woody Hayes’ storied tenure at Ohio State, events outside the Buckeyes’ football bubble were often tumultuous with political and social unrest enveloping the country. Hayes was no stranger to making his opinions on the era’s current events known. And he also didn’t shy away from his love for the military.
In the summer of 1941 – six months before Pearl Harbor – Hayes enlisted in the Navy. He requested active duty and became a Lieutenant Commander during World War II. Hayes commanded PC 1251 in the invasion of Palau and the USS Rinehart, a destroy escort, in the Atlantic and Pacific. Hayes was crossing from one ocean to the other – at the Panama Canal – when he learned his alma mater, Denison, hired him as its head football coach.
“People talk about how devoted Woody is to football. He was just as dedicated to the Navy,” Hayes’ wife, Anne, said. “Why, we had been married only five days when he asked for sea duty. He didn’t get it at once, but he did request it. Stevie (son) was nearly nine months old before Woody saw him for the first time.”
When Hayes’ five years of service ended, the military never left his veins. Throughout his coaching career, he lectured players on military history and used analogies to explain football and everyday life. Hayes even had running plays designed for Pete Johnson named “Patton,” as in General George Patton, a favorite Hayes subject.
“Woody gave all of us a minor in history through the football season, drawing great analogies to what we were doing on the football field to great military battles and moments in history,” former OSU captain and Columbus mayor Greg Lashutka said.
When one thinks of Hayes, football will always be the first image. But he thought of himself as a teacher. Half a century before Jim Tressel attracted attention for his professorial ways and taught a class, Hayes did the same, earning the title of associate professor at Ohio State. Law school was his first calling, before military service and coaching football occupied his life.
In 1974, USC president Dr. John Hubbard invited Hayes to give a lecture on World War II history. The invitation was extended months after Ohio State defeated the Trojans 42-21 in the Rose Bowl. Jimbo Fisher won’t be speaking to Auburn’s history department anytime soon, if you’re wondering.
Instead of being cooped up in his office from sunup to sundown, Hayes would spend hours at the Faculty Club talking to professors and other academics about the American Revolution, Civil War and both World Wars. Patton, Eisenhower, Lincoln, Kennedy, Nixon and even Shakespeare were some of Hayes’ favorite quotes.
In fact, Hayes and Nixon were so close that the former president eulogized Hayes at his funeral in Columbus. Nixon told a story about their first meeting, one in which Nixon wanted to talk football and Hayes wanted to discuss foreign policy.
“You know Woody,” Nixon said, “we talked about foreign policy.”
Nixon added: “For 30 years thereafter, I was privileged to know the real Woody Hayes – the man behind the media myth. Instead of a know-nothing Neanderthal, I found a renaissance man with a consuming interest in history and a profound understanding of the forces that move the world.”
Hayes’ passion for military history lives on today through, of all people, Jim Harbaugh, a Michigan Man who tormented Ohio State. But the former Wolverine quarterback was an admirer of Hayes – and Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh grew up watching the 10-Year War and often thought it was an actual war. That’s how most Ohioans and Michiganders viewed late November in the 1970s.
“[Hayes] had a deep, abiding respect and appreciation for the military," Harbaugh said last season. “And therefore I, through Woody Hayes, have come to have the same deep, abiding respect and appreciation for the military and its correlation with the game of football.”
More than a quarter century after Hayes’ death, his military legacy lives on, so powerful that a Michigan hero takes notice.