Just Like Woody: Why Ohio State Fans Love Urban Meyer

By Kyle Rowland on February 14, 2013 at 9:30 am
Happy Birthday, Mr. Hayes

One hundred years ago today, the Ohio State football program’s significance rose considerably – it just didn’t know it yet. Fifty-three miles southeast of Columbus at a dusty crossroads called Clifton, Ohio, the third child of Wayne and Effie Hayes was born. 

That child, named Wayne after his father, would become known as Woody and more than a quarter-century after his death is still revered by Buckeye fans around the world.

To celebrate the centennial of Hayes’ birth, Ohio State has orchestrated a weeklong series of events commemorating the life and times of Woody and Anne Hayes, including the unveiling of a statue of the coach’s likeness in front of the palatial football facility that bears his name.

“It brings back a lot of memories,” son Steve said. “And rightly so, they aren’t just honoring my dad, they’re honoring my mother. She was always in the background. She wanted it that way, but she deserves the recognition.

“It’s just my parents. It’s not two celebrities. Believe me, she could stop him cold in his tracks, and she did when it was important enough. It was an education.”

Hayes last coached an Ohio State game in December 1978, but his principles remain an enduring symbol of the program: smash-mouth offense, physical defense and a passionate distaste for Michigan. But it wasn’t always that way in Columbus – not until Hayes arrived in 1951.

Make no mistake, football and defeating Michigan were serious business for Ohio State at the midpoint of the 20th century and contributed to Hayes’ predecessor, Wes Fesler, resigning. It reached a level unseen, though, when Hayes came to Ohio State from Miami (Ohio).

In 28 seasons at Ohio State, Hayes won 13 Big Ten championships, three national titles, four Rose Bowls and owned a 16-11-1 record against Michigan. That nearly three-decade stretch shot the program into the college football stratosphere, a place they've floated in ever since.

Bronze Woody Hayes can still destroy a yard marker.The statue watching over the complex that bears his name.

Earle Bruce, John Cooper and Jim Tressel have sat in the same seat as Hayes, each enjoying successful runs. Tressel’s 10-year reign is most similarly aligned with Hayes’ ledger: Big Ten titles, a national championship and dominance over Michigan.

Now, Urban Meyer is making a pitch to join that exclusive club. Not only did he go 12-0 in his first season at Ohio State, but Woody lives on in Meyer, not in looks but in philosophy.

Offense is almost always the first thing that comes to mind when Meyer’s name is brought up. Some people incorrectly think of ‘basketball on grass’ because Meyer runs a version of the spread offense. In truth, it’s based on power, just as Buckeye football has been defined for nearly its entire existence. Across the line on defense, the same hard-nosed mentality is preached and carried out. Seeping through is Meyer’s admiration for all things Woody.

“I went over to the ROTC building and met with him (when I was a graduate assistant at Ohio State),” Meyer said. “My wife, Shelley, is from Chillicothe. We were at a recruiting dinner at the Scarlet and Gray Golf Course, and we were sitting there. Coach Hayes was in a wheelchair and wasn’t doing very good.  She said, ‘Let’s go meet Coach Hayes.’ There were about 30 people in line. I said, ‘I’ll bring you over to his office some time (but he passed).

“I still regret that to this day. So does she, that she never had a chance to meet Coach Hayes. But to say I’m a fan (of Hayes') is not a strong enough word. To think I admired him, yes. It goes back real thick and real strong, the admiration I have for Coach Hayes and Coach Bruce.”

Nine years before Hayes was hired at Ohio State, coaching legend Paul Brown engineered the Buckeyes’ first national championship. But World War II soon called Brown into action – Hayes also served – and left Ohio State empty-handed. It searched in vain for nearly a decade for someone to restore that prominence.

In the meantime, the Big Ten – then the Western Conference – thumbed its nose at Ohio State. It seemed as if every team that wasn't Ohio State captured championships until athletic director Dick Larkins and university president Howard Bevis sought the services of Hayes.

It wasn't long until Woody had molded the conference to his liking. He brought the best players to Columbus, won at a dizzying rate and angered opponents while doing so.

“It goes back real thick and real strong, the admiration I have for Coach Hayes and Coach Bruce.”

Does that scenario sound familiar?

Meyer’s father, Bud, raised him on tough discipline. Hayes, a child of World War I and witness to the Depression, was brought up with a chip on his shoulder. When Meyer became a GA at Ohio State in the 1980s, Bruce taught his staff and players with the same level of regulation. It was straight from the Woody Hayes School of Coaching.

After Bruce was unceremoniously fired by Ohio State, he was hired at Colorado State and made Meyer one of his assistants. From there, Meyer spent time at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz, another Hayes apprentice. To say Meyer was schooled on Hayes’ tactics would be a massive understatement.

From the moment he took control of the Buckeyes, Meyer has coached with the same gusto and flair as Hayes, Bruce and Holtz.

A new golden age of Ohio State football began with Meyer lamenting his team’s effort and commitment with tough love. During spring practice, Meyer referred to his offense as a “clown show.” Hayes frequently told his team if they practiced as hard as the band they’d win every game. Both Meyer and Hayes have been called arrogant, a label most successful people are tagged with, but each oozes confidence.

Villain might be the word the rest of the college football world attaches to Meyer and Hayes. But, as they say, behind every man is a great woman. In these cases, that statement rings true with an oversized bell.

Shelley Meyer is undoubtedly the leader of the Meyer clan. Her three children consume her, and she is often the parent heard screaming at sporting events, not her football coaching husband. She is an expert in her own field, holding a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing.

At home, Shelley holds sway over Urban and was the shining light during his year sabbatical. Family life got back on track, as did Urban’s health. He famously signed a contract written on pink paper, drafted by oldest daughter Nicki, before he was permitted to take the Ohio State job.

“The toughest contract I ever signed,” Meyer said.

Being married to a football coach doesn’t offer an ideal family life because of constant moving and stress. Shelley and Anne Hayes made it work, though. 

Soft-spoken, the polar opposite of her husband, Anne often stuck up for players when Woody became upset, much like Shelley with Urban’s teams at Florida. She was a tireless advocate for many charities and devoted her time, free of charge, for speaking engagements and rallying support for various causes.

“Other than those 60 minutes in Glendale, I've always followed the Buckeyes.”

“She was special as a mom, but she was special as a person, too,” Steve said. “She was a remarkable woman. She didn’t get the recognition she deserved, and she didn’t care. She was Dad’s secret weapon and my biggest booster.”

Quick with a joke, when a rumor about Anne and Woody getting divorced evolved, she quipped, “Divorce? No. Murder? Yes.”

At Florida, it was a picture of Woody Hayes that was positioned prominently on the wall in Meyer’s office. In the immense buildup to the 2007 BCS National Championship Game, Meyer all but professed his love for Ohio State, citing his childhood and time spent in Columbus as a GA.

“Other than those 60 minutes in Glendale, I've always followed the Buckeyes,” Meyer said.

Even Bruce was conflicted on whom to root for. A 41-14 trouncing put Buckeye Nation on notice. Meyer fans they were not, but they knew Tressel wouldn’t coach forever.

That day came sooner than anyone would expect and under circumstances that are still unfathomable to many. Working for ESPN, Meyer called Ohio State’s 2011 season opener versus Akron. He admitted months later that he had chills and tears running down his cheeks when the band took the field for its traditional ramp entrance.

“I used to sneak out (of the locker room) when I was a GA here at Ohio State,” Meyer said. “I knew it was 16:36 (on the game clock) when the band would come out. Coach Bruce would be doing his stuff. I would look at the clock, shoot down the stairs and just watch the band come out, play Across the Field and march across the field.

“(When I was here for the Akron game), I was wiping tears out of my eyes and all the memories came back.”

Everything old is new again. And it's great.

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