Fables of the Reconstruction Pt.1: The Guy After Woody

by Ramzy Nasrallah June 19, 2024
Nov, 1980; Columbus, OH, USA; FILE PHOTO; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Art Schlichter and head coach Earl Bruce on the sidelines at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Spor
© Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Shared memories serve everyone differently.

That's the largely discarded conclusion of a famous Robert Evans quote. You're probably familiar with some version of it:

There are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.

Subscribing to most of that belief has been helpful in helping me adjust to The Misinformation Era without devouring my mental health. Not sure I fully buy into the no one is lying part. Everyone lies, to each other and especially to themselves. We also tend to remember the same things differently.


People can be objectively wrong or absorb and then rely on blended memories, which time and dying neurons corrupt into a firsthand experience. I've attended and rewatched so many football games in my life there are a few I can no longer place correctly, like was I actually there or did I insert myself into the stadium from my living room? It's scary.

News anchor Brian Williams famously put himself into a helicopter he was never in, came clean about his flawed story - and there's some evidence he was not actively trying to steal valor (I have a hard time buying that, but this is the essence of the Evans philosophy).

Anyway, I miss printed game tickets. Going paperless was a great innovation. Just not for sporting events.

Writing about the Ohio State football program for the past 27 years has helped me keep a public diary since the twilight of the John Cooper era. A lot of the stuff prior is hazier for me. My Buckeye fluency is native, because I've been too undisciplined to stop obsessing over it and think about anything else in my free time.

But my own role in experiencing Ohio State history is murky. I have strong opinions that feel like the truth. Then someone will recognize me in Columbus on a game day and tell me how wrong I am. Thanks for reading.

There are three sides to Ohio State football - your side, my side and the truth. When we look at it that way, being becomes a lot less important. We're not talking about facts like Kyle McCord started for the Buckeyes in 2023 - that's not a debate - it's more McCord's inability to throw accurately or timeline probably cost the Buckeyes the Michigan game.

It's our shared, sometimes overlapping and often totally disparate experiences of the same thing that have allowed me to write about whatever in this space for all of these years. Everyone reading these words sees the world in their own way. In my world, I still cannot believe Parker Fleming was allowed to be so goddamn bad at his job for so long, because What You Permit, You Promote. His shittiness became Day's as soon as Day decided it was okay.

Fleming's retention (and promotion! He got promoted!) was active sabotage to a football program I maintain an unhealthy relationship with, and his offseason dismissal is the most important non-Chip Kelly coaching upgrade in the Woody this offseason. I accept some readers might disagree or find that overly dramatic. Clearly, I do not. You'll find my weathered tombstone on several hills like that one.

One truth we can agree on at this moment is that we are in an offseason void where recruiting and rehashing are the two pulses keeping college football, a sport immune to true dormancy, from lapsing on the residency it takes up in our brains for free.

Which means there's no better time on the calendar to lean on some irrefutable takes. Three sides to Ohio State football. You have yours. The truth is out there, somewhere. Here's mine.

This week, I'm speaking for my childhood self - a denizen of Ohio's capital in the 1980s.

Oct 1980; Columbus, OH, USA FILE PHOTO; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Earle Bruce on the sideline during the 1980 season at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Earle Bruce on the sideline during the 1980 season at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports (og)

This doesn't feel true, but I have no firsthand memories of Woody Hayes football teams. My familiarity with that era - which mostly took place prior to my birth - feels too strong to be transferred.

But the math checks out. I arrived during the mid-1970s and have watched the 1969 Rose Bowl in its entirety more than a few times (here you go, it's awesome). Spent my formative years in Upper Arlington, which meant my dad and I could walk to games on Saturdays.

A lot of those walks came during a time where Woody and Anne Hayes could also be seen just about every day taking strolls around the neighborhood, enjoying that sweet Emeritus lifestyle. He was a real person whom I saw in real life. He just wasn't coaching any football games.

I was alive for only half of the 10-Year War but had baby and toddler-related priorities while the guy for whom Ohio Stadium's street address is now named was still collecting a W2. It all feels real, including a sepia-tinted, squalor-adjacent Lane Ave and a High Street I can only imagine.

By the time Ohio State football found me, the guy after Woody was in charge of things. And his teams are the first memories I can call my own. At the time - and for several years following his termination - I thought most of the football I witnessed was Uniquely Earle Bruce-style football. I didn't know better, because I could count the football seasons I experienced firsthand with both hands and have a thumb to spare.

Run, run, pass, punt was still Uniquely Earle Bruce when I hit teenage years because I saw it happen innumerable times in every damn game. I heard adults around me at the stadium mutter it on 1st down, then again 2nd down and 3rd down before high-fiving each other with gallows chuckles as the punt team took the field. Everyone saw it coming.

Adults know everything when you're a kid. Run, run, pass, punt was invented, patented and mass-produced in Ohio by the guy after Woody. That was my truth. I became sentient during the Earle era.

And the grown-ups, oof they really didn't like him. The Buckeyes won most of their games with him in charge, but I had no idea if or why everyone was so mad about it. The guy after Woody won nine games every season. This part is objectively true and worth laying out for the record:

  • 1979: 11-1 ("only because Earle had Woody's players!")
  • 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985: 9-3. Every. Year.
  • 1986: 10-3 (!)
  • 1987: 6-4-1 (Earle was fired the week before that sixth win)

This is how I parsed the weird relationship Ohioans have with postwar Ohio State football: The guy after Woody won games because that's what Ohio State does. The guy after Woody lost games because that's what bad coaches do with Ohio State teams.

In grade school you learn math, science, the arts and reason. I learned we'll win the game or know he reason why is more than a silly song lyric, it was a theory as inarguable as gravity. There's no acceptable loss in Columbus. There are even some unacceptable wins.

The best example I can think of was when the Buckeyes beat Hawai'i 38-0 in 2015 and then spent the postgame apologizing about their performance. It's the unhealthiest standard for anything I've ever seen. That's my truth. Misery is one of our core values.

My family had moved to Columbus from Iowa City, which was where I first got my introduction to Big Ten football. It took a couple months for me to conclude everyone in Ohio was from Ohio except me. And everyone's parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were also from Ohio. I'm not sure how we got in, but I kept my head down.

We were the only people from somewhere else. Even inside of America, first-generation citizens like me can feel like we just stepped off a boat from another planet. Oh, you're from Iowa? Did you have plumbing there? Do you know any Indians? Actual questions I fielded in middle school - remember, this was pre-Internet. No silly, of course we didn't have plumbing.

I had no idea the guy after Woody wasn't from Ohio either. He was just naturalized through the football program. Earle played high school football in Maryland and tore his meniscus before he could create any Ohio State highlights. I knew that part, I think an adult said that at a tailgate in 1985 where I probably drank seven cans of Orange Crush, a personal best.

That tale about his knee shaped my armchair doctor belief that a torn meniscus was a catastrophic injury. Fifteen seasons after Earle's era ended, a freshman named Maurice Clarett tore his meniscus in the 1st half against Washington State. He rushed for 197 yards in the 2nd half on one leg.

The following week he had surgery and then resumed being the Buckeyes' best player in what turned out to be a 14-0 season. I updated my armchair doctor records accordingly. Meniscuses (menisci?) are optional in the modern era. Please consult an actual doctor for better medical insights.

His old boss Earle Bruce, under whom Jim Tressel was an assistant coach at Ohio State, talks to Tressel before the annual spring game, held in Crew Stadium on April 28, 2001. Osu Dciii Bruce Tressel
Bruce with the guy after the guy after him in 2001, prior to the annual spring game which was held in old Crew stadium while Ohio Stadium was undergoing renovations.© Doral Chenoweth/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The guy after Woody was not Woody, and that was the prevailing issue with Ohio State football during the 1980s, which I was told was a lost decade while it was still happening. Going 9-3 was a disaster. Woody went 9-3 one time, the year before he punched the Clemson kid. Woody went 9-3 during his decline. The guy after Woody always went 9-3.

That was largely due to math, since Woody only coached in five 12-game seasons. Schedule expansion was still relatively new in the mid-1980s, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how we could have already concluded 9-3 was bad. Maybe we need a few more years to be sure? Or maybe we didn't. Adults are never wrong. They must be right.

Every grown-up talked about him that way, with disgust. Ol' 9-3. The first curse words I remember hearing in public were at the stadium after failed 3rd down conversions. But 9-3 still seemed...good? Or at least, okay? A 9-3 NFL team would probably be hosting a playoff game in a month.

The Indiana Hoosiers have never gone 9-3 in their history. The Illinois Fightin' Illini have never gone 9-3 either. Purdue has gone 9-3 three times - in 1904, when it stacked the schedule with multiple high schools and lost one of those three games to its own alumni - and then again during my lifetime in brief, fleeting moments of near-competence. Three* times, ever.

Going 9-3 once might produce a statue of the head coach on a third of the original Big Ten campuses. The guy after Woody did it six years in a row and it seems like everyone hated him.

The fans resented who he was not, which was a fatal character flaw for two full generations of Ohioans who only knew Woody as Ohio State's patriarch. That's not a guess. Adults tell on themselves. It took Clarett with one functioning meniscus and Jim Tressel for that long shadow to finally subside.

When my family lived in Iowa, the Hawkeyes went to a Rose Bowl and the state basically treated that New Year's Day like the moon landing, if the moon were made out of corn - which is a silly thing to say because everyone knows it's made out of cheese.

And some people legitimately think the moon landing was faked. Others thought the Iowa Rose Bowl was staged, like there's no way Iowa is playing in Pasadena. But they were, and they scored zero points in that game. That quieted the conspiracy theorists. Oh, yeah - that's definitely Iowa.

I don't have the right to make firsthand moon landing takes, since the moon landing predates my arrival by several years. I do believe it did happen, because not believing it feels, what's the appropriate medical term here, batshit. I also believe the moon belongs to Ohio. I'm not interested in debating that.

Iowa has had three 9-3 seasons in its history, all under Hayden Fry. He has a statue on Iowa's campus, which was unveiled at a festival named after him. Iowa's only 9-3 coach has a festival. Going 9-3 was difficult and uncommon just about everywhere except Columbus.

Going 9-3 once might produce a statue of the head coach on a third of the original Big Ten campuses. The guy after Woody did it six years in a row and everyone hated him.

What was common, and I did not appreciate this at the time, was how ubiquitous run, run, pass, punt was as a football error mitigation strategy beyond Columbus. I had been seduced by Miami, Nebraska, Oklahoma, pre-electric chair SMU, Southern Cal - programs that did things their own ways.

Football was a regional sport back then, and the Rose Bowl only existed so that East and West could see each other on the same field at the same time in a place where winter felt like a rumor. They just play different football in the Pacific Time Zone. That's why Iowa didn't score against Washington in that Rose Bowl. The privilege of not having to shovel snow is play-action passing on 2nd down.

I convinced myself Ohio State football philosophy was a regional thing too. After all, Michigan did a fair bit of run, run, pass, punt and its coach was a Woody acolyte, just like Earle. They both looked like a football coach was supposed to look to me because that was all I knew. Basic hat, basic clothes, sensible shoes, dad body, gruff demeanor.

We all become our dads. That's what little boys are told. Woody was basically Bo and Earle's dad.

When Coop arrived in 1988 from the Pacific Time Zone and started losing games with gusto, going 9-3 suddenly felt like a stolen heirloom. There was a collective realization that perhaps Ohio State had no choice but to play Ohio State football, otherwise it just wouldn't work.

Coop was the first interloper of my lifetime and everyone else's in Ohio. The adults were aghast.

The guy after Earle famously blamed the roster and strength program he inherited from the guy after Woody. He talked about having too many slow white guys and publicly bemoaned about how only a handful of his players could get 400 pounds up on the bench press.

When he was asked to clarify his slow white guys comment - this was pre-internet, so we're going off of my own firsthand or possibly a blended memory here - Coop clarified that he did not observe any obvious slowness among the Black players on the team. I found that conscientious explanation as hilarious then as I do now. Oh, got it - thanks Coop.

I always chalked it up to future Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini being too slow. Here's an example:

bo baby why you so slow
A frame from the greatest comeback in Ohio State football history not involving J.T. Barrett or Fourth Quarter James Franklin™.

As for the players not being able to put up 400 lbs on the bench press, that seemed like a lot of weight to 14-year old me. I had just discovered the UAHS weight room that year and getting 135 up 12 times made me feel like Schwarzenegger in Predator.

But gladiators gotta gladiate - I was excited for more Buckeyes to be able to bench 400 lbs. Assumed that aspiration would be reserved for linemen. The big fellas had to be able to lift that much.

This was 35 seasons ago. Thirty-five seasons later, notorious non-lineman Marvin Harrison Jr. up 380 on the bench for NFL scouts. Coop would have been okay with Harrison failing to hoist 400.

That 1988 wide receiver room featured Earle-holdovers Greg Beatty, Everett Ross and Jeff Graham - all of whom I believed were each one game away from becoming the next Cris Carter. I've often thought about Coop's admonishment of the roster the guy after Woody had left for him. They weren't right for what Coop wanted to do. They were perfect for what Earle was doing.

His teams are remembered as a 9-3 machine, in large part because that's what they were. My version of the truth to that fateful 1987 season was that his final team was like three plays from getting 10 wins again and making 9-3 part of his past. He never got another shot, and the following four seasons were a complete teardown and buildup into what is basically the current Ohio State program.

What followed the guy after Woody, at least once Coop turned Ohio State into a national program five years into his tenure, makes what Earle accomplished look like every bit of the underachievements the grown-ups of that era insisted it was. But I was there for those teams, and even accepting that my eyes were 10 times bigger then than they are now, those guys were better than 9-3.

The 2002 team probably should have been a nine-win team too, but it won 14. Football is amazing.

The 1980s teams played a brand of football which predated double-digit penalty flags in every game, miserable replay reviews, a targeting penalty that feels like it was inserted into the sport by Las Vegas bookmakers more than by neurologists - and the long-overdue compensation to players for donating their bodies to a sport that's as unhealthy as it is gratifying.

That's not a longing for the good ol' days because just about everything we wanted back then for college football and Ohio State football has now been granted. My version of the truth is that today's teams could use heavy seasoning from the guys who played what was basically a different sport with wondrous, romantic and economically appalling incentives back then.

By my count the guy after Woody coached ten players who would have started at Ohio State in most football seasons which have followed his departure. They played a regional sport shaped by Ohio traditions, but I cannot convince myself they wouldn't have thrived in the current era. They are:

Carter, Keith Byars, Tim Spencer, John Frank, Jeff Uhlenhake, Tom Tupa, Jim Lachey, Pepper Johnson, Marcus Marek, Chris Spielman.

Three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth. And no one is lying, allegedly - so here goes: I'll take all of those guys as starters on the 2024 team, practicing and conditioning within the current infrastructure and rules, in place of the players Ohio State will be rolling with as a national title contender.

Wait, Byars or Spencer over Henderson and Judkins? Yes. John Frank blocked with precision, enthusiasm and purpose while also catching passes, a lost duality and total departure from what the current tight end room has delivered post-pandemic. We don't have to get into the current offensive line, we've got a whole preseason review to wade into that.

I've got Marek and Spielman ahead of every linebacker going back to the playing days of the guy currently coaching that room. I am grateful for studs like Darron Lee, Ryan Shazier and every guy your brain is saying but but but whatabout yes, they're all fine too.

But make every Ohio State linebacker out of the same mammalian ooze which produced the two best linebackers that played for the guy after Woody, and you'll never be sad about linebacker play again.

What's amazing is that only Spielman played significant minutes on a team that was able to achieve 10 wins. The last time the Buckeyes only won 10 in a non-pandemic, non-Tatgate nuke season, Tupa was three years removed from his NFL game checks. Earle coached in a different era, under restrictions and priorities which seem foreign today. His best players are absolute legends to me. That's my truth.

Hindsight informs us that the guy after Woody was a necessary, thankless sacrifice to move on from Woody, which means that coach was going to be whoever accepted the job. During that coaching search in 1979, future Ryan Day nemesis Lou Holtz said he preferred to be the guy after the guy after Woody. That's a good take. Day was born two months later.

The guy Holtz talked about preferring to be ended up being Coop. We'll do the 1990s on the next Fables.

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