Watching Out for Woody

Woody Hayes on the OSU sideline
Image via Wikipedia

“Statistics always remind me of fellow who drowned in a river where the average depth was only three feet.” Woody Hayes, legendary Ohio State Coach

It was a torturous bike ride up a tediously long horizon line hill.  At the summit of the road rested The Huntington Sheraton, the grand dame of early Los Angeles art deco hotels.  It was our generation’s Four Season’s with its ornate dining rooms, spacious grounds that included Oriental gardens and koi ponds adjacent to an enormous Olympic outdoor pool and courtyard with ivy that climbed and adorned its façade like a fairy tale Austrian castle.

Each year, the hotel played host to the reigning Big Ten Champion football squad who would invade Pasadena along with fifty thousand pale Midwesterners in massive motor homes.  Their mission was simple – return with second degree sunburns, a few phone numbers from local Rose Princesses and a win in over the Pac Eight champions on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl.  Each new years brought rose-covered parade floats along Colorado Blvd, flocks of alabaster skinned snow birds and Big 10 football players. Once the Big 10 team had checked in to the Huntington, we would pedal our bikes to the edges of the hotel grounds and infiltrate our way through the bushes like the Viet Cong avoiding the beefed up hotel security, valets and team staff who patrolled the perimeters searching for and eliminating straying media, gridiron groupies and adolescent autograph hounds.

It was December 1974. Three of my more daring friends and I had staked the four corners of the hotel to intercept the great Archie Griffin – a Heisman Trophy winner whose Buckeyes were here on borrowed time – – soon to fall in defeat to my beloved USC Trojans.  That afternoon, I remained hidden among azaleas, as still as lawn jockey waiting for Lady Luck to blow me a kiss.

I idolized these bulging, behemoths with their protruding eyebrows and necks that exploded into shoulders.  Yet, up close, they were rather intimidating missing links. Perhaps the most terrifying of them all was their leader, coach Woody Hayes.  Coach Hayes reminded me of every older man that ever chased me off his lawn.  He was all business with dark engineers glasses, wild, tangled salt and pepper eyebrows and a chin that screamed, “fight to the death.”. He hated everyone in California – USC, UCLA, our refs, and especially the tanned, metro-sexual fans. He probably hated our sunshine. The only thing coach Hayes hated more than his opponents in the Rose Bowl was The Michigan Wolverines.  To make it to the Rose Bowl in the 1970’s, you must beat Michigan and Bo Schembechler.  Hayes was rumored to hate Michigan so much than he once told his team (when they were running low on gasoline) that he would rather push the bus all the way to Ohio than spend one dollar in the state of Michigan.

In late 1974, Ohio State was flying high, having humiliated my Trojans 42-21 earlier in the year at the Rose Bowl.  Leading into that game, Ohio State had brooded, waiting to avenge their own beat down at the hands of John McKay and the Trojans who completed their amazing 1972 season becoming co-national champs. That ’73 OSU team was an unstoppable force with QB Cornelius Greene, monster fullback Pete Johnson and super star Archie Griffin. To add insult to injury, my hero, USC running back Anthony Davis had come in second in the Heisman voting to Archie Griffin.

I made bold promises all year and waited for Christmas, praying that those two golden tickets to the Rose Bowl might magically appear under the tree.  Yet, in those last few days of December 1974, there was a wrinkle in my confidence.  Ohio State was returning to the Rose Bowl with that angry old man and his Ajax – the greatest warrior running back, Griffin who would burst through Holland Tunnel sized breaches created by behemoth offensive linemen like Kurt Schumacher and 6’5” and 270 lb Doug France.

My friends and I had agreed to cover different parts of the hotel and in typical adolescent fashion, there was no plan to meet, communicate or reconvene.  It was each kid for himself. We had no idea what these helmeted warriors looked like and just assumed anyone with muscles must be a player. During that one-week in December, most kids would annoy any adult possessing a bicep and a room key. My first attempt at an autograph involved accosting a surprised but flattered overweight gentleman and his attractive companion.  He laughed agreeing to sign my book. Oddly, I later could not find a player for Ohio State with the name “ John Smith”.  Years later, I realized that I must have hit up some guy who was committing infidelity with his secretary.

My own bumbling attempts over the years to get autographs included being chased by a kitchen dishwasher  (he was very fast) and ripping my pants in the rose garden as I avoided a less mobile, ancient security guard.  This year, I was determined to get that Heisman winner’s autograph but I was afraid – – very afraid that Woody Hayes would get me before I got to his star running back.

After a half hour of watching cars and bellhops and valets, I made my move – edging out of the bushes and down a hillside tangled with Vinca and brightly colored Lantana.  Stumbling on to a narrow garden walkway between buildings, I gathered my bearings – gratefully recognizing the koi pools covered in magnificent lily pads the size of Frisbees.  I could have walked this area blindfolded.  As a boy, I had spent countless afternoons with my buddy Stu, dodging hotel staff and trying to capture the Chernobyl sized toads that peered from the ink blot ponds.  The hotel must have fed the amphibians a radioactive material, as even the polliwogs were the size of small brown trout.

Zigzagging north along a walkway lined with roses, I spied the swimming pool and to my delight, there were at least twenty shirtless, muscle-bound men in shorts and flip-flops resting in the late afternoon sun in its northeast corner.  This gathering was the mother lode of finds for a young teen eager for a brush with fame.  Yet, I had no one with whom to share the moment. I was going to have to execute this mission impossible without any backup.

I watched five gigantic players surrounding a tremendously fit and handsome black man who could not have been taller than 5’ 9”.  His 34” thighs were larger than my father’s waist.  He was smiling and laughing as he got up and began walking to the southern side of the pool where I was hiding behind a hibiscus bush.   He was coming to exchange a towel and get a soda from the poolside bar. It was – Archie Griffin.

Suddenly, a bumblebee the size of a B-52 strafed me and I swatted indiscriminately at air.  The bush started to violently shake as I lunged at the elusive flying fortress.  Archie glanced in my direction but quickly got distracted by the din of laughing players and transistor radio music.  He was now within five feet of me. I screwed up my courage and darted out of the bushes.  In my haste, I caught the higher edge of the walkway with my sneaker, spilling face first on to the poolside with my autograph book sliding five feet in front of me.  I looked down at my skinned palms and bloodied knee and then up toward the Heisman winner. His back was already turned to me as he returned to his lineman. I did manage to catch the eye of an annoyed security guard who began to move in my direction.

Suddenly, a pair of gigantic hands picked me up from behind and said, “ son, if you were playing for me, I’d make sure you learned how to carry that book without fumbling.  Are you ok?”  I turned and was suddenly staring into the face of the devil himself – Coach Woody Hayes.  I tried to speak but I was terrified that he was going to eat my face or perhaps just scream, “hey boys, we got us a Trojan lover over here.  Let’s give him an old-fashioned OSU can of whoop ass!”

Instead, he gently dusted off my backside, smiled and carried on over to a group of coaches. I was dumbfounded.  I had looked into the eyes of Satan and he had smiled. I just turned and sprinted down the back pathway against a backdrop of obvious laughter. I could not find my friends. Yet, I was not embarrassed. Au contraire, I had seen the man himself.  I pedaled home in record time to retell my story to an unbelieving audience.  “Sure, you did, you liar. And where’s his autograph. “ I was frustrated and lifted my pant leg. “ And how do you suppose I got this? “ My friends remained unconvinced.  “Well, let’s see.  You are an idiot so you could have gotten it any number of ways.” I realized at that moment, I had fumbled away my chance.

On January 1, 1975, my Trojans went on to beat the Buckeyes in an 18-17 thriller.  I was there – in the stands with my Dad clutching his ancient binoculars watching the plays and occasionally drifting over to coach Hayes as he screamed and cajoled his team to stop the USC’s final drive and two point conversion. Years later, the passionate silver Ohio State legend would be fired after striking a player in the 1978 Gator Bowl.  He would never again coach at the collegiate level.

I think of that day and wonder what might have happened had I possessed the guts to ask Coach Hayes for a few autographs. My guess is he would have surveyed my bloody knee and nodded, “Son, nothing cleanses the soul like getting the crap kicked out of you.  You go grab as many as you can.“

He was inducted into the college football Hall of Fame in 1983 and died in 1987 – taking with him a legacy of intensity, three national championships and a record of 238-72-10. He remains in my memories to this day– an imposing phantom from another time.  His is not the image that some choose to recall of a rigid, bitter relic grabbing the throat of an opposing player. He looms large, watching from a sideline – a great and passionate competitor, beloved coach, leader of champions and an Ohio patriot who simply refused to accept losing.