A Fire to Win: The Life and Times of Woody Hayes

A Fire to Win: The Life and Times of Woody Hayes

by John Lombardo


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Woody Hayes was one of the greatest football coaches in history—-and one of the most fascinating. More than a brilliant coach, he was a complicated, contradictory man. The former history teacher ran his football empire as an absolute monarchy, but had a surprisingly altruistic side, hidden from the public,. and author John Lombardo uses his extensive sports-writing experience to craft an accurate portrait of one of the most complex and fascinating figures in football.

First and foremost, Woody Hayes was a coach—-and his achievements are stunning. While at Ohio State, he won five national titles, and thirteen Big Ten Conference championships, made eight Rose Bowl appearances, and earned two national Coach of the Year awards. Moreover, Hayes's lifetime coaching record, 238—72—10, puts him in the first rank of college coaching immortals. No other coach won more games in a shorter period.

Countless interviews of former players, assistant coaches, and friends shape the image of Hayes and his career, which spanned the mid-1940s to the late 1970s during a tremendous period of change in American society. A Fire to Win is an honest and revealing biography of Hayes, a man who ranks in the pantheon of football coaches.

"An easy-to-read, objective look at one of Ohio's most powerful, complex, admired, feared, and contradictory figures."

—-The Columbus Dispatch

"A sympathetic yet evenhanded examination of a modern coaching giant."


"Insightful and comprehensive biography."

—-The New York Sun

"Contradictions, of course, are what make Hayes fascinating. And Lombardo delves into those contradictions with a cell biologist's eye for detail and a landscape painter's eye for perspective."

—-Chicago Tribune

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312360368
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/19/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,249,350
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

John Lombardo, a sportswriter based in Chicago, is the author of Raiders Forever: Stars of the NFL's Most Colorful Team Recall Their Glory Days. Lombardo lives in Winnetka, Illinois, with his wife and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

A Fire to Win



Woody Hayes was entirely a small-town man. None of the national championships, the bowl games, fame, glory, and power that came from lording over college football would ever shake Hayes's firm belief that all that was right in the world came from rural America, where love of country, hard work, and loyalty made America great.

It was this philosophy that would send Hayes to speak at nearly every Elks club, Masonic lodge, and Moose hall that asked, giving him the chance to lecture his audience on the virtues of small-town life. In return Hayes would be honored with a key to the city, a chicken dinner, and a modest speaking fee. The fee invariably would never see the inside of his pocket. Instead, he often would donate the money back to the club, or sign the check over to the local high school football team that was invariably in need of new equipment. Even when the speaking fees increased well into five figures, he would quietly sign the money over to a hospital or a charity. Sometimes he simply tucked the check into his jacket, where it would be forgotten until the garment was sent to the dry cleaners.

"I speak at a lot of banquets in small towns, because small towns have so many great people," Hayes said during those boilerplate speeches. "All the presidents came from small towns. The largest town that a president came from was in that state up north," he said, referring to former president Gerald Ford, who hailed from Grand Rapids, Michigan. The standing joke would always bring a chuckle. So deep was his disdain for rival Michigan, that even during these friendly talks Hayes, who counted Ford as a friend, would refuse to mention the state of Michigan by name.

Hayes's own tenets were forged in rural Ohio, first in Clifton, a tiny mill town along the banks of the Miami River some seventy-fivemiles southwest of Columbus. It was there that he was born on Valentine's Day in 1913, the third and youngest child of Wayne Benton and Effie Jane Hupp Hayes. Woody was eight years younger than his sister Mary and two years younger than his brother Ike. Unlike his more independent older brother, young Woody was doted upon by both his sister and mother and stayed close to the women in the house.

"As the youngest, I don't think there was any doubt I was spoiled," Hayes said.

In 1915 Wayne Hayes moved his family to nearby Selma, where he took a job as school superintendent, another step in his career as an educator.

He was the visionary of the family, an intense man who, with his eleven brothers and sisters, was expected to work the family homestead in Noble County, Ohio. The family had deep Ohio roots. Woody's great grandfather David Hayes was a blacksmith and joined the Union army during the Civil War. He was killed during the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, leaving his father Isaac an orphan at eight years old.

Wayne was bright, ambitious, and resourceful, and the family farm wasn't enough to hold him. Most nights after chores and dinner, Wayne's mother would sit him down and school her son in reading and arithmetic, building the foundation for his future for a life off the farm.

He saw teaching as a way to better himself. During the early 1900s Ohio was still primarily a rural state, with small, unincorporated towns and hamlets dotting the countryside. High schools in these areas were either distant or absent altogether, so kids who completed the eighth grade could take the Boxwell Examination, that, if successfully completed, could serve as a substitute to a high school diploma. Wayne passed the test, posting a score high enough to qualify him to teach the eighth grade—beginning his long, slow march toward becoming a college graduate and a school superintendent. The Hayes family was serious about education.

Achieving high school equivalency by passing the Boxwell Examination was one thing, but attending college was for the wealthy and privileged, not for farm families from Noble County, Ohio. Though married and the father of three young children, Wayne was undeterredby family and financial hurdles that lay before his educational goals. He attended six different colleges at night and during the summers, before eventually earning a degree from Wittenberg College in 1919. Woody was six years old when he saw his father graduate from college. Wayne Hayes was thirty-eight. The memory would stay with Woody forever; his father's perseverance serving to motivate and inspire when things turned dark, as they often did, given Woody's high-octane, combustible personality.

The degree brought new opportunities and prosperity to the Hayes household, and in 1920 the family moved northeast to Newcomerstown, Ohio, population 4,500, where Wayne accepted a job as superintendent of schools. It was a sizable step up, compared to the tiny towns like Clifton and Selma where the family previously lived. Wayne earned twenty-eight dollars a month when he first began teaching in the early 1900s. By 1920 he had saved enough money to buy a modest white frame house at 488 East Canal Street, just east of downtown and near a stretch of water that used to be part of the historic Ohio Canal. After spending years working his way across Ohio, Hayes would never move his family again.

Woody was seven years old when his father settled his family in this quintessential 1920s small town, nestled in a valley along the Tuscarawas River. Hardworking folks lived in the village bisected by the Ohio Canal; outside the town limits farmland checkered the hilly countryside.

It was in essence a company town, with the Clows Pipe Works and the Heller Tool Company serving as the two main employers. The heavy industry, combined with the county's rural population, provided enough economic stimulus to make the town a bustling place. The country's interstate system was still a long way off from crossing through Ohio. Instead, Highway 21 funneled traffic through the heart of the downtown, helping pump commerce into the heart of Main Street. But travel was still difficult, and people who lived in Newcomerstown stayed put. There was a feed store, grocery, clothing store, hardware store, tannery, and even a cigar factory—all located within a few blocks of each other—where the locals spent their money, creating a self-sufficient place where one could buy whatever was needed.

Farmers would come into town on Saturday mornings to shop, eat, and perhaps, on summer afternoons, to linger to listen to a local band play uptown on Main Street. The locals would also hold town picnics at Mulvane Park. A summer social highlight was the tricounty fair held in the centrally located town, bringing together residents of Tuscarawas, Coshocton, and Guernsey counties, hoping to have that year's blue-ribbon-winning crops and cattle.

The local schoolchildren would swim in the river during the summer and ice skate on it during the winter, and if they collected enough bread wrappers from the local bakery, they could go to the movie house for free. Farmers and other rural folk would gather at the Grange Hall for meetings and dinners. Sunday mornings were for church, and afterwards families either went to a church dinner or to a neighbor's house for meals, dressed in their Sunday best. These get-togethers were formal affairs and provided a way of socializing after a long week of work, but they also helped establish a social pecking order within the town, a town so small that everyone helped each other, but also knew everyone else's business. Whenever a child contracted scarlet fever, the doctor would quarantine the family by placing a large red sign outside the house to serve as a loud warning of the then deadly disease, but also to signal to neighbors to leave food on the front porch of the unfortunate family.

There were dozens of towns in the Ohio Valley like Newcomerstown during the early 1900s, but the small village on the river had already made a name for itself, thanks to the baseball heroics of Denton "Cy" Young. Young grew up on a farm outside of town and moved back to his boyhood home after his Hall of Fame baseball career ended in 1911. He managed the local semipro team, sponsored by the Clows Pipp Works, in his retirement, and sometimes he would wear his old Cleveland Indians uniform to remind himself and the locals of his days of fame. The old lefthander would even break out his old Boston uniform on special occasions, like July 4th or Labor Day.

Young took a liking to Woody and hired the earnest youngster to do small jobs around the farm, paying him a nickel to groom the local baseball diamond. Cy's fame was not lost on the impressionable Woody. Young would regale him and other locals in farmyard smokehouseswith stories of past stardom, of pitching duels against Walter Johnson, and of other glories that come from winning 511 big league games.

"That man could make me feel grown up when he said 'Woodrow,' and that's what he always called me," Hayes said. "Here's a man who would sit in front of Denver Reed's smokehouse and talk about pitching, and he pitched for twenty-two years. But he was a humble man. He never made himself look good. Never."

It was a time when sports began to enter the collective consciousness of America, with stars like Young, Johnson, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig elevated to hero status. Listening firsthand to Young tell his stories instilled in Hayes an idealistic and virtuous notion of sports, one that would strongly influence the impressionable young man.

But it wasn't all ice-cream socials and Main Street bands. Newcomerstown could be a rough-and-tumble place, especially compared to the more prosperous neighboring town of New Philadelphia, the county seat located fifteen miles to the north. Life could get difficult in the seemingly idyllic village. Hard work didn't always pay off and faith wasn't always rewarded, especially when children got sick, or when jobs or farms were lost.

And while there may have been a vibrant Main Street, not everyone was welcome. There was a contingent of black residents brought to town to help build the company-owned houses and to work in the foundry that produced cast-iron sewer pipes that were used throughout most of Ohio. The blacks lived on the south end of town, segregated from the whites. Come Saturday night the police invariably would be called to the community house in "Clowstown" to break up knife fights and other violence that sometimes erupted after a backbreaking week of work in the plant.

When Wayne Hayes arrived in the summer of 1920, he was greeted with a combination of skepticism and hope that he could breathe new life into the town's school system.

From the clapboard house on East Canal Street, a half mile from the main square, the Hayes family settled into their new home—where it didn't take long for the new superintendent to establish himself as a man to be taken seriously.

He ran the school district with an iron fist, demanding that histeachers memorize textbooks while doing the same himself. He was a shrewd administrator, hiring promising young teachers just out of college, while weeding out those that weren't adapting to the evolving educational system that was moving the schools to a more modern curriculum. It wasn't long into Wayne's tenure that the teachers began calling their boss "Pappy," or "Pops," as a nod to his dominating management style.

"When Pappy hired me, I was still a senior at Ohio University, but he needed me to replace another teacher that was run out of town," said Robert "Gene" Riffle, who Wayne had hired to teach industrial arts. "I took the job, but I had to spend all summer building new desks for the students as part of my duties. So, not only did Wayne get a new teacher but he got new desks as well." Rules were to be strictly followed to maintain order and fairness. Right was right and fair was fair, with few exceptions allowed.

When neighbor Barbara Scott was to enter the first grade, her mother showed up on the Hayes's front porch with an appeal to allow her daughter to start school with her friends, even though her birthday fell just days past the December cutoff.

"My mother took me with her to his house to talk to him personally, and he firmly said no," Barbara Scott said. "He said that was the rule, and that was it. He was a very strict and very formal man."

Wayne was as strict and demanding at home as he was in the classroom. Self-educated and self-reliant, he expected as much from his children as he did from himself, and he took a formal approach toward his family, signing letters sent to his daughter Mary, away at school, "your father W B. Hayes." He insisted that his children be a cut above the rest in their class, and he pushed them to achieve so much so that Woody once said, "I believe there is nothing tougher than being the school's superintendent's son."

But the demands were countered with a strong sense of fairness and respect. Truant officers would be dissuaded to visit the home of a family whose son or daughter was out of school. Wayne would pay the visit instead, sparing the family the embarrassment and shame from nosy neighbors.

There wasn't a lot of frivolity and waste in the Hayes household.Work and sacrifice were expected to extend Wayne's small-town-school salary. The family paid cash for most everything. If there was an account balance at one of the local stores it was to be paid off promptly, with no debts to mark a man of standing in the community.

Education was honored as much as hard work, and religious teaching and much of the learning took place inside the house on Canal Street. Books filled shelves all over the house, and Wayne would often read aloud to his family, reciting poetry and Latin, trying to instill in his children the importance of academics and culture.

He was reaching the pinnacle of his career and commanding a nearly reverent status. Running the school system was considered a professorial life in rural Ohio, and he fit the part. He was a popular speaker throughout the county, espousing his views with a flair for the language, yet maintaining the respect of the community.

Wayne brought home the money, but it was his wife who expertly managed it. Effie was from a large rural Ohio farm family, and with nine brothers and sisters she learned at an early age the importance of marshaling a family's resources to make ends meet.

When her husband announced to the family that he would not attend his college graduation because of the ten-dollar cap-and-gown fee, Effie dipped into a secret stash she kept in a pitcher on the kitchen sideboard and insisted that the whole family attend.

She was a proud, practical, and hardworking woman, but she also provided a sense of balance in the household, a sorely needed quality, given the high level of intensity swirling about her husband.

While Wayne Hayes was well built and a good athlete, with fine features and a tough, no-nonense approach, Effie was a large woman who was a steadying influence on her children. She would insist that her family spend Sunday afternoons at the dinner table that was set with linen, and that the kids be dressed in their Sunday best. Around the table, the family talked about sports, world affairs, and philosophies. They gossiped about the goings-on in town, and they talked politics, instilling in Woody his rock-steady Republican beliefs.

It didn't take long for the Hayes family to rise to the top of the local social circles, given Wayne's commitment to education, Effie'sinvolvement in various social activities, and their children's burgeoning academic and athletic abilities.

Talent ran in the family. Mary was a singer who left Ohio after high school to pursue a singing career at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music and Dramatic Art. Sending her off to such a specialized school was no small feat. Wayne would spend summers teaching at Bliss College in Columbus, and would bring each of his children down to Columbus for a week to expose them to the city life, while earning extra money to help send those same children to college. It was a major achievement and a significant personal sacrifice to send Mary to music school, but the foundation was laid long ago; all of the Hayes children would go to college.

The investment paid off. Mary went on to star on Broadway during the late 1920s, playing the leading lady in The War Song. During the Depression she became the first female radio announcer in New York City and went on to write a series of radio programs. Despite the eight years difference in age, Woody was close to his sister and often went to her for advice, even later in his life, when his coaching career was already well established.

Before self-publishing a coaching manual, Woody shipped a copy to his singer sister in New York City, seeking her approval for what was nothing more than a bound set of offensive plays.

"I hope you will not dismiss the book as being too technical," Hayes wrote to his sister in 1969 just before he published his Hot Line to Victory manual. "I would appreciate your starting at the beginning, for you will understand much more than you expect—and I would like to have your reaction."

Woody was close to his sister, idolized his father, respected his mother, but he worshiped his older brother, Ike.

Ike was smarter, more athletic, and more popular than his younger brother, and Woody saw the gifts in his brother that he lacked in himself.

"He had a personal aura about him that was unbelievable, and I have to believe that if it weren't for his attitude and relationship to me I wouldn't have amounted to much. I was always second to him in everything I would try," Woody said.

Standing just five feet six inches tall, Ike was fearless, intense, andindependent. Chafing under the constraints that can come with living in a small town with a father as a school superintendent, Ike rebelled at living up to his father's expectations, balking at going to college, despite graduating near the top of his high school class, while starring on the football team. Ike spent a few years knocking around northeastern Ohio after high school, working horses at his grandfather's farm and refusing to continue his education, despite his father's pleadings. The two brothers were so competitive that it took Woody's going off to college for Ike to accept a scholarship to Iowa State University, where he captained the football team and applied his love of horses to a career in veterinary medicine.

Woody may have publicly expressed that his brother was superior to him in every way, but one edge that he had over his brother was boxing.

Both shared a penchant for fisticuffs, and despite all the lessons of civility and the importance of education taught in the Hayes household, Woody and Ike were local town toughs, rough-and-tumble boys to steer clear of and to definitely have on your side in a fight. They were known as "Eastenders," since they lived on the east side of the railroad tracks. Those who lived on the other side of the tracks were known as "Westenders," and boys from the two sides battled furiously.

The combative nature, Woody insisted, came from his mother's side of the family.

"The Hupps were that kind of people," he said. "Her brother had been that way. They were prize fighters and oil well drillers, and they were really tough."

While Wayne, Effie, and Mary would spend Sunday mornings at the Presbyterian Church down on East Canal Street, the two brothers would clear out the parlor room furniture to make a boxing ring where they would slug it out until the rest of the family returned from services.

They eventually abandoned their parlor sparring and set up a boxing ring in a barn near the railroad tracks. These fights were more than schoolyard scrapes. They would take on all comers, fighting for the thrill of the punch and maybe a few bucks, entertaining the men at stag nights or at local, organized boxing matches.

"Out by Cy Young's farm up there in Peoli by the Elks club, where during Prohibition they used to have beer busts," Hayes later said, "they'd have prize fights and they'd have dancing girls too. Of course it was a stag affair. My brother and I were still in high school playing football, and we were both middleweight and we couldn't find anyone else to fight in our weight class, so we'd fight each other. I was a stand-up fighter and Ike was a weaving type of fighter, and we fought that way out there at Cy Young's farm and we put on quite a show. Over the hillside in Peoli was my dad, a school superintendent, giving a commencement address, and here were his two sons prize fighting at a beer bust. A member of the school board came up to my brother and said, 'Hey, does your dad know you're here?' Ike said, 'No. Does your wife know you're here?'"

One local poster dated 1931 lists Woody in a preliminary bout as a 160-pounder squaring off against a 155-pounder named Tommy Macmillan of New Philadelphia in a six-round match before the main event. No record exists of who won that bout, but Woody, a southpaw, was known to be an extremely aggressive boxer, foregoing style in favor of attacking his opponent with a flurry of left hooks looking for a quick knockout.

Local lore still circulating around town recalls a night when Wayne Hayes showed up at a speaking engagement only to find a mostly empty hall. Most of the crowd, it was said, preferred to watch the Hayes boys fight in a nearby boxing match held the same night as Professor Hayes's speech.

So deep was the respect for Wayne that it was probably the only time the professor was ever stood up in town.

The respect was rooted in his commitment to better each crop of students that matriculated at the high school. He was more than an administrator dictating policies from his office. He made it a point to know all of the students, and he took an active interest in seeing them at least graduate high school, while pushing the brighter students to attend college.

Though strict with the children in the classroom, Wayne sometimes would join in the baseball games after school, putting a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth as he helped coach the boys.

Newcomerstown High School in the early 1930s was a handsome three story stone building located a mile or so from the Hayes's house on Canal Street. With a graduating class of fifty-one students, the Golden Trojans were typically outclassed on the football field, given that they were forced to round out their schedule against larger schools from bigger towns like New Philadelphia and Dover.

The football team was always shorthanded, with only fourteen or fifteen players on the roster playing teams with squads three or four times larger. The Golden Trojans' uniforms and equipment were tattered and their field was worse: cows routinely milled about, forcing the locals to chase the animals off the field an hour before the games so they could mark the gridiron with lime.

Woody played football, basketball, and baseball in high school; but, unlike his older brother, he wasn't a star. He stood six feet tall and weighed a muscular 160 pounds. He was slow, flat-footed, and tough, perfect credentials to play center on a lousy team that, in his senior year, won two games, with five losses and two ties. He captained the Trojans his senior season despite his mediocre talents, a nod to his natural leadership abilities.

Deliberate on the basketball court and lumbering on the baseball diamond, Woody was better suited for the football field, where he could channel his aggressive nature toward his opponents across the line.

"Woody wasn't much of a runner," said one of his former high school teammates. "But nobody ever ran over him."

His high school graduation picture depicts a self-assured young man dressed in a suit and tie, who not only played three sports but was class vice president, sang in the glee club, belonged to the Latin club, and was a member of the Newcosean yearbook staff, in charge of selling ads. His future, as predicted by his classmates in the 1931 Newcosean, saw no coaching jobs. Instead, recognizing his aggressiveness and fondness for the ring, it read that Woody would one day become a boxing champion.

His combative nature extended into the classroom. He had trouble getting along with some of his high school teachers, feeling that he knew more than they did; and that lack of respect resulted in an unremarkable academic performance.

"He always did his work," one of his former high school teachers once said. "If he hadn't done it, I probably would have remembered more about him."

Wayne Hayes may have hammered home the importance of learning, but it was a junior high school teacher named Clyde Bartholow who introduced Woody to what would become his love of history and of the practicality of English.

These lessons never left Woody, who as a coach often would reference the great historical battles he learned in grammar school to make a point to his sometimes-baffled players, as they listened to him lecture them on the battleground adversities faced by Leonidas or William the Conqueror.

"He was extremely interested in English grammar and the correct usage in expression in both speaking and writing," Bartholow said. "His papers had to meet his exacting standards, or he simply wouldn't hand them in."

It wasn't always Woody's idea to hold off turning in his work to his teachers because of a pursuit of perfection. Wayne often would insist on reading his son's written work before he handed it in, and there were many times that the homework was returned in shreds from the disapproving superintendent.

There was something else Woody was learning about himself, other than acknowledging his propensity for history and English. He hated to lose; and worse, he was a bad loser. He had a quick temper, was prone to screaming at referees, and was inconsolable after a loss. He'd miss a block or watch the other team score and he'd unleash a loud stream of profanities, screaming at his own and his team's failures. Even friendly backyard games could send him into a rage. Yet there was a natural quality about him that drew people in. Though he could erupt in anger with a stunning array of expletives, he was also a charmer when he needed to be, and he could certainly talk his way out of trouble. Woody, according to his yearbook, had the ability "to smooth over incidents such as breaking fences, and getting out of ditches."

Given the qualities noted by his senior classmates in 1931, Woody seemed destined for a life outside of football. No major football schools had much interest in a mediocre flat-footed linemen froma losing, small-town high school football team. That left smaller colleges for consideration, and with a push from a family friend named Richard Allison, Woody was headed to Granville, Ohio, to attend Denison University, a small liberal arts college that was hardly a football powerhouse. Granville is just thirty-five miles northeast of Columbus, but in football it is a world away from Ohio State University.

A FIRE TO WIN. Copyright © 2005 by John Lombardo. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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