Indie Sport

Only three things can happen on a forward pass and two of them are bad. So went the mantra of Ohio State's legendary football coach, Woody Hayes, who passed away at the age of 74 on this date in 1987. Hayes, of course, was absolutely correct in his analysis of the pass, but somehow it was never mentioned that the same rationale can be applied to the running game, upon which he based his beloved "three yards and a cloud of dust" offensive strategy.

I was privileged to have witnessed the fallacy of Hayes' logic first hand in 1974, on a magical and bizarre afternoon in East Lansing when the #1 ranked Buckeyes rolled into town to slobberknock the perpetually mediocre Spartans of Michigan State. Hayes was the original star of the Big 10 theatrical production, "Coaches Behaving Badly," before the mantle was passed to, and perfected by, his understudy, Bobby Knight. He was reviled throughout the state of Michigan, where toilet paper rolls bearing his image on each and every sheet were marketed shamelessly.

Hayes' presence in East Lansing was a lightning rod that must have provided relief for the Spartans' beleaguered coach, Denny Stolz, a Woody wannabe who lacked the horsepower and verve of his adversary. In fact, Stolz never met a failed run-it-up-the-gut play that he wasn't willing to duplicate dozens of times, an obsessive-compulsive tic that reached its nadir in 1973.

The occasion was the annual clash with arch-rival Michigan, that I endured in a freezing, non-stop downpour from a second-row endzone seat. Mercifully, the view was dreadful, as the Spartans were drubbed 31-0 by the Wolverines, crossing the 50 yard line only once, whereupon they fumbled the ball over to to Michigan on the very same play. It was, arguably, the most miserable offensive output in the history of football.

So when the Buckeyes took a 13-3 lead into the fourth quarter that autumn afternoon back in '74, it might as well have been 33-3. Never mind that the score had been tied 3-3 at the half or that the Buckeyes were coughing up the football all over the place. They were like a bored cat playing with its prey. The outcome, however protracted, was inevitable and everyone knew it.

And then out of nowhere came a flash of hope. Midway through the fourth quarter on a first down from the Michigan State 33, quarterback Charlie Baggett inexplicably dropped back to pass. The Ohio State defense, shocked into a state of catatonia, froze as receiver Mike Jones streaked into the secondary and hauled in a 67 yard bomb for a touchdown that tightened the score to 13-9. Years later, Al Davis, in one of his more grandiose moments, would claim he channeled the play into Coach Stolz' headset.

But when the Spartans missed the extra point, the air went out of the stadium and the crowd settled into a state of resignation. A field goal would do them no good, the Buckeyes would chew up the clock, and there was no way they'd be fooled again by a one-in-a-million pass play. And so it went.

With a little over three minutes remaining in the game, Michigan State took possession on their 12 yard line. As Baggett handed off to fullback Levi Jackson for yet another fruitless, time wasting dive up the middle, an audible "No-o-o-o, Yes-s-s-s-s-s!!!" chorused from the stands in unison. Jackson darted through a seam on the right side, juked a defender at the 20, and then lit up the afterburners as he streaked down the sidelines, into the promised land, untouched for 88 yards, escorted by a deafening howl of ecstatic, suspended disbelief.

The extra point was good, but the beast had been wounded. With no time to spare, Ohio State took the ensuing kickoff and proceeded to meat-grind its way down the field, gobbling up large chunks of yardage and precious time in equal doses. With 1:06 left in the game they drove to the Spartan 11.

Now, suddenly, there was an eternity left. The Buckeyes, who still had one time out remaining, had the luxury of controlling the clock in any number of ways. But Woody Hayes only knew one way-- the highway.

A draw play effectively halved the distance to the Spartan 5, where Ohio State called their final time out with 40 seconds remaining. And then . . . two things that can go wrong on a run, did. First, fullback Champ Henson plunged within inches of the goal line, where he was stopped by a desperate defense, who then took their sweet time unpiling with 29 seconds to go. Hayes went berserk on the sidelines, threatening to have his second coronary of the year. The scrum untangled at last and the Buckeyes rushed to the line of scrimmage, where they chaotically snapped the ball, which squirted between the legs of quarterback Cornelius Greene, only to be picked up by wingback Brian Baschnagel, who lugged it into the endzone.

Pandemonium ensued as head linesman Ed Scheck signaled a touchdown, while field judge Robert Dagenhardt indicated time had run out before the play had gotten off. Fans and players poured onto the field, uncertain about what had actually transpired. Hayes, looking like an electrical engineer gone amok, raced around in his trademark glasses and white short sleeved shirt punching Michigan State fans, one of whom stole the cap right off his head.

The scoreboard remained frozen: Michigan State 16, Ohio State 13. For forty-six minutes, the world was kept in suspense about which of the two conflicting officials' calls would stand. As Big 10 Commissioner Wayne Duke conferred and deferred about what to do, the crowd in the stadium-- estimated to be 40,000 of the 78,533 who'd attended the game-- sang out, "Bulls**t" and associated bouquets they'd perfected in the halls of academe.

Eventually, Duke decided to announce what the officials had told him all along: that Scheck had signaled touchdown because his job was to keep his eye on the goal line, that time had indeed run out before the play had been executed, and that Ohio State would have been penalized for failing to set for the required one second prior to the snap, thereby ending the game regardless.

The powerful, but inflexible mastodon that was Woody Hayes' bread and butter offense had run itself into defeat, trumped by two lightning plays that signified an impending future and a gloried past. A little over two years after that sun-kissed November 9 day, Denny Stolz was gone, replaced by the innovative Darryl Rogers who brought the precursor to the West Coast offense with him from San Jose State.

They've been throwing the ball in the heartland ever since.

As for Woody Hayes, four years after time ran out on his national championship aspirations in East Lansing, it sadly ran out on his career as well, when he ignominiously punched a Clemson player in front of the world during a bowl game, making his termination mandatory.

Woody Hayes has been gone for twenty-one years now, but the spoils of trench warfare football that personified the Big 10 live on in the memories of those who were there when it was in full regalia. I relived those dusty memories today with Kale Ane, the undersized 220 pound center from Hawaii whose key block helped spring Levi Jackson and his mates into Spartan lore. "I had only one thing in mind on that play," said Ane. "My guy wasn't going to make the tackle." And by God, he didn't.

Ane went on to play seven years in the NFL before returning to his home in the islands. As we reminisced in his office at Punahou School, where he is the current head football coach, we were transported back in time and quickly discovered that the magic from 1974 just took a little sprinkle of attention to course its way into our veins once again. We vowed not to make this our last journey back.

None of this would have been possible without Woody Hayes' genius, meanness, and game between the tackles. Like his offense he was flawed but beautiful for oh-so-long, and a couple of guys in the middle of the Pacific are grateful to have experienced it all on that one fine day back when.

Rest in peace, Coach.

Indie Sport


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