Ask Buckeye honks around these parts and they'll tell you: St. Peter is merely the doorman for Woody Hayes. Nearly three decades removed from prowling the sidelines in scarlet and gray, Woody is still the benchmark for coach, legend and lore coming together under a single, blinding light that can only be described as holy aura.
Ask folks around the country, though, and Woody is something quite different - a reviled figure, a goofy denizen of overrated Ohio State football with a long history of boorish, petulant and stubborn behavior. War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and America in a Time of Unrest, a new book by Detroit Free Press and Fox Sports columnist Michael Rosenberg, shows that the truth, as often is the case, lies somewhere in between.
Taking an extensive look at Hayes and Schembechler - and the intense rivalry and intimate friendship that sparked when they arrived on the respective Ohio State and Michigan campuses - Rosenberg provides perhaps the most complete history of the coaches, their programs and their battles during the '60s and '70s. Woody and Bo, Bo and Woody: They were defined as much by each other as they were by themselves.
Over the years, their characters have distilled to caricature. Woody - who couldn't even bring himself to say the name of That School Up North - wouldn't stop for gas in Michigan, preferring to wait until the first Ohio exit so he didn't have to pay tax to the rival state. He's the ornery student of military history who once had only 12 plays in his playbook, almost all of them runs. He stomped his hat, threw temper tantrums and landed a few unfortunate punches on cameramen and players.
But that's not the whole story; those are merely the footnotes. Rosenberg fleshes out the lore with detailed accounts of Woody's years at OSU and Bo's at Michigan, culling information from countless interviews with players, family, friends and assistant coaches. What emerges is complex, engaging and sure to make you reconsider your view of icons -- whichever side of the debate you fall on.
Written more like a novel than nonfiction, War As They Knew It is part historical analysis, part game diary and part biography, and no part is complete without the others. As the nation's political and social landscapes changed through the twists and turns of Vietnam, Watergate, hippies and drugs, Woody and Bo remained fixtures and focused on the sidelines. To them, football was as important as anything else going on in the country - probably more so. Both of them taught values on the gridiron that they also advocated off the field.
Woody loved his country - he served in the Navy and couldn't understand why Vietnam protesters wouldn't support their government. He refused raises, never cashed checks for charity appearances, visited random strangers in the hospital and walked three miles to work during the infamous Midwest blizzard of 1978.
Of course, he also stubbornly refused to call pass plays, vexing assistant coaches and players. And he didn't only believe that he shouldn't accept pay raises; he also kept salaries low for his coworkers, who would choke back resentment until they decided to pick up and leave. While Woody dominated the Big Ten for years with his brand of run-it-down-your-throat football, racking up five national championships, his record remains marred by disappointing and surprising upsets - That School Up North in 1969, Michigan State in 1974, UCLA in 1976 - and many still believe that his tenure ended not because of a punch, but because he lost to Michigan three straight times.
And then there were the tantrums - thrown chairs, destroyed hats and hissy fits that would make a 7-year-old proud. "One thing never occurred when I started this book: I'm going to have to explain why he won so many games," Rosenberg told me. "Can you imagine a coach switching to the wishbone for the Rose Bowl now? He did some bizarre things but was a great coach. He drove assistants and players crazy, and he certainly had blind spots for the game. He loved it but didn't understand it to an extent."
But that was Woody. Football was war. And football was won on the ground - damned if he was ever going to change his mind, even when his squads were getting toasted by Pac-10 teams that displayed new aerial attacks. He claimed that his players were model students, hard-working and clean-cut, even as his quarterback, Rod Gerald, was snorting coke during games. "You talk about the game passing a coach by," says Rosenberg. "That happened with Woody. But more than that, the world was passing him by."
That's not to give the impression that the book is 300 pages of all Woody, all the time. Schembechler gets equal treatment. What makes War As They Knew It fantastic is Rosenberg's storytelling - how these friends and rivals, so eerily similar, led their teams during the fabled 10 Year War of 1969-1979 while a real war was going on and their game was evolving right in front of them.
It's somewhat fitting that an errant pass by OSU quarterback Art Schlichter during the 1979 Gator Bowl against Clemson precipitated Woody's demise, seeing that he believed only bad things can happen when you throw the ball. When Woody took a swing at the Clemson defender who intercepted the pass, he was probably just as angry at himself for having called the play in the first place. This could be seen as yet another self-contained example of the limit of Woody's character, but after reading the book, you realize it's actually a testament to his depth.