As the 60s drew to a close, both the campus and the country were changing. The consummate Gridiron General found himself increasingly immersed in the politics of his time. A staunch supporter of the American participation in the Vietnam War, Hayes answered the Pentagon’s request to go to Vietnam and speak to servicemen during the war four times. He took football films with him, but he talked about everything and anything that came to mind.
Rex Kern recalls that on “January 1, 1969. . . We [played] University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl. . .we [won] the game and the very next morning Coach Hayes. . .jumped on an airplane and they went to Vietnam to visit our troops to do kind of a football coach/Bob Hope deal, and to bolster our troops’ spirits.” He became a fast friend of Major General Lew Walt of the U.S. Marines, and the Major General eventually became a regular visitor to Ohio State home games as Woody’s guest.
Supporting the war effort made Hayes a hero to some—an enemy to others. His political voice projected beyond the OSU campus and became part of a growing national debate. Many students and players supported the antiwar movement, voicing their own concerns about America’s role in Vietnam. In 1969, more than three hundred major student protests took place at colleges and universities around the country, and Ohio State certainly was not immune to the civil unrest and the burning of draft tickets. On occasion, Hayes would address the students concerning these issues; indeed in 1970, Hayes and Richard Nixon joined forces at 15th and High Streets on the OSU campus in an attempt to quell a campus uprising over the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, specifically, and the Vietnam War in general.
Woody was a man of strong moral conviction and wasn’t afraid to make his voice heard when so many others retreated into silence. Even though he had received much criticism from the media and coaches alike, he undoubtedly had earned the respect of Buckeye students. “When. . .Kent State happened. . .we had 5,000 National Guardsmen on the Ohio State campus. . .The only administrator that I saw during that whole time of all the unrest and broken windows and tear gas, whatever, that got the students to listen, was Woody walking on the oval,” remembers Rex Kern.
Although Hayes was a vocal supporter of U.S. foreign policy, on matters closer to home, he remained vehemently opposed racial discrimination and bigotry. Larry recalls “I don’t think he saw his football players as being Afro-American or White, or whatever. He saw them as athletes. I mean, he was one of the first coaches around that had minorities on his team.” Hayes also actively sought out and recruited minority players, many of whom went on to push Ohio State indelibly into football fame. Archie Griffin remembers his coach commenting that “‘just like in music, beautiful music cannot be played without the black and white keys.’ So he made us realize that in order for us to be the best that we could be, we need to be able to play together.” Hayes’ orchestration proved just what Ohio State football needed. Although the political and cultural scene remained tumultuous throughout the 60s, Buckeye fans knew the results on the field would be to their liking.
Hayes, despite being a political conservative, also admired former President Truman, and upon the leader’s death delivered a eulogy to a 1973 Rose Bowl audience stating “You and I owe great homage to Mr. Truman. Maybe we didn’t vote for him, but he was a man who was a great American leader. . .And nobody could ever question the fact that Harry Truman had guts.” Clearly, Hayes’ admiration for determination and audacity extended beyond the football field.
Hayes’ maintained a relationship with President Richard M. Nixon, even during the difficult years of Watergate. Nixon, a man intimately acquainted with risk, appreciated Woody’s propensity for risk-taking: “He could have quit [after] three national championships and seven Big Ten championships. He had to know that it was a risk to stay on. It is a rule of life that if you take no risks, you will suffer no defeats. But if you take no risks, you will win no victories. Woody did not believe in playing it safe. He played to win.”
Hayes had continuing relationships with other U.S. presidents. Despite his career as a football player for the University of Michigan, Former President Gerald Ford managed to cement a lasting friendship with the Buckeye coach. Having met first during the 1930s, Ford considered Hayes his very good friend, and he said that “Woody was one of the most dedicated competitors I ever knew. He was strong, fierce, but always fair. I admired him tremendously.” Not only did Ford admire Hayes for his avid coaching and mentoring, but he claimed that “Woody was the most knowledgeable on American political history.” Hayes and Ford remained good friends after the former President’s term in the White House.
Maintaining his presidential closeness, Hayes was invited to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as well, although he didn’t seem to have the relationship with Reagan that he had had with earlier presidents.
(Information about and specific comments made by Woody Hayes and others were drawn from the following sources: Woody Hayes: The Man & His Dynasty, edited by Mike Bynum; I Remember Woody: Recollections of The Man They Called Coach Hayes, by Steve Greenberg and Dale Ratermann; Woody Hayes and the 100-Yard Warby Jerry Brondfield, and Buckeye: A Study of Coach Woody Hayes and the Ohio State Football Machine by Robert Vare.)