The chronicles of college football say Chick Harley's running built that old prison of Ohio Stadium in Columbus as surely as Jackie Onassis is going to build the next Parthenon, but if the Buckeyes play the game for 100 more years—long enough for the place to be double-domed in memory of Rex Kern and Jim Otis and John Tatum—Ohio State will not spend a more ecstatic Saturday than it did last week when the teen-age tyrants of Woody Hayes folk-rocked Michigan 50-14.
Ohio State is accustomed to good football teams, and Woody Hayes in his 18 stormy years as coach produced three of the best. He turned out the Hopalong Cassady team of 1954, which was 10-0, the Bob White team of 1957, which was 9-1, and the Bob Ferguson team of 1961, which was 8-0-1. Each was rewarded with a mythical national championship of one kind or another, but last week Woody was showing off the team he insists is the best of the batch. By the time a few thousand hysterical youngsters had stopped doing the boogaloo around the stricken goalposts of Ohio Stadium and had marched off to seize downtown Columbus instead, there was no reason to doubt him. The Buckeyes may have to whip USC in the Rose Bowl to get the national championship Woody thinks they deserve, but on Saturday they looked capable of taking on several dozen John Waynes out there in Pasadena and surviving. At the very least O. J. Simpson vs. Woody's rebels with a cause will be something to stay sober for on New Year's Day.
This Buckeye team is unlike any of the other memorable ones, and not just because it throws passes, uses reverses and revels in fakery—things that Woody Hayes used to think belonged in basketball. What it brings to the football field is the maniacal enthusiasm that only youth can have, combined with a confidence that stems more from the optimism of immaturity than from the experience of age.
Last Saturday, Ohio State went into its gray concrete edifice containing 85,371 people—an OSU attendance record—with five 19-year-olds on the starting offensive unit and five more on defense. Of the top 22 players, 10 were sophomores. This entire Kiddie Korps had been wound up so tight by Hayes that it was ready to do what a Buckeye banner in the crowd commanded: KILL.
December 2, 1968
And kill it did, not just in the final score but in terms of what one team can do to another with repetitious hitting and ball-hogging. The Buckeyes tackled with a ferocity that would have made Bear Bryant tip his hat, and when Michigan needed the ball to try and catch up the Buckeyes simply kept it. For all but 4:36 of the third period and 2:49 of the last, when they pasted on the 23 points that made the final score something for No. 1 pollsters to brood about, the Buckeyes had the ball.
The Ohio State defense wanted to hit anything that moved, and did. The most evident figure in this regard was John Tatum, a headhunter deluxe. A 19-year-old cornerback from Passaic, N.J., he is the fellow who hounded Leroy Keyes into obscurity when OSU shut out Purdue 13-0. Tatum is a ball hawk who prowls around in the OSU defense like Woody Hayes prowls the sideline. He will go to left corner, right corner, cheat to the middle, take the deep receiver, move to the line and blitz. He will make a mistake, but then turn around and run 30 yards to catch the guy who tricked him, as he did to Michigan's Ron Johnson on the one play all afternoon in which the Big Ten's alltime single-season scoring leader got loose from a smothering cluster of scarlet jerseys. There are a lot of other hitters on the defense, but Tatum seems to make his victims bounce higher. His very first shot in the Michigan game separated Wolverine Quarterback Dennis Brown from his senses and the football.
As hard as the Buckeyes are on defense, they are just as exuberant on offense. The player who epitomizes their attitude is Quarterback Rex Kern, another of those 19-year-olds. Kern is a redheaded, sweet-faced sophomore with a silver bullet for a heart. He stands in there calmly, faking as if he had an hour or two to run a play, but when he rolls out he gathers momentum and, finally, just before he is tackled, he hauls off and bashes into the defenders as if he is trying to find out how many bones he can crack—his and theirs, combined. Through Ohio State's nine regular-season games Kern has managed to sprain his ankle, almost fracture his jaw, suffer muscle spasms in his back and get knocked cold twice. But he keeps coming back like a Warner Baxter movie, and he was certainly there Saturday, even though he had missed three workouts during the week while being patched together, a fact that Woody Hayes had kept a secret. "A good general always makes you search for his weaknesses," said Hayes, who is thriving on military quotations and allusions these days.
The thing one likes best about Rex Kern, aside from his ability to mend, is his gall. One of the high points of the Michigan game came when he ran out of bounds on a keeper, got blasted groggy by a Michigan linebacker—who drew a well-deserved 15-yard penalty for the assault—and wobbled back to the huddle, where he ignored a play sent in by Hayes, called his own signal and gained 14 yards before bouncing into the same linebacker. Later, when he should have been enjoying the role of invaluable star, Kern was the first man who dashed off the bench and across the field to try and add his weight to a rousing fist-fight. He is, in sum, enough to make Woody Hayes forget his collection of General Patton quotes.
While Kern looks like the model football player in his scarlet and gray at 6' and 180 pounds, Jim Otis, the fullback, looks like the model golf cart. Another of the offensive hitters, he is listed at 208 and 6', but he is so broad in the shoulders that he seems more like 4'9" and 260. Despite his cement-block build, Otis is a quick starter, and last Saturday he butted his way relentlessly into the heart of Woody Hayes and into the bellies of Michigan as he tore through the Wolverines for 143 yards and scored four touchdowns. It was Otis and his hammering on a crucial second-period drive that turned the game into a certain Buckeye victory.
Through the first quarter and a half, with the two teams exploding in all directions and the score tied 14-14, the crowd had every reason to suspect that before it was over the game might rank as a battle up there with El Alamein. But then the Buckeyes unleashed Otis on what Kern later described as Ohio State's best drive of the season. The circumstances made it extra-special. Michigan had just tied the score on a one-yard touchdown dive by Johnson. Larry Zelina, another of the brilliant OSU sophomores, took the kickoff back 58 yards, but his run was nullified by a clip. Instead of being on Michigan's 41, Ohio State was back on its own 14, facing into a stiff wind and with the momentum swinging to the Wolverines.
To start things off, Otis plowed for six, nine and three yards on the first three plays. He turned it over to another fellow for one play, and then squirted through the middle for 11 yards. He ultimately carried the ball nine times in a 17-play drive for 46 of 86 yards, including the final two yards over right tackle for the touchdown that put Ohio State ahead to stay.
After each of his four touchdowns Otis went slightly berserk, jumping up and down, hugging anything near him dressed in red, turning in circles, raising his clinched fists and, once, trying to throw the ball into the Olentangy River. But it is doubtful that he or any of the Buckeyes was more revved up than Woody Hayes himself. The older a man gets, the more precious a big victory becomes, it seems, and Woody's case was special even beyond that. He had not had a nationally acclaimed winner in seven years, even though he had been favored to have a couple, and he had not been to the Rose Bowl in 10 years. He had seen his ranks depleted by higher academic requirements and a no-redshirt rule. And he had witnessed a change in the game toward high-powered offenses, a trend that did not suit his own football philosophy. Worst of all for a giant in the trade, he had heard it whispered that football, just possibly, had passed him by.
For all of these reasons, Hayes stood in his dressing room last Saturday afternoon, an American Beauty rose clutched in his hand, and called the Michigan win his "greatest ever." He said again, with Hopalong Cassady right there beside him to nod agreement, that this was the best Ohio State team he had ever had—yes, even better than Hoppy's in '54.
The statement merely repeated what he had obviously felt before his Bucks leveled Michigan. On Friday night, at a party at John Galbreath's Darby Dan Farm, Hayes had talked about the fact that he coaches as hard now as he ever did. "Coaches used to say the hay's in the barn after a Thursday workout, but that's wrong. You have to keep thinking through Friday, right up to game time, in fact. You have to consider emotions. Just like today, for instance. Our kids were tight, I thought. Worried. They are young, and this is their biggest test. I said to 'em, 'You all just clinch your fists for 10 seconds as hard as you can, and then take a deep breath. After that 10 seconds is how you're supposed to feel when you go into a football game. Relaxed, confident, but determined.' "
When this latter-day Woody Hayes gets to talking, he often keeps on, and one subject leads him into another at mid-paragraph, with quotations mostly from generals and admirals flying out like the confetti from the Ohio Stadium rooting section. Somebody remembered how once, a while back, Hayes was on television talking to one of his tackles, explaining why he had worked his team out in the cold and rain. It was because they were going to Wisconsin, where he expected the weather to be foul. "As Admiral Doenitz said, "If you're going to fight in the North Atlantic, you've got to train in the North Atlantic,' " Woody told the tackle. To which the player replied, "I'd rather fight in Florida, Coach." Everybody laughed, and now Woody began talking again, saying how this is his greatest team.
"I think we deserve to win," he said. "I think we've proved we can win. I think we have the right attitude to win, and athletes who know how to win. I'll tell you something. We will win!"
Somewhere in all this, while Woody was winning on Friday night, he paused to quote Walt Disney—Admiral Disney, right?—to sum up the way he has coached these players of his who have brought to him more talent than he's ever had. "It's what you do with what you've got," Woody said the quote went. Which was his way of saying an old coach doesn't always gather moss in glass houses.