Coaching at the Edge of the World


Pete Croatto


Bobby Bowden, who’s been at Florida State since 1976, will soon coach his last game. Time is also running out for Penn State’s Joe Paterno, who was probably born sometime when the Model T was in its design phase.

As Clay Travis explained in On Rocky Top, coaches are now looking for the next big thing. This just happened with Brian Kelly, the University of Cincinnati coach who revitalized its football program. Weeks before the Bearcats’ major bowl game, he leaves for Notre Dame. Still, it’s hard to stay mad at Kelly. He cashed in his wins. Who knows what would have happened in a year or two? His security at Cincinnati wasn’t a sure thing. Kelly took advantage of the circumstances to get his dream job.

When the University of Michigan hired Bo Schembechler, athletic director Don Canham told Schembechler that he and his staff had five years to build the program. In today’s climate, that’s a lifetime. Woody Hayes coached Michigan’s rival, Ohio State University, for nearly thirty years. In today’s climate, that makes him a freak, a dessert-loving, paunchy Father Time in nerd glasses.

The two men’s lengthy stays, which coincided from 1969 to 1978, allowed for the rivalry to get good and nasty. Both teams stressed running, leading to hard-hitting, brutal affairs that were highly competitive. The winner usually went to the Rose Bowl; the loser stayed home and grew bitter. Of course, the teams hated each other. Hayes never referred to Michigan by name, only as “that school up north.” Despite Schembechler considering Hayes a mentor and friend, the two men rarely spoke during their time as opposing coaches.

A book on this phase of the Michigan-OSU rivalry—the schools still face each other every year—would certainly be a fun read, but Michael Rosenberg’s War as They Knew It goes beyond that requirement. It’s a masterful look at two men obsessed with their craft who faced a world undergoing seismic changes. Only one endured.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Michigan was like a Midwest version of Berkeley, so much so that football players were disdained—star offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf learned not to wear his football jacket to class. By 1973, Rosenberg writes, pot smoking, long hair, and all the hippie affectations were commonplace on both campuses. Everyone loosened up, even the football players. Game strategy also changed. Ohio State and Michigan's offenses were based on the run, but passing was becoming more prevalent elsewhere, so both schools were woefully unprepared for bowl teams that did just that. (Schembechler didn’t win the Rose Bowl until 1980, when he had superstar wide receiver Anthony Carter.) The game got flashier in its presentation. In 1974, ABC Sports introduced sideline reporters, paving the way for Erin Andrews and her sweater-filling ilk.

At Michigan, Canham, a born salesman who was a savant at finding revenue streams, redefined how college football was marketed. In the process, he became one of the most influential people in sports. Rosenberg explains:

Eight years after Canham drew up a few simple designs on his kitchen table, Michigan paraphernalia was all over the world. It was better than free advertising—people were paying Canham to advertise for him. What few people realized, and fewer people questioned, was that with the exception of the university’s official seal, royalties from every product went directly to the athletic department, not the university’s general fund.

Canham knew that playing in the nationally televised Rose Bowl was more than a matter of prestige; it was, according to Rosenberg, “free publicity for two weeks.” In a climate that was becoming increasingly about adaptation and PR savvy, Schembechler knew the rules. His game-time histrionics were orchestrated so that Hayes wouldn’t dominate the officials’ attention. He talked to the media only when necessary, and barely contributed to his own books. A good rapport with his players and a terrific sense of humor made Schembechler one of the guys, Rosenberg writes.

Hayes could never attain that chumminess. If ever the mellow-out seventies had a nemesis, it was Hayes, as witnessed by this remark to players: “These days everybody wants to do their own thing. Fuck doing your own thing.” Hayes’s players had to follow a game plan on and off the field. It was a laughable expectation that sometimes turned tragic: Prized quarterback Art Schlichter developed a crippling gambling problem, while another, Ron Gerald, eventually became addicted to heroin.

The Old Man’s intensity lacked an off-switch. Who else would tackle America’s reliance on foreign oil by walking everywhere? When Richard Nixon, a longtime friend, stepped down as president, Hayes was disappointed not because of the Watergate scandal, but because Nixon quit. The coach’s sideline tantrums were not motivational ploys. Rosenberg notes that Hayes “built a career on reactions.” One of his heroes was General George S. Patton Jr., and Hayes even wrote a book about the parallels between military and football strategy. If you were an assistant coach for Hayes, you were subjected to brutal work hours, awful pay (it was about prestige), and daily quizzes from Hayes about the state of the world.   

Rosenberg doesn’t just paint Hayes as the model for every ego-driven, cliché-chewing wannabe coach/gym teacher you had as a kid. He crafts a fascinating portrait of a man whose large heart was at odds with his raging will to win, and it makes the book. Despite his old-school tendencies, Hayes embraced black players. Even though he logged fifteen-hour workdays, Hayes was vastly underpaid. Since he hated handouts, the university’s administration incrementally raised his salary without telling him. Those walks took even longer because Hayes would chat with passersby. One of his heroes was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Perhaps most telling, Hayes was more concerned about his players attending law school than continuing their careers in the pros.

When I read sports books, I’ll frequently tear through them the way some people do with legal thrillers or romance novels. War as They Knew It is the first one in recent memory that I savored. Like any great book, it has memorable characters, ambitious storytelling, and reveals larger ideas. Rosenberg has written an epic piece of sports journalism. Like the legends he profiles, the book will endure.   

Books mentioned in this column:
On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era by Clay Travis (It Books, 2009)
War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America in a Time of Unrest by Michael Rosenberg (Grand Central Publishing, 2008)

Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.


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