COLUMBUS, Ohio — Woody Hayes was never shy about his politics.
The former Ohio State head coach, who was eulogized by President Richard Nixon, was very open with his political beliefs. Furthermore, he loved to discuss the issues of the day with whomever he felt needed to listen.
One day, that included Nixon himself.
Nixon was in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Martha Mitchell, the wife of U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, had suggested that Nixon resign. That was enough to draw the ire of Hayes, who peppered his staff with questions about whether they thought the president would actually resign.
John Johnson, an OSU grad assistant in the 1970s who later managed boxer Buster Douglas, told Land of 10 this sort of episode was commonplace at the Ohio State complex during Hayes’ tenure.
“He’d start out meetings by talking about current events and whatever was going on, and he’d voice his opinion,” Johnson said. “He was a great defender of President Nixon, and whatever President Nixon was for or against. He would back him all the way.”
On this particular day, the staff hadn’t done enough to satisfy him. Instead, Hayes took matters into his own hands. He ordered Johnson to bring him a phone, and the White House operator was soon on the other end.
“He said, ‘This is Coach Woody Hayes, and I need to talk to the president,'” Johnson said. “A couple minutes later, he’s on the phone with Nixon. ‘Mr. President, one of my coaches came in and said Martha Mitchell said you should resign. You can’t resign, though. You can’t!’ ”
On and on it went, with Hayes dominating the conversation with the president.
“It went exactly like Richard Nixon once said: Every time they spoke he wanted to talk about football and Woody wanted to talk about foreign policy,” Johnson said. “They always ended up talking about whatever Woody wanted. He was a domineering person.”
He made a little less effort when there was a Wolverine in the White House, however. Johnson recalled the time that Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, tried to reach Hayes. At the time, Ohio State running back Archie Griffin had won his second Heisman Trophy. The former University of Michigan star reached out to the rival program from the Oval Office.
“We were out at practice and one of the equipment guys brought a note out for Coach Hayes saying that President Ford called and wanted to talk to him,” Johnson said. “He gave me the note and said go get him on the phone.”
Once again, Johnson dutifully called up the operator. The White House put him in touch with Ford, and Johnson went to summon Hayes. Interestingly, his boss took his time making his way down to the office.
“I yelled at Coach Hayes and told him the president was on the phone,” Johnson said. “Eventually, he came walking down the hall casually, not real fast or anything. He acted like it was just another phone call. He liked President Ford, but I think he always held it against him that he played for That Team Up North.”