LORDS OF SMASHMOUTH
Lords of Smashmouth: The Unlikely Rise of an American Phenomenon—the latest book in Orange Frazer’s extensive sports library—is the entertainingly comprehensive story of how a sporting monolith is built from the turf up. Written by three-time Ohioana-award winner John Baskin, with assistance from historian Michael O’Bryant, it’s billed as “the quintessential book to have if you’re shipwrecked.”
Lords delineates the subterranean alignment of forces that built one of America’s most spectacular sporting institutions, telling the story of its grand design through the larger-than-life figures that steered the program, from Jack Wilce who painted the locker rooms red to inspire his “meat-eaters” to the notable eccentric Woody Hayes who called up his coaches in the middle of the night and read James Whitcomb Riley poems to them. Along the way, as the unspoken master plan unfolded, Buckeye football became so predominant it had the capacity to elevate—or dash—the mood of the entire state.
The Ohio State football program didn’t just emerge from the Franklin County cornfields, plowing through opponents and cultivating championships. There was a momentous evolution involved, and from coach to coach, crisis to crisis, and era to era, Lords of Smashmouth brings it all to life like no other work. In a skillfully spun narrative equal parts cultural and pigskinny, John Baskin—an Ohio treasure himself—has profiled the larger-than-life Buckeyes as not merely a college football powerhouse, but an American phenomenon.
—Lonnie Wheeler, author of The New York Times bestseller I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell, and other books
Only a brilliant storyteller like John Baskin could sift through the sedimentary layers of Ohio State football and write a definitive history the program. Lords of Smashmouth takes you through a hundred years of Ohio State huddles in a way that entertains and educates you on every page.
—David Hyde, National Headliner Award sports columnist and author of 1968: The Year That Saved Ohio State Football
Erudite is not a word often associated with sports books. Then again, Lords of Smashmouth is not your everyday, garden-variety sports book. It features an in-depth look at Ohio State football from its roots as a fledgling program to its status as modern-day powerhouse with plenty of fascinating stops along the way. The whos and whens you likely already know. Smashmouth provides the whys … and so much more.
—Mark Rea, managing editor emeritus, Buckeye Sports Bulletin, and author of The Die-Hard Fan’s Guide to Buckeye Football
“I love this book. Lords of Smashmouth is for the fans who like wit and style with their substance. It scores like the Buckeyes in their latter-day routs of Michigan. Even the index produces chuckles, a likely first in publishing history, and the writing in the Thurber chapter is beautiful enough to be printed in gold leaf.
—Bill Livingston, The Plain Dealer’s primary football columnist for thirty-four years and author of Running for His Life: Ohio State Olympian Butch Reynolds and his Thirty-Year Fight for Vindication
The legend incarnate
Woody Hayes arrived in Columbus as if he’d been prompted by history. The early promise of the 1940s had been left unfulfilled, and Michigan usurped the decade with a series of its best teams, constantly near the top of the national rankings. After Ohio State’s undefeated team in 1944, Michigan wouldn’t lose to the Buckeyes for another seven years, claiming two national titles along the way.
The postwar Ohio State coach was Wes Fesler, a matinee-idol of a guy who’d been a two-sport OSU All-American, but he soon learned that Buckeye laurels had a short shelf life. He was a decent coach—his 1949 team beat California in the Rose Bowl—but he disagreed with the subliminal master plan that said Ohio State must perennially occupy college football’s happy place, which was atop the national polls.
Like his old coach, Jack Wilce, he, too, thought education was the university’s first order of business. He said he wanted the program to become “strictly an intramural effort,” which was something like George Washington crossing the Delaware and inviting the Hessians to tea and biscuits. “I’ll say it as long as I have a voice,” he said, “that no boy will come to Ohio State with the primary thought of playing football.”
It was the kind of sacrilege that might lead to being bound and chucked into the Olentangy. (“Olentangy,” Sports Illustrated would say in the distant future, was an old Indian word that meant “first down.”) As it was, Fesler developed something like an early form of PTSD, the definition of which is a disorder that occurs after the experience of “a shocking, scary, or dangerous event,” i.e., coaching at Ohio State. He was left sleepless, with staggering headaches, and finally he resigned.
There was a small, final irony in this good man’s passage: unable to satisfactorily manage the hundred yards of real estate that was Ohio Stadium, Fesler eventually left coaching and headed to California where he became very successful in—yes—real estate.
By this time, it was understood that the coach of Ohio State football must not only manage the game but also the rabid expectations of its fan base. There was only one thing Woody Hayes couldn’t manage and that was his own temperament. He was a permanently agitated man, the very symbol of aggrievement, at odds even with nature (hence the wearing of short-sleeve shirts at cold weather games). If the modern world was too much with him, he’d stave it off by dint of his fearsome personality.
For a while, he actually did. He was so good at building teams that he almost singlehandedly established the reputation of Big Ten football as being brutally unambiguous and straightforward—just like he was. He was aided by a confluence of events: the wealth of his Ohio recruiting base (and how good he was at talking to the young players who’d never seen anything like him before, especially sitting on their living room couches), as well as the slow evolution of the game.
In the decade beginning with 1954, he laid claim to three national titles. With his formidable 1968 team—historically one of college football’s greatest—he added a fourth. He was now, officially, “Woody Hayes, Legend.” The downside of becoming a legend is that one must remain legendary. If we disregard the aberrant 1971 season, then from 1968 through 1975 he had seven seasons with a total of just three regular season losses. Depending upon one’s evaluation, however, Woody may have left as many as four national titles on the field. He was, in other words, chasing his own legend.
He’d set expectations that couldn’t possibly be met, even by himself. It was his legacy to Ohio State’s most fervent fans. By this time, the game was beginning to pass him by. It was no longer “brutally unambiguous and straightforward.” It was anything but. He should have retired with his 1975 team, unbeaten and No. 1, and heavily favored to beat UCLA, which Ohio State had already done earlier in the season. But erratic play-calling doomed the Buckeyes, and Woody stayed on until that other erratic moment, this one in the 1978 Gator Bowl when, sick and weary, he punched a Clemson linebacker. It cost him two fifteen-yard penalties and his sporting life.
So he didn’t leave the game on his own terms. But he’d done everything else that way. Nearly half a century onward, his place in the Ohio State firmament is still secure. You can dent a legend, but you don’t retire one. A legend abides.
Fearfully and wonderfully made Woody Hayes and his culture.
We can only imagine what contemporary currents swirled about—and possibly invigorated—the young pup that Woodrow Hayes was in the 1920s, growing up in Newcomerstown, Ohio. He was all of eleven years old when Grantland Rice wrote about the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, thereby creating the most ballyhooed piece of sportswriting in the history of the profession. Woody would surely have read about The Horsemen even in Newcomerstown, for The Golden Age of Sports had reached even the most unassuming of Midwestern outposts.
The period, in fact, was a kind of prototype for the Digital Age; here, though, the streaming device was the radio, and it made the 1920s as novel and almost as unruly as our own. Through the radio receiver, a panoply of sports figures romped into living rooms everywhere. Conversation around the water coolers of America was forever altered and a public fascination with sports figures would grow throughout the century until these figures occupied—along with entertainers and the very wealthy—what passed for royalty in a country otherwise without one. The revolution of the twenties wasn’t immediately recognized, but it was one in which sports merged with entertainment and big business. The old school concept of “the gentleman athlete” was dismissed as being hopelessly out of date.
But what Newcomerstown kid could see all that? What he did see, however, was the athlete himself, who had been elevated into that airy realm previously occupied by business titans, presidents, and generals. The name “Babe Ruth,” for instance, was likely known in Newcomerstown’s most isolated domicile. The Babe was an unabashed sybarite and thereby a grand representative of the emerging consumer society. He consumed everything, most notably baseball pitchers but also beer, hot dogs, and women. The sportswriter Paul Gallico called him “an American Porthos, a swashbuckler built on gigantic and heroic lines, a great athlete, a Golem-like monster, a huge, vital, vulgar fellow in whose bosom surge all the well-known elementary emotions … ”
Gallico’s prose came right out of the Gee Whiz School of Sportswriting which was the dominant form for sports for several decades and described by Stanley Frank, who was not always an adherent, as “when breathless adjectives were laid on with a trowel.” Gallico himself ultimately repented by leaving sportswriting for the more empyreal enclaves of fiction, saying in departure, “We sing of their muscles, their courage, their gameness and skill because it seems to amuse readers and sells papers … ”
Woody would have liked this kind of uncritical prose—sentimental, forgiving, effusive—and his admitted propensity for hero-worship may well have begun here, for he would have read about Notre Dame (whose Horsemen were, in reality, an undersized backfield of guys who probably wouldn’t have made any of Woody’s Ohio State teams), and being himself a baseball player, he would have followed the exploits of The Babe.
The radio had brought home—in often spectacular ornamentation—the exploits of this new species of humanity, the media-embraced athlete. The twenties were filled with other unsettling ideas, even in Ohio where, to counter the nefarious influences of bathtub gin and late-night automobile rides, the state legislature took on women’s fashion and proposed a décolletage limit of two inches. In the Midwest, anyway, the female breast was still considered a utilitarian instrument, and most of a half century would pass before it would be, in a manner of speaking, liberated.
Even so, the larger universe had come to even pastoral Newcomerstown. It was amplified by the magazines of the day, such as Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, which featured college football on its covers and diatribes by Jock Sutherland, the great Pitt coach of the twenties and thirties. Sutherland said Pitt was “a sock-it-to-’em school” that had little use for passing, which he said was “an attempt to sissify a man’s game.” Power football built character, he said, which Woody would echo two decades later, as though he’d been personally instructed by Sutherland, which, courtesy of the Saturday Evening Post, he might have been.
Sports fiction had become a distinct pulp genre, too, and the football pulps were given to coaching stereotypes: the authoritarian whiplash who belonged to the Piss-and-Vinegar School of Coaching, and the kindly father figure (often called “Pop”) who saw the players as his extended family. The kid from Newcomerstown certainly read some of these, and if he was influenced by them, it happened in equal measure: Woody absorbed both types, thus accomplishing in real life what fiction couldn’t.
He was always a reader, a tough guy with an egghead streak, and his older sister remembered him carrying around a small pocket dictionary. It was a quirk that followed him to Ohio State where he required his freshmen to read a little book called Word Power Made Easy, then to their amusement—and dismay—quizzed them. Once, washing after practice, he said, “This shower is innervating!” Then he demanded that defensive back Bruce Smith define it. (He couldn’t, of course.)
Hard to say what literature came within Woody’s purview. He could have come across The Great Gatsby but a book about Long Island swells wasn’t his kind of story and, given his age, he was not yet “privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.” (It was the kind of phrase that, given time, would sound suspiciously like a lineman’s longing to be a running back.) Both T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner were unfathomable, and Sinclair Lewis too cynical. Woody would have agreed with the opening sentence of Main Street when Lewis wrote, “Main Street is the climax of civilization.” But desolate Gopher Prairie wasn’t the small town Woody knew. He probably read some Zane Grey, for Grey grew up not far from Newcomerstown, and like Woody he was both irascible (see: Word Power Made Easy) and a brawler. If Woody didn’t read Thomas Wolfe, he would have admired the protean spirit of Wolfe, which Pat Conroy called “the kiss-my-ass school of American writing,” and he would certainly have bought into Wolfe’s notion of making “the rude and painful substance of his own experience” into what Wolfe called “the essential pattern.”
Woody’s essential pattern was set early, his personal makeup part of the DNA of Newcomerstown itself. In the thirties, with the national economy devastated, the world of Newcomerstown was relatively untouched, its people cautious, conservative, and self-sufficient as any. It was the decade of military strongmen whom Woody was, no doubt, already studying. And through sports, he already had a perception of his own strength, physical and otherwise. He had his own notion of order, too, and how he might apply himself to a disorderly world. (It seems fair to add that Roosevelt’s New Deal held little appeal for him. Roosevelt played polo, for goodness sakes. And lawn tennis, and he sailed.)
There were other convulsions in the old order during Woody’s formative years. There was the Great Depression, but he was sheltered away at Denison. The perceptive Michael Oriard, a former football player turned English professor, saw this time as the critical juncture between a farm and village society moving into “the modern commercialized, consumerist, and mechanized mass society of the metropolis.” The older America—Woody’s America—would soon be gone forever.
Denison, though, was something like Newcomerstown, in that both were at remove from the outside world—and located in a small town so iconic it still seems caught in a nineteenth-century time warp. At Denison, boys played for the scenery, and even today its stadium is one of the grand Saturday afternoon venues for watching college football. But outside such sanctuaries, the forces of industrialism and urbanism were building. They wouldn’t erase Woody’s own experiences, but they would make the inward-turning values of the small town less applicable to the world he’d inherit.
The older idea of the sporting universe was changing, too. Early in the century, progressives saw organized physical activity as the basis for a unified national culture. They thought this culture could, as they said, “produce good citizens and able leaders, inculcate liberal tenets, and convert immigrants into ‘Americans.’” It was an optimistic vision of America with sports as a kind of secular religion in which the dehumanizing fractures of rapid mechanization would be checked, outlets for community enlarged, and a wholesome democracy enhanced.
It is doubtful that Woody, at such an early age, participated in such academic formulations. He would, though, have sided with the progressives on the issue of sports creating “good citizens and able leaders.” It was something he was fervent about. For he believed that his players were going out to be exactly that. He, like that other great sportsman, Teddy Roosevelt, believed in “the doctrine of the strenuous life.” Only late in his life, some years removed from coaching, did he question the direction collegiate football was taking. John Lombardo, in his good book, A Fire to Win, said Woody’s obsession with football had by this time faded. “I worry about the game getting out of hand,” he said. “I do. I really do. The money involved, the over-commercialization … ”
The old theme of purity that ran through the sports biographies of Woody’s adolescence posited an athlete who triumphed by inspiration, hard work, and clean living. It was the kind of athlete Woody was—and the kind he wanted to coach. The notion of sports as a progressive force, though, was already headed in another direction. Its high-minded, reformist tenets were being shanghaied by the emerging sophistication of Madison Avenue, and big business had a sharp and possessive eye on how sports could be monetized. Ohio State, in fact, was at its forefront, having built one of the largest stadiums in America, and this alone announced the university’s intentions of running a big-business football program.
Even in the 1920s, with Woody still in high school, the influential Carnegie Report said intercollegiate sports had become unmoored from what it called “principled amateurism.” The report criticized aggressive recruiting, alumni subsidies to players, and an overall commercialism that fostered “a negligent attitude toward the educational opportunities for which the college exists.” The Carnegie influence didn’t appear to reach Ohio State where, in the twenties, it built new tennis courts, baseball fields, tracks, and added nearly two million dollars of improvements to the stadium. By the start of the 1930s, few public universities had athletic incomes larger than Ohio State’s.
At first, it appeared as though the Depression wouldn’t impact Ohio State, but even as Woody sojourned at Denison, Ohio State was forced into belt-tightening. By mid-decade, students were protesting the cancellation of subscriptions to academic periodicals and the closing of the library cloakroom. This resulted in students tossing their hats and jackets on the floor, which gave the place “the appearance of an ill-kept warehouse.” Over two hundred positions were abolished, most of them from the teaching staff. “The bitter medicine stage has been supplanted by amputation,” said one commentator.
Ohio State president George Rightmire threatened the state legislature with canceling the 1936 football season if the university didn’t receive more funding. The governor, Martin Davey, wouldn’t have any of it, though, and by the end of the decade—Woody was coaching at New Philadelphia High—Ohio State’s financial condition had improved. The university no longer had to lease the golf course land for the grazing of livestock.
Finally, there was the war, the ultimate molder of Woody’s personality. He had always been a fighter, and now he was looking for a different kind of opponent than merely another schoolyard brawler. He was not exactly like his hero General Patton who believed that in previous lives he had been, among other things, a Roman legionary and a Napoleonic warrior. But like Patton, he had a martial spirit. With his wartime experiences as commander of a destroyer escort, his love of military history was made manifest. And there would be no more militant coach, for Woody saw the gridiron almost literally as a field of fire. To him, even the vocabularies of war and football became interchangeable.
Woody fought the culture, too, in a losing battle to restore the order of that older America into which he’d been born. Unlike his encounters on the football field, though, he’d lose this fight. For he believed in a world that no longer existed, if it ever had. It was the ultimate romance of a pragmatic man who was not otherwise romantic.