Ohio State coaching legend Woody Hayes may have seemed perpetually consumed with football, but he had interests outside the game. Among other hobbies, Hayes was an avid mountain climber.
At least that’s how former star quarterback Rex Kern remembers it. He said Hayes would make a trek to Colorado before the start of each season for hiking expeditions. Who knew?
While on those slopes, he came up with a coaching mantra that he shared often with his teams.
“Woody would always tell us, ‘Be like a sure-footed mountain goat. Put one step in front of you, and before you know it, you’ll be at the top.’ ” Kern said.
Hayes’ teams reached great heights in the late 1960s, winning 22 consecutive games. They won the last four of 1967 with Dayton native Bill Long at quarterback. They went 10-0 and captured a national title during Kern’s sophomore year in ’68 and then prevailed eight straight times by an average of 27 points in ‘69 before a stunning upset at Michigan.
It’s the longest streak in school history and the fifth-longest ever in the Big Ten. The coach Urban Meyer-led Buckeyes can tie the mark with a win at Illinois today and break it when they host Indiana next week.
Unlike the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, who have a toast every year when the NFL’s last remaining unbeaten team falls, OSU players from that era — now in their mid- to late-60s — want to see their record broken.
“That would be a wonderful feat. I wish them well. … It’s time to pass the torch,” Kern said.
“More power to them. I hope the Buckeyes win every game for the next five years in a row,” said Dave Foley, a senior captain in 1968.
But Kern was careful not to go overboard.
“Another of the Old Man’s sayings is anybody under the age of 75 compliments you — unless it’s an old lady — you kick them in the shin because all they’re trying to do is make you soft,” he said. “I don’t want to throw too many wonderful accolades toward Urban, although I know that won’t make him soft. He has a great work ethic. He is dedicated to our football players and our university, and I think he’s doing a wonderful job.”
The 22-game streak was completely unexpected. After starting 2-3 in ’67, Hayes was telling his assistants he likely would be fired. It had been six years since the Buckeyes had won a conference title and 10 years since their last Rose Bowl trip. They had won only 31 of their previous 50 games, and attendance was waning.
But he had a banner recruiting class coming through the ranks that would be dubbed the Super Sophomores in ‘68. They launched a period of unmatched prosperity in the program, starting a run of nine shared or outright Big Ten titles in 10 seasons.
Several players discussed what they remembered about the streak and their days in the Scarlet and Gray.
Rex Kern: Freshmen were ineligible in 1967, but OSU’s newcomers were so good that they frequently embarrassed the varsity during practice.
That group produced six future All-Americans in defensive backs Jack Tatum and Tim Anderson, middle guard Jim Stillwagon, tight end Jan White and halfback John Brockington. Twelve would go on to be NFL draft picks, including four in the first round: Brockington, Tatum, Anderson and halfback Leo Hayden, a Dayton native.
But Kern credits much of the success to veterans such as linebacker Mark Stier, center John Muhlbach and All-American tackles Rufus Mayes and Foley for their willingness to embrace the underclassmen and set a winning tone.
“We would not have been the team we were if we hadn’t had that leadership. … We were so fortunate to have so many great players and great people at one time,” he said.
The Buckeyes went 27-2 from 1968-70. They lost to a 7-2 Michigan team in coach Bo Schembechler’s first season in ‘69 despite being 17-point favorites. They also fell to quarterback Jim Plunkett and Stanford in the Rose Bowl during the ’70 season.
“Those two losses still haunt me to this day,” said Kern, a Lancaster, Ohio, native who is semi-retired in Camarillo, Calif. “There are days I wake up, and I’ve had dreams of, ‘OK, if we would have done this, if we would have done that …’
“Not only would Ohio State’s team be chasing our record, but (Alabama coach) Nick Saban would be saying, ‘Well, we’re on pace to tie the 1968 Ohio State sophomores (with three straight national titles).
“Those were two great disappointments. We should have had three (crowns), but we did get one — and how sweet that was.”
Bill Long: Kern was an ironman for three years at quarterback, but the Buckeyes needed Long to bail them out in a 13-0 victory over No. 1 Purdue in ’68.
Clinging to a 6-0 lead, Kern was injured on a sweep, and Long, who had been the starter in ’66 and ’67, was thrust into action.
“Woody puts me in — to mixed boos, by the way — on a third down,” Long said. “The pass play didn’t work, and I ran in for a score that sealed the game.”
But while his one-play cameo was crucial, Long knew his place. Kern was in firm control of the quarterback spot.
And Long wasn’t the only upperclassmen who had to step aside for the sophomores, who claimed 11 of 22 starting spots in ‘68.
“They were damn good, no question about it. They had the right attitude. They were bold,” Long said.
“The first game (a 35-14 win over SMU), I still thought I was going to be the starter. On fourth down, we started sending the kicking team in around midfield (for a punt), and Rex is waving off the kicking team. A sophomore is waving off the kicking team!
“I thought I was going back in after that. He called the exact wrong play on fourth-and-10 — the play was covered — but he scrambled, some guy hit him head on, he bounced off, stumbled around and made a first down. We went on and scored.”
Long, who has authored two books and worked as a lobbyist in Washington, was a nonconformist who didn’t always click with Hayes. When the Buckeyes needed an emergency sub at QB later that season, sophomore Ron Maciejowski got the call.
Though he could say it with a laugh, Long admitted the bitterness over being bypassed “never left me. In fact, I could argue that I’m more upset today than I was 45 years ago. That’s not good.”
But he also could find Hayes endearing — never more so than while he was being recruited. Long played for his father, Bob, in high school at Milton-Union and Stebbins and was considered the No. 2 quarterback prospect in Ohio (behind Cleveland’s Brian Dowling, who went to Yale),
He made a trip to Columbus with his parents for a Buckeye basketball game, and Long said he was “floating on air” as fans gaped at the them sitting in St. John Arena with the famed coach. But he wanted to make more recruiting trips and was determined to fight off Hayes’ pitch about committing.
“At halftime of the game, he said, ‘Let’s go to my office, Bill.’ I thought, ‘Oh, crap, here it is. He’s going to put pressure on me.’ We go to his office, and he brings out his book, ‘Words of Power.’ It’s a vocabulary book he carried around with him,” Long said.
“He grilled me for the entire second half of the game up in his office about these vocabulary words. ‘Bill, spell establishment. Now, use it in a sentence.’ We did this the entire time. I was sweating bricks. Then he goes, ‘Why don’t you commit? I know you want to commit tonight.’ I don’t know where this came from, but I said, ‘Coach, I’m 95 percent sure I want to come to Ohio State, but I don’t want to commit tonight.’ He said, ‘Fine.’ And I thought I beat him.
“We went back to my mom and dad and went to dinner. Who’s at dinner? (Dayton Journal Herald sports editor) Ritter Collett, who was covering the basketball game. He calls Ritter over and says, ‘Ritter, you know coach Bob Long and his wife. We’re recruiting his son, Bill.’ And then he says, ‘Bill has something to tell you.’
“It was dead silence. My parents didn’t say anything. And I say to Ritter, ‘I’ve decided to come to Ohio State.’”
Long did want to dispel one myth. The famous line from Woody Hayes after the 50-14 win over Michigan in 1968 never occurred.
The Buckeyes went for a two-point conversion after a late touchdown, apparently to humiliate the Wolverines. Hayes was supposedly asked afterward why he went for two, and his reply was, “They wouldn’t let me go for three.”
“That never happened,” Long said. “I was in the game then. The only reason we went for two was our long-snapper was hurt. I looked at Woody, and he waved me on. He never would have done something like that.”
Jan White: No one on the Buckeyes could have been more shattered by Michigan’s 24-12 upset in ’69 than White. The tight end from Harrisburg, Pa., was on undefeated teams throughout junior high and high school and had never lost a game until that day, aside from a prep all-star game.
“I was sitting in a chair afterward, and some guy came up and wanted to take my picture. I put a towel over my face because I didn’t want him to do it, but I couldn’t stop him. He did it anyway,” said White, who lives in Clayton and works as a personal trainer after a long career in the Greene County juvenile courts.
“I saw that photograph of me sitting in this chair, and it seemed like there wasn’t anybody else around. I was just in disbelief. That was pretty devastating for us.”
The Wolverines weren’t expected to be much of a threat. A crowd of 103,588 filled the Big House, the largest turnout in college football to that point. But Michigan needed OSU to sell 25,000 tickets to reach that figure.
“I think we were as prepared as we can be,” White said. “I don’t remember that we were overly confident. I just think we felt, ‘We’re No. 1 in the nation, and we’ve got this.’ We should have had it, there’s no doubt. Michigan just played a flawless game, and they beat us.”
White was a coveted recruit and was expected by many to stay close to home and attend Penn State.
“It was a huge surprise when I chose Ohio State, but at the time, the Big Ten was THE conference,” he said. “They were the big boys. And I wanted to play big.
“Playing for Woody Hayes, there was no bigger coach you could play for. Hardly anyone said no to Woody. You just didn’t.”
White would become an NFL second-round draft choice, the 29th pick overall, but he felt a little overwhelmed at times in his first varsity season. That’s where the upperclassmen came in. Rather than resent the younger players for taking prominent roles, the veterans embraced them.
“I played beside Dave Foley. There were times he’d look at me in the huddle, and my eyes were so wide, and he’d say, ‘Calm down,’ “ White said. “He put a hand on me and let me know, ‘We’ve got this, man. Just do what you do.’ “
Dave Foley: The Buckeyes may have gone through some lean years in the mid-‘60s, but Foley saw progress even while fans were growing restless.
A 41-6 home loss to Purdue in 1967 was the low point, a defeat so bad that the defending Rose Bowl champions were pulling their starters early in the second half to keep the game from getting out of hand.
But a 13-0 win over the No. 1 Boilermakers in ’68 was a signal that the Buckeyes were on their way back.
“Woody would always pick out one team, if he got beat the year before, and he’d figure out some way to beat that team,” Foley said. “Our whole spring practice was all geared toward that one game.
“Then, all of a sudden, a window opened, and we thought maybe this will be better than what we thought it was going to be.”
From 4-5 and 6-3 records during their first two years, Foley and the seniors were rewarded with a 10-0 season, including a win over No. 2 Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl.
“I think the coaching staff really worked hard at trying to make the team be a team,” said Foley, a three-year starter at right tackle who went on to a nine-year NFL career.
“People ask, ‘How did Woody treat you? Woody treated me like everyone else — like dirt. He beat us up. He was going to break us down and, if we made it through, we were all going to be stronger for it. And because of that, we did grow as a team.”
Foley, who owns a financial investment business in Springfield, can see similarities between the hardships his teams faced and the travails many of the current Buckeyes experienced.
After losing coach Jim Tressel because of NCAA sanctions and going 6-7 in 2011, they responded with a 12-0 record last year under Meyer and show no signs of letting up.
“I think it’s wonderful the success they’re having after the incident that cost them their coach,” Foley said. “Even though they couldn’t reap the benefits (because of a bowl ban), to go undefeated last year, I thought that was a statement in itself. That was kind of like the end of our 6-3 season.
“The whole last season for them was really the stepping stone to what’s going on this year.”
Big Ten’s longest winning streaks
29 Michigan 1901-03
26 Michigan 1903-05*
25 Michigan 1946-49
24 Minnesota 1903-05*
22 Ohio State 1967-69
21 Ohio State 2012-present
*From 1903-05, schools in the Big Ten, formerly known as the Western Conference, played an average of only three league games, and Michigan and Minnesota didn’t meet.