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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

GOODBYE WOODY, HELLO NEW YORK CITY

After the summer quarter was completed, I took a train back to Cleveland to visit my parents and siblings. Bruce, 17, told me he planned to attend The Wharton School at Penn. I wondered how he could afford the tuition, and years later, found that an aunt had underwritten his education. My youngest brother, Bill, was six and my sister, Marcy, was only two. I couldn't believed how they had grown in the time I was gone. I told my parents that, after graduation in December, I would relocate to New York City. They were not  happy, but  I'd made up my mind. It was a bit tense, and  I couldn't wait for the trip back Columbus in September, anxious to evaluate the 1956 Ohio State Football team

In 1955, except for the Duke game, to which I invited my father  my uncle Sam, the dentist, and a cousin, Leonard Task, as my press box guests, I was able to sell  my four tickets on  the 50-yard line for the other five home games. We lost to Duke 20-14, and the reason was Duke's quarterback, Sonny Jurgensen, who later played for the Eagles and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After the game, we went to Woody"s press conference.  I warned my guests to stand back. After each game,  the coach would munch on a cheese sandwich and an apple, spewing food as he talked. Veteran reporters always formed a cone shaped group to avoid any unexpected shower  they might experience. We then visited the Duke press conference which was much more boisterous. Jergensen was the star and I introduced him to my guests. Leonard Task never forgot that moment.A big sports fan, Leonard,  until the day he died, told me meeting Sonny was the biggest thrill of his life, though I found that hard to believe. I missed the Stanford game that year in California. It was the Buckeyes second loss, 6-0, , but we finished the season with a five game winning streak, we snared the Big Ten title. OSU sent me to Madison for the  Wisconsin game. Head cheerleader Bill Costello shared the long train, and arrived at the hotel during the team's "breakfast". Bill and I agreed we had never seen so much food eaten at one sitting.

Now for some football history. Most team rosters were smaller in those days, usually dressing less than 40 players. That fact was a result of a  1954 ruling banning the two platoon system. Teams could  only substitute one player after each play. It was repealed after the 1964, but when I was covering the Buckeyes, most of the athletes played both offense and defense.There were no special teams. And there were only a handful of black players at northern schools. Southern schools didn't recruit African Americans in those years. Alabama, for one, didn't recruit blacks until 1971. In 1955 The Big Ten was called the Western Conference, the oldest in the United States. It consisted of nine stare schools and a private one, Northwestern  In  July, 2014  The Big Ten will actually have 14 members. Penn State and Nebraska, the newest in the conference, will be joined by Maryland and Rutgers. Everything changes as time goes by.

In retrospect the 1955 season was the end of an era. Hoppy, the team's MVP for two years running had graduated. So had co-captains, Fran "Moose" Machinsky and Ken Vargo. Don Vicic, Galen Cisco and  Jim Parker '56's MVP, were back. New names were Dick LeBeau and Hubie Bobo,   Though Woodrow "Woody" Hayes had turned the program around, 1956 was looked at as a rebuilding year, but the team was still highly ranked until the dismal shutouts to end the season, one to Iowa and the other to Michigan at home. Woody was the most quotable person I've ever interviewed. His idol was General George Patton and he consistently used military metaphors to make his point.

 Woody had been appointed head coach in 1951, a year in which the Buckeye's record was 4-3-2-1, a numerically so-so performance. Two  6-3 records followed, and then 1954's undefeated National Championship season. The team won again in 1957, and under his aegis,l Woody's teams won five national  titles and 13 Big Ten  championships. Until his blow-up in the Gator Bowl game versus Clemson in 1978, he was as revered as any other college coach. Woody was soft spoken and only became upset when someone missed a block or tackle in practice. If you've ever watched NCIS on CBS you have seen Mark Harmon's character, Leroy Jethro Gibbs give his team members an open handed cuff to the back of the head. It's a gesture of affection that he might have learned from Woody, who would often slap  the back of a player's helmet if he screwed up. (Michael Weatherly's character on the that show, Tony DiNozzo, supposedly played basketball at OSU)  Before the Michigan (Woody called them "the team up north") game in 1956, Woody showed his  paranoia. He was sure Michigan had spies watching the Buckeyes practice, so  he told reporters that only three us could serve as a pool and report to the others. Kay Kessler of The Citizen, Paul Hornung of The Dispatch and yours truly were the trio allowed in  at practice sessions.. To confirm our identities, Woody made us each wear as scarlet jersey. It didn't help. OSU  lost to Michigan 19-0.

During my tenure as sports editor, I had the chance of meeting some great coaches, including Mike Peppe, who lead the OSU swimming and diving teams to 12 Big Ten titles, and  coached several who appeared in the Olympics. I never missed a wrestling match, swimming meet,  basketball or baseball game, and attempted to  cover all of the minor sports as well. But, at Ohio State, football was king.

About seven years ago, Carol and I had dinner with Paul Beck, who was visiting NYC. He was then the Dean of the Arts and Science program at Ohio State,   He handed me a silver folder with a block "O" on the cover. It contained articles and columns I had written for The Lantern in the middle 1950's. I had not kept any of that material. Rereading stuff I had written more than 50 years ago was priceless. One more small world story. The next year we were in Florida for the winter months. We were at a restaurant with two other couples and I began a conversation with a couple at the adjoining table. He was looking for a basketball score on a hand held computer. He told me he was a sportswriter. "So was I," I told him. He asked where and when and I told him. His name is Jeff Snook and he had also been sports editor of The Lantern, 25 years after I held that title.

Before graduation, I said my goodbyes to the new faces at the Lantern office and the  print shop crew, including Otto who operated the Linotype machine, and Walter, who locked up each page and ran the sheet-fed press located in the building's basement.  Carol came to the graduation ceremonies and we flew back to New York City, where my next job would be to find one.