Niyo: The myth of Woody Hayes' infamous 'three'-point try

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Rex Kern, Woody Hayes and Ohio State gave the Michigan Wolverines a beating to remember in 1968. And they remembered the following season.

It has been 50 years now, but Dick Calderazzo remembers it like it was yesterday. And why wouldn’t he? That number “50” is seared into his memory and woven into the fabric of this Michigan-Ohio State rivalry that’ll mark another anniversary Saturday in Columbus.

If 1969 was the game that changed the rivalry, as Bo Schembechler fired the first shot in his fabled Ten Year War with Woody Hayes, the ’68 game — 50 years ago today in Ohio Stadium — was the one that provided the ammunition.

The Buckeyes routed the Wolverines that late-November afternoon, breaking open a tight game with a second-half onslaught, one that fullback Jim Otis punctuated by scoring a late touchdown and then heaving the football into the stands in celebration.

What followed, though, is the urban legend that everyone remembers, as Ohio State added insult to injury by going for two instead of kicking the extra point. The conversion failed, but the affront still registered, and as the story goes, Hayes, the irascible Hall of Fame coach, was asked after the game why he went for two, to which he replied, “Because I couldn’t go for three!”

Problem is, there’s no record of Hayes actually saying that. And 50 years later there is laughter on both sides of the rivalry over the story, and the embellished end of that game, which really was the beginning of the modern-day enmity that’ll play out again Saturday with another matchup of top-10 teams in Columbus.

“Everybody thinks it was a conscious decision,” said Mark Stier, a senior captain on the 1968 Ohio State team that went on to beat USC in the Rose Bowl to complete an undefeated national championship season. “I mean, it makes great press, and it certainly fired up Michigan for the next year. I’m sure those guys got so tired of hearing that. But it really wasn’t true.”

That’s true of so much of the sports lore we cherish and repeat, of course, from Babe Ruth’s called shot to Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech. The fiction endures not just because it fits, but because it’s more fun.

And on that count you’ll get no quarrel from Calderazzo, a junior who played right guard for Bump Elliott’s Wolverines.

“Oh, really?” he laughed, when told this week about some of the Buckeyes’ backstory. “They didn’t want to go for two?”

Well, that’s hard to say, exactly. But as Stier and a dozen of his teammates gathered in Columbus last month to celebrate the golden anniversary of their ’68 title run, that’s just one of many old yarns that pulled them all together.

“The old guys sit around and talk about Woody stories and people kind of shake their heads and say, ‘You’re making that up,’” Stier said, chuckling. “No, we’re not. You couldn’t do some of the stuff that he or Bo did back in the day. You’d have lawsuits and you’d be fired.”

In fact, that’s part of the legacy of that ’68 team.

Saved Woody’s job?

“When I was a sophomore and junior, we weren’t very good,” said Stier, the lone senior starter on Hayes’ defense in ’68. “And at a school like Ohio State or Michigan, you can’t do that very long, or you’re gonna get fired. There’s been books been written about ’68 being the year that saved Woody’s job. And to some extent, that’s probably accurate.”

The 1966 team produced just his second losing season in 16 years at Ohio State, and the ’67 squad also finished unranked at 6-3 — a sixth straight year without a Big Ten title — though Hayes and his staff earned a reprieve with a season-ending run capped by a win over the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

Another thing that was apparent that year, though, was the talent in Ohio State’s freshman class. Freshmen weren’t eligible to play until 1972 in college football, but in the fall of ’67, a recruiting class that included 13 future NFL draft picks — Jack Tatum, Jim Stillwagon, John Brockington, Leo Hayden and others — made its presence felt.

“We were getting our behinds kicked on a pretty regular basis,” Stier said. “They had speed, they had quickness, and they had athleticism that we didn’t have.”

They also had some new faces on the coaching staff — including George Chaump and Glenn Ellison — who convinced Hayes to use the I-formation and implement a hurry-up offense. And by the time that ’68 team and it’s “Super Sophomores” reached the end of the regular season, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the country.

Michigan came in ranked No. 4, winners of eight in a row after a season-opening loss to California, and “That Team Up North” was welcomed in the usual way in Columbus.

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“I remember the night before the game, the alarm went off in the hotel, the power went out, they made us evacuate the building,” Calderazzo said. “And then I walk out for the pregame warmup and two ladies are waiting for me with a big cup full of something and throw it inside my helmet.”

The game was 21-14 at halftime, but “then they just blew us out in the second half,” scoring 29 unanswered points, Calderazzo recalled, including that final run over the left tackle by Otis with just over a minute remaining.

At that point, some of the reserves were in the game, including quarterback Bill Long, the two-year starter who’d been passed over for Rex Kern as a senior. In at center was Jim Roman, replacing John Muhlbach, who’d apparently left the game with an injury, though the only one he remembers now was the broken leg he suffered in the Rose Bowl against USC. (“Got clipped on a punt return with 10 minutes left to go,” he said. “I’d never had a broken bone from the time I started playing in the fifth grade in Massillon, Ohio.”)

But that was a problem, Muhlbach notes with a laugh, “because Jim was our placekicker, as well as the backup center.” And that’s the answer that Hayes gave reporters that afternoon when asked about the two-point try. Muhlbach was out, Roman was in, and according to the Akron Beacon-Journal’s account the next day, Hayes said, “our other field goal man, Larry Zelina, was groggy after getting a bump in the head.”

“So they just decided to go for two because Roman couldn’t both snap the ball and kick it,” said Muhlbach, the uncle of Lions long-snapper Don Muhlbach.

‘No love for Michigan’

Just who decided what is still up for debate, including the play call for a pass attempt by Long that sailed out of the back of the end zone.

“I still remember Woody out on the field holding up one finger in the air,” Stier said. “But Bill Long, he’s just kinda waving. And he’s a senior, so what’s Woody gonna do. ‘Ah, screw this, we’re gonna go for two.’”

According to Roman, the players discussed calling a timeout amid all the confusion in the huddle.

“And then they all said, ‘Well, the old man will go hysterical if we call timeout, so we might as well just run a play and whatever happens, happens,’” Stier said.

But what about Hayes’ infamous quote?

“I’ve been asked that question a lot, and I’ve asked the question a lot,” said Jack Park, the Ohio State football historian. “And I’ve never talked to anybody who heard Woody say it.”

The players on the team certainly didn’t hear it, though they wouldn’t put it past him.

“He wasn’t very funny very often, but occasionally he came up with a good one,” Muhlbach said. “And there was no love there for anything from Michigan.”

Still, none of the local papers mentioned it the next day, save for an admission from Hayes in the Ohio State student newspaper that “we wanted more than 50 points.” And a story in the Akron paper quoting Michigan offensive coordinator Tony Mason grousing about Hayes, “That fat hog went for two! That’s why he’s not wanted in this profession.”

“I don’t know if Woody said it or not,” Stier said. “Part of the story I heard is it was one of the assistants that said it and then Woody got tagged with it, and he ran with it.”

Relations between Michigan and Ohio State were bitter when Bo Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor in 1969, and they only got testier over the next decade.

And if he didn’t, others would, including Lou Holtz, who was an assistant on Hayes’ staff for just that one season but has told the story countless times since, including at a charity roast that was held for Hayes a week before his death in 1987.

Some have even suggested the quote came years earlier, when Hayes had his Buckeyes go for two in the waning seconds of a 50-20 win at Michigan in 1961. That time the conversion was successful, and Hayes spoke afterward about trying to run up the score to impress the national pollsters.

Whatever the case, for Calderazzo and the Wolverines, the message had been received, loud and clear.

“It was sort of insulting, and all the players were quite resentful,” Calderazzo said. “And the guys in my class, the juniors — Jimmy Mandich, Cecil Pryor — they just yelled at everybody on the bus, ‘Don’t forget what they did to us today! Don’t forget this (expletive)!’”

They wouldn’t. And even if they’d wanted to, Bo wasn’t going to let them.

When everything changed

Schembechler, a protégé of Hayes, was hired with a handshake to replace Elliott just after Christmas and it didn’t take long for the players to understand just what that meant. Winter workout that left players gagging, or fighting, or often both. And instead of two-a-days in August camp, Schembechler had his team going through three-a-days.

But after an up-and-down start, the Wolverines were rolling by November. And after demolishing Iowa on the road for their fourth straight lopsided win, they were riding an emotional wave.

“I mean, we were flying,” Calderazzo said.

So much so, in fact, that Jerry Hanlon, one of Schembechler’s trusted assistants, voiced a concern shared by many on the coaching staff.

“I said, ‘Bo, they’re getting up too soon,’” Hanlon recalls. “And he told me, ‘You can’t get too high for Ohio State!’ So we let ’em go.”

Besides, Bo knew he had something else that would keep his players intensity level up. When the players gathered for the Monday team meeting to get the scouting report, Schembechler wasted little time in bringing up the ’68 game.

“Bo said, ‘The old man put 50 on your head, and I’m not gonna let you forget it,’” Calderazzo said. “And then we left there and went to our lockers and realized, ‘Holy Christ, he means it.’ Because there’s that stupid number ‘50’ everywhere. You couldn’t make a move without seeing it.”

On the shower curtains. On the locker stalls. And even written on pieces of masking tape affixed to the front of the helmets of all the freshman players on the scout team, “so they’re looking at you,” Calderazzo said, “and you’re looking at 50.”

“It was a type of incentive that was easy to put up,” Hanlon said, chuckling. “I think it worked.”

It worked, all right. Michigan, a 17-point underdog, stunned the top-ranked Buckeyes that week in Ann Arbor, a 24-12 victory that snapped Ohio State’s 22-game win streak and shocked the college football world. Bill Flemming, the ABC announcer, dubbed it the “upset of the century.”

Hayes always insisted that Ohio State team wasn’t just the best one he ever coached, but perhaps the best in the history of college football, outscoring opponents by a combined 371-69 score heading into the finale in Ann Arbor.

The first time they trailed all season was in that first half against Michigan, and a Sports Illustrated article that week had suggested the only matchup worthy of deciding who was No. 1 would be one that featured the Buckeyes' offense against its own defense.

Not so, as it turned out.

“There’s an old saying that I learned from the coach at Ohio State,” Schembechler said, talking about the ’69 win and what led to it. “When people start saying a lot of nice things about you, look out.” @JohnNiyo