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For over 40 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives.With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?Look for a new Tales from the Trail column every Friday.

The Buckeye And The Wolverine Who Liked Each Other

Jim Nolan

At noon today, two contiguous states – Ohio and Michigan – will be at a near standstill because of a football game in Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

The Ohio State Buckeyes versus the Michigan Wolverines. Quite possibly, the greatest rivalry in college football history.

It happens every year, and for Ohio State fans, it is more important than any bowl game, more important even than a national championship. The one desire in the hearts of Buckeye fans each year is to beat the pants off what they like to call That State Up North, as if saying "Michigan" would be a foul pollution rolling off their tongues.

There is no way to overstate the fierceness of this rivalry.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am a baseball guy. I am like the old-time Baseball Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby who, when asked what he did in the off-season, had a simple answer: I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for Spring.

But even a hardcore baseball guy like me might find today's game hard to resist.

It happens every year; and whenever it does, it brings to mind two names from the past – the late President Gerald Ford and Woody Hayes.

Ford, of course, was a Michigan Wolverine football player who was a center, linebacker and long snapper on the undefeated Michigan teams that won national titles in 1932 and 1933.

Credit Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library
Gerald Ford, as center for the Michigan Wolverines

Ford, as president, came along after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace in 1974, but was unable to win his own term in 1976, defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.

A lot of people thought the Wolverine president was not the sharpest knife in the drawer; he had a reputation for not being very bright. I always thought it was terribly unfair, although it could be hilariously funny too, as when Chevy Chase used to parody Ford in the early days of Saturday Night Live.

Back in the 1960s, when Ford was House Minority Leader and Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, LBJ famously stuck a label on Ford that persists to this day.

Ford, Johnson said, is "a nice fellow but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet."

Hey, the guy earned his law degree from Yale. He had to have something between his ears.

Hayes, of course, was coach of the Buckeyes while Ford was in the White House.

Wayne Woodrow "Woody" Hayes coached the Buckeyes from 1951 through 1978, coming to the Buckeyes after coaching at Miami University in 1949 and 1950,

His Ohio State teams won 13 Big Ten championships and five national titles. But what did he did he do against That State Up North? The record: 16 wins, 11 losses and one tie.

Woody took that rivalry very seriously.

It's said that he would sometimes go on recruiting trips into Michigan to look at some high school prospect, in hopes of stealing him away from the Wolverines. An assistant coach usually drove the car. Woody, it is said, insisted that they fill the car's tank with gas in Toledo because he did not want to spend a nickel in Michigan.

My father worshipped Woody. He loved the Buckeyes and watched every game.

Once a season, he would go with a group of men from our family's church to an Ohio State game in Columbus – one of the guys was an alumnus and had connections.

When I got a little older, they took me along a couple of times. My most vivid memory is the pre-game pep rally in the student union, with the cheerleaders performing, the pep band blaring and, at the end, Woody himself coming in to bark out a brief but inspiring pep talk.

My dad was transported at that moment. He was in Buckeye Heaven.

Most people know that Hayes' coaching career ended badly on Dec. 29, 1978 at the Gator Bowl.

The Buckeyes were playing the Clemson Tigers. Clemson had a 17-15 lead late in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes' freshman quarterback, Art Schlichter, moved the team into field goal range.

On third down, with about two-and-a-half minutes on the clock, Hayes called for pass play.

Well, it was intercepted by a Clemson player named Charlie Bauman, who ran it out of bounds on the Ohio State sideline.

Then, for some reason, Woody's brain snapped and he punched Bauman in the throat, setting off a benches-clearing brawl. Woody stormed onto the field and had to be held back by one of his assistants.

I was watching this at home with my dad, who was, as was his custom while watching TV, laying on the couch. When dad saw the punch, he moaned and rolled over, averting his eyes.

Oh no, Woody, no. Why? Why???

He knew it spelled the end of Woody Hayes' coaching career.

The next morning, Woody Hayes was fired.

I had nearly had my own Charlie Bauman moment with Hayes in the summer of 1975.

I had been hanging around Ohio University that summer, trying to find a job in a tight newspaper job market. Our student newspaper in Athens, The Post, published five days a week during the school year, but only once a week during the summer.

I decided to go up to the Ohio State Fairgrounds and do a feature story on something – not sure what, mostly it was an excuse to go to the fair.

But I was walking up the midway at night and I saw none other than Woody Hayes walking briskly (he never walked anything but briskly), heading straight in my direction.

This was my chance. I had heard a story going around that Hayes and his wife were sheltering a Vietnamese family in the basement of his home in Upper Arlington. That was very common in those days; many churches and their members sponsored Vietnamese refugees who came here after the fall of Saigon, to help them get on their feet in a new country.

This is my story, I thought, "Tough Guy Woody Hayes Shelters Vietnamese Family."

I approached the man, somewhat gingerly. I introduced myself and explained to him what I wanted to do.

It would make a nice human interest story, I said, practically bowing and scraping before the great man.

His face turned red (scarlet, I guess); I could see the veins on his neck popping out; and he let me have it with both barrels.

That's none of your &*%$#@ business. My private life is of no concern to you. Now, get away from me, you little *&%@#%*@!

I am convinced to this day that if I had not turned tail and ran – and I do mean ran – away from him as quickly as possible, he was going to take a swing at me.

I high-tailed it out of there.

No story for me.

The next year, though, I encountered Woody Hayes once again. And this time Gerald Ford was involved.

And I got to see a moment where the most famous Wolverine of them all and the Buckeye legend came together in a moment of camaraderie born of a mutual love of football.

I was ­working as a reporter for the Painesville Telegraph, a little Lake County newspaper 22 miles east of downtown Cleveland. I took a trip down to Columbus to cover Ford, who was running for re-election – one of my first times covering an American president.

I was there on the tarmac at Port Columbus International Airport, held in a media pen, when Air Force One touched down and rolled up the runway. The big plane came to a stop; the big stairway was rolled up to the front door of the plane; and three "dignitaries" strolled out to the bottom of the stairway to greet the president as he descended.

First, there was Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes, a Republican then in his third of four terms as governor. Second in line was Tom Moody, at the time the Republican mayor of Columbus.

And, finally there was Woody Hayes.

Everyone stood around waiting for about 20 minutes. Eventually, Ford emerged from the plane, stood at the top of the steps and did the obligatory wave to the crowd of admirers behind the barriers.

He began walking down the steps.

At the bottom, the president walked right past Rhodes without stopping.

Then, he walked right past Moody without stopping.

Ford made a beeline to Hayes, the man at the end of the line, where he shook his hand, threw his arm around his shoulder and the two of them had an animated conversation for at least five minutes. Both were smiling and laughing.

Rhodes and Moody just stood there, shuffling their feet and looking at each other.

Pigskin brotherhood. It can even bring together a Wolverine and a Buckeye. 

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.