Beyond the Gridiron -- The Life and Times of Woody Hayes
Subject: Rex Kern
Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
Transcript: Sydney Meyers
The segments included in this interview excerpt were recorded during October 2002, as part of Beyond the Gridiron -- The Life and Times of Woody Hayes. The documentary is a co-production with the Crouse Entertainment Group and WOSU-Columbus, Ohio. Rex Kern played quarterback for Ohio State (1967-1970), He also played for the Baltimore Colts (1971-1973) and the Buffalo Bills (1974).
Why did you choose to play at Ohio State? How was OSU different from other schools at the time?
From a football standpoint, Ohio State was not, from a won-loss record they were not doing that well considering the history that Ohio State had had football-wise. But really the separation again was the academic separation, that's where I saw football or basketball giving me the platform to be successful in the classroom, or at least walking beside me giving me the support that I would need. I did need that support and I took advantage of that. Well not advantage of it, but I was recipient of those particular things that were available for us through tutoring or going to extra study sessions and those kinds of things. The separation came from the other Big Ten colleges, really the guy upstairs who was Woody. Woody was saying, "we're gonna stay with you, we're gonna make sure that you do this." And he talked about that. He talked about that to my parents. And that was music to my parent's ears, as to all parents. You want to hear a coach come into your living room and say, "we're going to make sure your son graduates because that's our responsibility. And that separated Ohio State from the other Big Ten schools and the other schools that I looked at throughout the country. And I think Coach Hayes was one of the first ones to hire a guy by the name of ah Jim Jones to be our brain coach and we called him our brain coach, and he made sure that we went to study table, that we went to class, as did all our assistant position coaches, they had to know time, grades, class schedules, and that was Woody's monitoring group. And therefore that was really the big impression made upon me that I would go to college, yes to play athletics, but I would go to college to get a degree, and I wouldn't be given a degree, but I would work and I would have every opportunity to graduate, and I did.
How did your relationship with Woody Hayes develop? How would you characterize the change from freshman to senior year?
There are probably a variety of stages. First is our freshman year, we had very little contact with the varsity and the varsity coaches per se because they were busy getting the varsity ready to play. And my freshman year, at close to the end of the season, they were booing Coach Hayes, and they were ready to fire Coach Hayes at Ohio State and get rid of him because he had not had successful seasons back to back, and he started out not having a successful season in 1967. And so, people were booing Woody, and they were singing, "Goodbye Woody, Goodbye." And so, it sounded like Woody wasn't going to be our coach when we were sophomores. But, low and behold Woody was able to squeak out an extra year. And so, by the time spring practice rolled around, my relationship with Coach Hayes really developed. I became more intimately involved with Coach Hayes where we would have more meetings together. We would understand one another's thinking, philosophy, what he wanted to get accomplished on the football field, and how could I best do that, as a quarterback. And so, from my sophomore year on, it really became more of a growth, an academic approach to the game, as well as an emotional one…How do we get our team ready to play? How do you do this? But it was interesting because in my sophomore year I had more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage, and I even had more freedom in my junior year. But we had a very bad outing our last game of my junior year with that school up north, and we were knocked out of our second national championship. Our only first loss in two years at Ohio State. And Coach Hayes then became very restrictive. He put in basically a whole new offense our senior year. We went away from passing the football on first downs. I was restricted in my play calling and checking off at the line of scrimmage my senior year. I think that really in my mind it was illogical because you would think as a sophomore you need more help, you're not as smart as a sophomore as you would be a senior. And it was interesting. I was fortunate to play in several all-star games after my senior year and Alex Agassi, the head coach at Northwestern at that time, said to myself and Jim Stillwagon and John Brockington, he said, "you know, you guys had us opponents so scared, but the equalizing factor was Coach Hayes because we knew that when you lost to that when you lost to that school up north Woody would regress and pull his offense in." He said, "you guys had Cadillac material but you were running a Model T offense."
What did you think of the criticism of Woody Hayes' coaching at the time?
Well the criticism of Coach Hayes offensive philosophy always was and always will be branded as "three yards and a cloud of dust." And I think that's justifiable because that's what Woody believed in. He believed that if he had bigger, stronger, better tackles, bigger, stronger fullbacks, he's gonna win the majority of football games in the Big Ten conference, and he's gonna beat that team up north. And that, at that point in time was how you were judged as a football coach at the Ohio State University. Really the number one thing was is how do you fair against that team up north? And that's how we used to hire and fire coaches at the Ohio State University. And I think that's valid criticism of Coach Hayes, but you cannot argue his results. Ah, he was very successful in running "three yards and a cloud of dust." As a quarterback, I think we did a lot of that my three years at Ohio State. But we had a greater variety. Woody expanded his knowledge at that time and he became more open to different formations. Coach Hayes hired my quarterback coach George Chaump from Harrisburg High School out of Pennsylvania. Coach Chaump came in with the "I formation" and ah the "rippin' liz formation" that we had that won us twenty seven games and only lost two in three years. And to Woody's credit, he did succumb, finally, that "hey you know, maybe I ought to listen to this offense." And sure enough the first year we win the national championship, second year we lose one game, and the third year we go undefeated again in the Big Ten and undefeated in our regular season. And so that's a pretty good offense. So I think historically, if you look at Woody the criticism is justified because prior to 1960, he was basically a "three yard and a cloud of dust." His quarterbacks, I believe prior to my year, they were like a running back. And so, Woody wanted to have four runners in the back field and "three yards and a cloud of dust" were fine for him because he felt he could get three yards, maybe four yards, and he's got a first down and you keep moving the change and that makes you successful. But would I say Woody was a great football genius? No, Woody was not a great football genius. Woody was not great with the x and o's of innovation. But Woody was a great strategist. And he was a great planner. He was a great preparations person and repetition. And all of those elements put together made Woody a great football coach.
Describe the sights and sounds of when you walked into the OSU football stadium for a game.
How do you feel on game day at Ohio State University? Just saying that gives me chills. We had a police escort on motorcycle cops. And they would turn on the sirens. And boy they would take us down to the stadium. And gosh, I remember I'm sitting in the front row opposite Coach Hayes and this is my first game at Ohio Stadium, and my eyes are so big. I'm just watching all of this unfold in front of me, and we're going down the streets and you know people are waving and yelling, "hey Coach," you know, "Go Bucks!" And everybody's got scarlet and gray on and you're thinking, "wow this is really a big production." And we went through our exercises and pre-game, and then coach Hayes gave his pre-game speech, and you know he's got everybody hanging on each word that he says. And then it's time to go play. And boy, you come out from under the tunnel and then you've got seventy six thousand people roaring, and standing, and yelling oh, "go Ohio!" and "go Bucks!" And boy it almost brings tears to your eyes. As a player you think, "boy this is, this is really big time." And that was the beginning of a wonderful three years at Ohio Stadium, and we never lost in Ohio Stadium. Our class of '71, or football class of 1970 never lost in Ohio Stadium. So I don't know what it's like to lose in Ohio Stadium as a football player. And I would never want to have that feeling because our fans in Columbus are just terrific on game day. But we have fans throughout the world. And you'll find Buckeyes everywhere. But that's kind of the chilling experience from my eyes as a sophomore quarterback to begin the game. And you know, once you tee a football up and it gets kicked and all of a sudden your into the game, then I think as an athlete, all the Buckeye battle cry, the Buckeye marching band, the cheerleaders, the fans, all that information that is being processed is almost like looking into the camera and you can focus in on me and maybe on my face, but all around me your depth of field is distorted. And so you kind of lose part of that, but you still feel it. But my focus is what lineup are the defensive backs in? Are they in a man to man? Are they in zone coverage? Do we have a linebacker blitz coming possibly? And so the focus really becomes on that field in between the sidelines and in between the goal lines. But that peripheral excitement is still there but you don't notice it that much. If you do notice it that much then I don't think you're doing your job as a football player, because that subtracts from your concentration and your focus where you should be.
Describe Woody Hayes' pre-game talks.
Woody's pre-game talks were legendary. But they were scary at times. Coach Hayes always dwelt on military tactics and was probably always at his best pre-game, halftime, and his motivation to get players ready to play, prepared to play, were beyond compare. Once we completed our pre-game warm-ups, we would come back into the locker room and in Ohio Stadium we had this little old locker room downstairs that we would all go in, and each player, each position had a specific place where they sat. at. The chalkboard and Coach Hayes would be front and center if you were walking in the room, and the quarterbacks would be off on the left. The offensive linemen were in the front row, and with the offensive centers and guards, and so on and so on. And Woody would have each player sit there, and there would kind of be silence in the room for a little while. And then occasionally Coach Hayes would come from around the side of the blackboard and down little, really a small corridor, but still within the locker room, and we, as underclassmen were always prepared our sophomore year, "hey, when Woody comes into the room, you don't say a word Everybody shuts up, and you listen to Coach Hayes." Well, Woody would come in with some kind of a little story, strategically, to get us fired up and ready to play. But the main theme that Coach Hayes would always talk about is, "We always play hard. We play fair. We've worked hard. We'll out hit our opponents, and we'll never ever ever give up. He said, "the team that quits first, will be the team that'll lose, and by god that's not gonna be us, " he would say, and he would go on and he would emphasize that. Woody and Bo always thought that there was maybe ah espionage going on in the locker room and here we are in our own stadium and Woody's whispering, "Ok, our first play…" And he looks around the room, and he's looking for hidden microphones, okay!. He thinks that maybe the opponents have slid in a microphone. "…is gonna be, " and then he'd whisper. Or he would turn to the blackboard, and he'd write the play on the blackboard, and then he'd erase it real quick and get it real clean, so that nobody could see what the play was gonna be or that they would ever know. It became more emphasized when we would play at a visiting team like that school up north or Minnesota, Wisconsin, some place like that. Woody was more careful because he thought, "those opposing coaches, they're looking in my locker room and they know exactly what I'm saying. So you would kind of get a little bit of humor, but then you would obviously get caught up in it and you'd think, "oh yeah, shhh, we gotta be quiet and listen," because we want to make sure we know what the play is. But that would be kind of the atmosphere or the attitude of the locker room. It was very serene. It was very quiet. It was very attentive. But Woody would get all fired up and if he didn't think you were paying attention, he'd whack you on the shoulder pads and make sure that you were paying attention, and you know, "this is serious stuff, you know, this is what we've practiced for, this is what we've worked for," And there was always very strong meaning in, "we've got to do our best and never ever ever give up." And he said, "there are gonna be times out there that things won't go well for you." And he said, "don't quit. Don't quit. Do not quit." And then he may launch off and say, "you know, in life, you don't quit, you don't ever ever quit." He said, "the great thing that football does for us is it teaches you that when you get knocked down, you get up quick. You can't lie down. You've gotta get up and get back into the game. If you don't, you're not any use to your football team, and if you don't get up in life, you're not any use to your civilization and to your community." And so, Woody would bring those things about.
What do you remember about Woody Hayes' work habits?
Coach Hayes had some of the greatest work habits-- the greatest standards and ethics for work that I had ever been around. Coach Hayes always believed never ever ever give up, never quit. And Ohio State was a graveyard of coaches for a period of time before Woody got there. And so, Woody decided that, "hey, I'm gonna get up thirty minutes earlier, and there won't be anybody that will outwork me. Now they might be smarter than I am. They may have greater football knowledge, but no one, no one will outwork me." And that was probably a motto of Woody's that we saw. There was not a person that worked harder than Woody did, that had a passion for work to do the very best for his players, and for his university, and for his community. Coach Hayes would always set his watch ten minutes fast, and my watch today still runs ten minutes fast. And my staff in the business world knows that we start meetings on my time, which is Woody's time. And Woody would always do that so that he would make certain he was there on time. He would always work hard and relentless. He was a perfectionist. He believed in repetition. He believed in his coaching philosophy that in the heat of battle, whether it's military or whether it's a business setting, in the heat of battle you react, you respond to what you have been taught. And so, good gosh, we would run plays over and over and over again, until we got it right. And I will never forget, early on when I was varsity player, Woody said to us, on the offense, he said, "guys, we will run this play until we get it right, and you know what, we got lights on this football field, and those lights will burn out before I'll lose a football game because we made a mistake, and we didn't prepare you well enough on this practice field." And he would look at our offensive line splits and there were many times he would go up to the offensive line and kick a offensive guard or tackle in the hind end, with his foot, and he would say, "look, your split is supposed to be eighteen inches, from this guys foot. And Woody would mark it off, and if it wasn't eighteen inches or more, that guy got another kick. And then the assistant coach caught holy heck for that because we had to be that precise. Woody epitomized the word repetition, and he believed in it, and he felt in the heat of battle that if you've done it enough times, you're gonna automatically do it under pressure. And so, that was probably one of Woody's great trademarks, but then again it could be a great liability because we may have spent too much time on that. But I wouldn't say that was a liability because we were successful, when I was there at Ohio State, and that worked, and Woody worked extremely hard. There was no one that worked harder than Woody.
How did Woody Hayes feel about education and the role of the university?
How important was learning or education to Coach Hayes? If we put it on a scale of one to ten, I'd say it'd be a ten plus plus. Woody believed and lived for education. Woody first and foremost was a teacher. He was a wonderful mentor, a great teacher, and his laboratory just happened to be the football field, and that's what he looked at. And his laboratory exposed his weaknesses every week. It exposed his strengths. And he was willing to do that. He was willing to live with the consequences of that and that's why he worked so hard in practice or the classroom in preparing us to be the very best we could. And it was his responsibility to teach his assistant coaches and all the players under him to understand the game of football. But Woody expanded that into education. Woody felt that unfortunately everybody that played for him should be an attorney or should go to law school. And that was what Woody always believed in. And not every football player that played for Coach Hayes went to law school, but Coach Hayes had a tremendous record of graduation record. He ended up coaching twenty-eight years at the Ohio State University. And I did a longitudinal study on all the varsity football players who had played for Coach Hayes. And I think this is extremely important and it answers the question, "How important was education to Coach Hayes?" Woody believed that we should all graduate from the Ohio State a University, regardless of whether we were a first team player or whether we were on a scout team, it didn't matter. The common thread in the theme was, you'll get a degree from the Ohio State University if I have to make you go to class myself. And believe you me, he had to, he made a couple kids go to class, a couple football players. And Coach Hayes for his first twenty five years at the Ohio State University, I, discovered that he had a graduation rate of eighty six point seven percent That means almost eighty seven players out of a hundred graduated. To me I thought that was incredible. And when I found that number out, I went over to practice. And I was so excited about that number because college coaches at that time were under criticism for not graduating their athletes. And I thought, "No, we do a good job at Ohio State University. We do a darn good job of graduating our players." So I shared it with Coach Hayes and in Coach Hayes fashion, he shook his head, and he grabbed his glasses, and he said, "Rex, I'll be damned. I thought it was better than that. He said, "you know, starting tomorrow, we're gonna see if we can't get that up to ninety percent." And to me that was Woody, that personified Woody as a person that loved education, one who believed in it, and he worked hard at it.
Describe the side of Woody Hayes that the public did not see.
Woody was more than a football coach. He was a teacher. He was an educator. He was a friend. And no matter what you've heard about him or you've rated him because of one or two in incidences, I can probably never change your opinions. But Coach Hayes had more to him than just football. He taught us to be good people. He taught us to give back. He taught us to pay forward. He would always say, "You can never pay back those who have helped you, but you can always pay forward." And Woody was always doing that. At the conclusion of practice, after our evening meal, Woody would call a player over, he'd say, "Rex, do you have any tests tomorrow?" I'd say, "No, not tomorrow, coach." He'd say, "Good, come on, I want you to go with me." And we'd go to Children's Hospital, and we'd visit the kids in the burn ward. We visit people who were ill. We'd go to University Hospital. And Woody would never let that out. In fact, he grabbed one reporter by the throat and told him, "if you ever tell the people what I'm doing, I'll kill you." And he got that reporter's attention! And the reporter never did report it. But that was Coach Hayes. He didn't want that part publicized. And he gave of himself. He gave so much that there was never a question in my mind the passion that Coach Hayes had for his players, and the passion that he had for the love of Ohio State University.