My dad made his final commitment to the University of Michigan and Bo Schembechler while staring into the angry eyes of famed Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. During Dad’s recruitment, he and Woody bonded while spending hours together dissecting battles from the Civil War as if they were defenses from a future opponent in the Big Ten. Now that Dad had made his decision to attend Michigan, Woody sat in the living room of my grandma and grandpa’s house demanding to know why. That day, Dad told Coach Hayes that he thought Michigan “was a better fit” for him and the two men never spoke again, their relationship another casualty of being on opposite sides of the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State.
Except things weren’t that simple. And, as my dad learned a decade later, Woody Hayes was too good a man with too much character for the story to end there.
The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State is one of the most fierce in sports. However, as the following story from Jim Brandstatter’s Tales From Michigan Stadium shows, the respect between the competitors on each side is what allows it to persist as the greatest rivalry in sports.
The relationship between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes is well-documented. After Michigan upset Ohio State in 1969 in Bo’s first year as the Wolverine coach, the media seemed to focus on their relationship. Part of the reason was because Coach Hayes was such a huge figure in collegiate football. When one of his former assistants beat one of Woody’s greatest teams in a huge upset, their relationship took on a life of its own. As a matter of fact, Woody once told Bo about that ’69 game, “You’ll never win a bigger game.”
It began the Woody Vs. Bo era. For ten years they met every November, leading their teams into a game that, in most cases, decided the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth. While the following story doesn’t happen in Michigan Stadium, it is still a very good tale about a coach who was the archenemy to the Wolverines for many years.
The competition between Bo and Woody wasn’t just on the field. After the 1969 game, it moved to the homes of high school prospects in recruiting. Bo had great success in recruiting the state of Ohio, and Woody didn’t like that too much.
Schembechler tells the story that Woody used to follow him wherever he went on the recruiting trail. “I would go in to talk to an Ohio prospect,” Bo says, “and when I was about to leave, I would tell the young man, ‘Now listen, tomorrow, Coach Hayes will be here, and he’ll want to talk to you about Ohio State.’ The prospect would tell me that Woody wasn’t scheduled in to see him. He would say, ‘Coach Hayes was in about a week ago, he’s not coming tomorrow.’ I would say, ‘Trust me, Coach Hayes will be here tomorrow.'”
Sure enough, Bo remembers, “Woody would come marching in to this kids high school the next day. It was like he had spies around or something,” Bo laughs.
Such is the case with Rob Lytle.
Lytle was a great young running back out of Fremont, Ohio. He was being recruited by all the major football powers from USC to Notre Dame. Bo had worked on Lytle very hard, though, and had gotten him to commit to Michigan. Lytle thought that was the end of the recruiting battle, but Coach Hayes wasn’t done yet.
“Just before the signing date,” Lytle recalls, “Coach Hayes drove up to Fremont because he said he wanted one more shot at me. He made me look him in the face and tell him I was going to Michigan. When I told him, he said, ‘WHY?’ With all my courage, I looked him in the eye and said I was going to Michigan because I thought it was a better fit for me.”
Lytle says Woody was not happy.
“Coach Hayes growled at me and got up and left. He never shook my hand. He said, among other things, ‘OK, we’ll get along fine without you.'”
Lytle says Woody never spoke to him again. It doesn’t sound like a very pleasant story, but it isn’t over. The finish will surprise you. It gives an insight into Coach Hayes’s character that isn’t often revealed.
Lytle went on to a brilliant All-American career at Michigan. He was drafted in the early rounds of the NFL draft by the Denver Broncos. He had a solid career with Denver and the recruiting battle with Coach Hayes was long forgotten.
But Woody kept tabs on Lytle all through his NFL career.
A teammate of Lytle’s in Denver was Randy Gradishar. He had been a great linebacker at Ohio State, and Coach Hayes kept in touch with Gradishar by sending him notes through the mail.
“Gradishar would come to me during the season, and pass along these notes from Woody,” Lytle says. “Gradishar would tell me, ‘It’s from Woody, and it’s for you!’ I mean, I was amazed!” Lytle exclaims.
According to Rob, the notes were very pleasant. They were encouraging. Coach Hayes would write Lytle to keep up the good work, and things like that. It was quite a turnaround from the last time they had seen each other, but Lytle says they still never talked, that he just got the notes.
Near the end of Lytle’s playing career in the NFL, Woody surprised him one more time.
“It was my fifth year, I think,” Lytle remembers, “and I’ve had about six surgeries on my knees and shoulders and I’m about done. The year before, I had been way down on the depth chart. Red Miller was the coach, and he told me they would spot me on playing time. If another running back went down, I’d get some playing time, but it didn’t look good,” recalls Lytle.
“About six games into the season, three running backs go down, bang, bang, bang. Well, I got in and had a great year. I got to play my natural position, and after the season, the coaches apologized for using me improperly. They tell me I’m in their plans to be more of a featured back. I should get ready for that role in the off season.”
Lytle says he felt as if his career had been renewed. Then the Broncos got sold. The entire coaching staff got fired while Lytle was on vacation. “Dan Reeves was hired as the coach,” remembers Lytle. “I know he’s going to clean house. They had traded for a young running back out of Kansas City, which wasn’t a good sign for me. So I figure I’m done, again.”
Still, Lytle is on the team, so he headed to training camp, and he was pitted against all the new young backs. “I had to prove my speed,” Lytle recalls. “I had to prove that I was healthy, and I did, but I still wasn’t sure I was going to make the team.”
“Well, I made the last cut,” Lytle says with relief, “and we are in a meeting before our first practice before the first regular-season game. Reeves is late for the meeting. We are all waiting for him, but he’s really late. So another coach comes in and starts the meeting without Reeves. Finally, Reeves comes in about the time we are finishing up, and he calls my name out to see him.”
“I figure I’ve either been traded, or they are releasing me because they’ve picked up somebody else,” Lytle recalls. “So I go up there, hand my playbook to Reeves, and I go on the offensive. I say, ‘At least you could have told me beforehand, before I got taped and dressed and all this crap.’ Reeves looks at me and says, ‘What the hell are you talking about?'”
“I’m sure I’m getting released or traded or something,” Lytle recalls saying. “Oh, hell no, you made the team before training camp started,” Lytle remembers his coach saying in surprise. Then Reeves asked Lytle a question that seemed odd. “Didn’t you play for Michigan?”
Lytle says he told Reeves that he had. According to Lytle, Reeves then got a curious look on his face and said, “The reason I was late for the meeting is that Woody Hayes called me and wouldn’t let me get off the phone.”
Rob says he was shocked.
“Woody has been on my ••• for forty minutes,” Lytle remembers Reeves saying. “I finally had to tell him I had players waiting for me and I was late for a meeting.”
Lytle then asked Reeves what in the world Coach Hayes had called about, “You’ve got one of the biggest fans a guy could ever ask for,” Reeves related to Lytle. “Coach Hayes called to tell me that the previous coach at Denver had made a huge mistake. Woody said they didn’t play you properly.”
Lytle says Reeves couldn’t get Woody off the phone! “He told Reeves I could do this, I could do that. I mean he built me up like I was the second coming of Christ,” Lytle recalls with a chuckle.
Reeves finally said, “Coach Hayes told me I’d be nuts if I didn’t play you regularly,” according to Lytle.
Lytle says the whole episode took him by complete surprise. Rob finally asked Reeves if Woody’s call had helped, “I told Woody that you’d already made the team, and Woody said, ‘Good, then you’ve made the right decision!'” Lytle remembers that Reeves was smiling as he finished the story.
Think about that. A full ten years after Lytle and Hayes had last spoken, Woody was trying to use his influence to keep Rob’s football career alive. For Lytle, it was an unbelievable gesture. After all, Rob had turned Woody down at Ohio State and gone to Michigan, Woody’s archenemy. Yet Coach Hayes had kept an eye on his career the entire time. He had been in Lytle’s corner all the way.
Say what you will about Woody Hayes, but he was a complex guy with some wonderful qualities. Many young men benefited greatly from their relationships with him, including a Michigan Wolverine named Rob Lytle, “He was very complimentary to me. I thought the world of him. I liked Woody.”
Source: Tales From Michigan Stadium
Author: Jim Brandstatter