The only other thing Woody Hayes demands of his players, besides condition and character, is perfection. So far it has eluded him, though opposing coaches agree that his boys sometimes perform the fundamentals of the game so well that it frightens them. "No one comes close to him in coaching blocking and tackling," says Minnesota's Murray Warmath. "You always know what his teams are going to do," says Jerry Burns, "so you set your defense to stop them. But they do what they do well enough and often enough to beat you. They know how to block, and carry out assignments."
Actually, Hayes has a theory that the only team that can beat Ohio State is Ohio State. "Eliminate the mistakes in football," he says, "and you'll never lose a game." As a result, an Ohio State practice session looks like a day in the salt mines. "We're not out here to laugh," Woody says.
An official, in uniform, stands over every play, whistle in mouth, red handkerchief in hand. When he spots a boy beating the snap count, when he detects holding on a block, when he sees a rule infraction of any kind, he blows and throws. This discourages sloppy practice habits and contributes to the Buckeye record of leading the Big Ten in fewest penalties in most years. Hayes does not approve of fumbles, either. "No back in the history of football was ever worth two fumbles a game," he says. If an Ohio State player fumbles twice in practice he has to run a mile to the Olentangy River dike. If he fumbles in a game, he might just as well jump in.
"To eliminate mistakes you have to pick the right quarterback," says Hayes. "That's why I may keep a superior passer on the bench and play a boy who is less spectacular but steady and sure. The five big mistakes in football are the fumble, the interception, the penalty, the badly called play, the blocked punt—and most of these originate with the quarterback. Find a mistake-proof quarterback and you have this game won."
Hayes does not necessarily consider a pass, in itself, a mistake, as has been charged, but he feels that a football in the air only too often winds up in the wrong hands. "The pass is still primarily a weapon of surprise," he says. "Your first pass play in a game should succeed 75% to 80% of the time. The second attempt should succeed 60%. The third time you run that same pass play, watch out. Interception."
At Iowa in 1958 the Buckeyes beat the Hawkeyes 38-28 in a football game that many people—including Forest Evashevski and Woody Hayes—consider one of the most exciting ever played. Randy Duncan and Iowa threw 33 passes that afternoon, completing 23 of them for 249 yards and a Big Ten record. Ohio State threw exactly two—but gained 397 yards on the ground. "When you get fancy, you get beat," said Hayes, after the game. Evashevski, who had already won the Big Ten championship, just shook his head.
The Ohio State offensive unit may devote 50% of its practice time to the famous off-tackle play, No. 26. "It may be Right 26 or Left 26 or Bingo 26 or Double 26," says Hayes, "but it's still 26. We run it until we get it right. Then, in only 3% more time, we can teach the quarterback keep wide off this same play, and with 5% more time than that, half a dozen pass patterns that begin the same way.
"Actually, we work very little in complete teams. We spend most of the time with the individual or small unit. Today you coach the individual. The greatest improvement in football has been not in the plays themselves but in coaching the plays. And how a boy is taught is far more important than what he is taught. The game of football is one of strategy and tactics. Compared to the strategy of football, tactics on the field amount almost to nothing. A fleabite."
The primary Ohio State tactic is to run a play until the opponents are crushed flat or else get bored and go away. Last fall Hayes sent his All-America fullback, Bob Ferguson, into the TCU line 36 times, which may be a bad example, since TCU tied the Buckeyes 7-7 and Hayes doesn't like to remember that. Usually Ohio State will probe and test the other team until it finds a weakness. "When we are stopped," says Hayes, "we don't go to another play. We change the blocking angles in the line until the play works. Maybe that is why we don't look very spectacular early in the game. But we look pretty spectacular sometimes in the fourth quarter."
"Just when you think that two-three-four yard offense is dull," says Duffy Daugherty, "he burns you with a 50-yard breakaway. Woody is primarily an offensive coach—he believes you should score—but in recent years he has paid more attention to his defense. Now his defense is dull, too, but it works."