Leadership Rivalries – Woody Hayes and the “State Up North”

Back by popular demand! Many of my personal friends from Michigan, Ohio, and West Point have asked me to tell them my “Woody Hayes Story”… So, here it is….

Of course, with the Colonel, there is never just one or a simple story…so we will get to Mr. Wayne Woodrow Hayes and why he spent 3 and 1/2 hours mentoring me, a then new West Point graduate from THE Great State of Michigan. (For those of you who wonder why I wrote THE in all caps, blame it on all Ohioans from Ohio State, they make an obnoxious point of saying that theirs is THE Ohio State University, a claim that prior to a legal judgement in a battle between OSU and Ohio University was a real issue. OSU won the legal fight and they forever rub it in!)….Do I go running around bragging that I am THE Colonel Sanders? No, I let Harlan take all of the credit and even keep the name. There is room for both (all) of us. Just sayin’ !

Back to the story before the main story……I first initiated contact with Woody Hayes, not out of any admiration for the man, but as a challenge to test a theory that he really wouldn’t live up to his reputation of loving the military and always returning every letter sent to him. I didn’t like Woody Hayes at all in the early Spring of 1976, his teams (and it is even worse these days) handled Michigan in many of the UofM/OSU battles, usually by a field goal by their Swedish soccer style kicker when Michigan’s Vietnam vet field goal kicker would fail. It wasn’t fair I tell you, I HATED Woody Hayes, but still respected him (a little) in the early Spring of 1976.

I was a “firstie” (a senior) West Point Cadet in the Winter/Spring of 1976. I had been highly rated by my peers and was destined to be a “striper dog” (cadet captain in the internal cadet chain of command). Unfortunately (or I feel fortunately looking back), I didn’t necessarily follow all of the rules as a cadet. Back then cadets were not allowed to drink alcohol on the military post, even though the legal drinking age was 18. Lucky me, of the 4 times in 4 years that I broke the alcoholic prohibition, I got caught twice and became a “Century Man” by walking over 100 punishment hours on the “area”. It was a senseless punishment, but it effectively took time away from thoses cadets like me who needed to be punished. It took away our “bag time”, free time where we could sleep (a very scarce commodity for all cadets).

So, in February 1976, after having served my 5th punishment hour for that weekend, I returned to my room after freezing my…..”toes” off in the cold New York cement-pavement-area-walking-winter. After the punishment tours were done for the weekend, I had to stay in my room 24 hours a day (with the exception of visiting the mess hall, latrine, and did I say the bathroom?) Oh yes, and the barber shop was on limits too. I remember going there twice in one day to get two haircuts within hours of each other of sheer boredom. I digress…

On “room confinement”, there was little to do but sleep, read, write, and spit shine shoes. So, after thawing out, sleeping and shining shoes, I broke down and started reading books that my roommate, an Ohio resident, had sitting on his bookshelf. There were a couple about Ohio State and, of course, Woody Hayes. With nothing better to do, I read about Woody Hayes. I was impressed, but really interested in the fact that each source said that he loved the military and military history, and, even more impressive was that these books stated that he “personally responds to every letter ever sent to him”. Hmm, that seemed like a temptation that I couldn’t resist! So, I wrote Mr. Wayne Woodrow Hayes a short letter …

TO: Mr. Wayne Woodrow Hayes, Head Football Coach, Ohio State State University, Colombus, Ohio

Dear Mr. Hayes,

My name is Joe Sanders. I am a West Point cadet and will be graduating this June 2. I live in Michigan, will have two months of leave between June 2 and August and will be spending my leave time less than a 4 hour drive from Colombus. I’ll admit I haven’t exactly been an Ohio State fan, but as a person from Michigan, I have great respect for you and would be honored to have the opportunity to meet you personally this summer.

Thank you in advance and continued wishes for good health.


Joseph R. Sanders, USMA Cadet

My real thought was that I would not get a return from Mr. Hayes. After all I was from Michigan, and he reportedly wouldn’t even say the word “Michigan”…It was the “State up North!”

To my surprise, less than ten days later I received an envelope in the mail from the office of Ohio State Football.

I quickly opened it and, sure eneough, I received a letter inviting me to call him (ok, his secretary) and make an appointment to meet! I was thrilled. I made an appointment for Tuesday, June 6, 1976 at one of his offices on the campus, on the second floor of Ohio States’ basketball arena, St. Johns arena.

Fast forward till June 2, 1976…….I graduate from West Point, attend two local classmate weddings and then head to Colombus (for a third classmate wedding in four days!) .

THE day at THE Ohio State University – June 8, 1976

I made sure I was early, arriving at Mr. Haye’s office about 10:30am for our 11:00am appoinmtment. His secretary greeted me….I was dressed to the nines..well shaven and wearing my best three piece polyester suit with open neck shirt (ala John Travolta). At 11:00am sharp Mr. Hayes came down the hall and called out “Cadet Sanders!, Welcome!”… I replied “Thank you sir!” ( I was actually a second lieutenant, but didn’t feel offended by THE MAN calling me cadet). My first impression was that he was shorter than me…he always looked so big on TV!

He invited me into his office and I sat in front of his desk. Surprisingly to me, his office was quite small and very messy. The first thing he said to me was “So, how do you like my office?” I wasn’t sure what to say about this rat hole, but I remembered my “social honor” (see my previous blog post) training and said, “It is very nice sir”….He responded, ” If you like this one, you’ll love my other office, it is half this size!” I saw a slight glimmer of a smile coming from behind his legendary Woody Hayes glasses, which gave me permission to laugh after realizing that he was busting my chops right out of the box!

He then asked me why I wanted to meet him. I told him that I had read a couple of books about Ohio State and that I appreciated the fact that he was a successful leader and that he loved military history. ( I decided not to share with him that I would never have read those books hadn’t I been forced to stay in my room as a “bad cadet” LOL!). He responded by asking me if I had any questions for him. I thought this was my best shot at putting to rest the “never-say-Michigan” rumor. I thanked him for inviting me to ask questions, and then I popped the big one. I said, ” Mr. Hayes, I’ve been folllowing the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry for a long time and all I hear and read is that you never say the actual word “MICHIGAN”. Is that true?” His response deserves its own paragraph…

He laughed out loud and responded, “That is not true! As a matter of fact, I even voted for a man from your state!” He was referring to President Gerald Ford, a Michigan graduate and former UofM football player. The point is, he still did not utter the word MICHIGAN! I laughed, saw that glimmer in his eye, and said, “Thank you Mr. Hayes for clearing that up for me!”

Twelve o’clock noon came fast and I figured my allotted time was up. To my surprise, Woody then asked me if I had lunch plans. I had none and so stated. He added, “Great, let me treat you to lunch at the faculty lounge, I’ve rounded up a couple of military history buffs and we can have lunch together”. I graciously accepted and we soon were heading out to take a little campus walk.

As we began walking across the campus, I was astounded by the number of students who greeted him. Everywhere we walked students said ” Good afternoon, or hello Mr. Hayes!” I remember stopping when we are about to pass three college girls that were studying for a test on the steps of their dorm. They greeted Mr. Hayes and he asked them what topic they were studying. They replied “We have a history test in an hour”. His eyes lit up! He asked, “What period of history?” I don’t remember their response, but I do remember Mr. Hayes giving them pointers on what was important to know about the history of that era!

I also remember watching people eyeballing me, this 5′ 9″ 187lb, short haired (relatively) person walking with Woody Hayes. I kept thinking that they must be thinking I was a football recruit. They must have thought that i was REAL fast because I surely wasn’t big LOL!

Fast forward again…the lunch was great and the walk back similar to the walk there, admiring fans greeting “Mr. Hayes”

I had purchased a picture of Mr. Hayes which he gladly signed with the inscription “To Lieutenant Joseph Sanders, I am sure you will serve your country in an outstanding manner, Your Friend, Woody Hayes, June 8, 1976”

He was so right, he was a friend. Our visit ended with a very prophetic comment by Mr. Hayes that guided my actions the rest of my army and civilian career. As I prepared to say farewell, at 2:30pm (3 and a half hours after we had begun), Mr Hayes said, “Joe, you are going to serve in an army that is going to become much more technology based. But remember, you don’t win with technology, you win with people. Take care of your people.”

So, that was my visit to the non-Michigan saying great friend and Ohio State football coach, Mr. Wayne Woodrow Hayes. That day ws a big one for me. I still cheer for Michigan State and Michigan when they play Ohio State, but when I hear of bad events that occasionally occur at Ohio State (just like every school), I remember the generousity I reveived on June 6, 1976 and I thank God for getting caught drinking as a not so stellar West Point Cadet.

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