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Rudy Hubbard reflects on his time at Ohio State and the issue of race

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Former Florida A&M coach Rudy Hubbard. (credit: Florida A&M University)

For a long time, Rudy Hubbard was conflicted about his nine years at Ohio State, particularly about his relationship with Woody Hayes.

Hubbard was a Buckeye running back from 1965-67 and then became Hayes’ first Black assistant coach the next year and served for six years before taking the head coaching job at Florida A&M and leading the Rattlers to a Division I-AA national championship.

Even now, at 74, Hubbard takes great pride in being a Buckeye.

“I still watch everything they do,” he said.

But Hubbard didn’t always regard those Ohio State years with complete fondness, believing that racism was at the root of much of it. Only with time did that change.

Hubbard grew up near Youngstown, where then as now, Ohio State was the place to go for star prospects in the state. OSU treated him well during his recruitment, but an older family friend advised him not to sign with the Buckeyes.

“He was a guy who followed sports more than anybody in our neighborhood,” Hubbard said. “And he felt like it was a big mistake for me to go to Ohio State. He used to say that all the time before I made the decision, and it was all based on race.”

Hubbard didn’t have the playing career he wanted at Ohio State. He was mostly a reserve, though he finished with a bang. Hubbard ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns in a 1967 upset of Michigan, a victory that some in the program believed have saved Hayes’ job.

Hubbard’s high school invited Hayes to its postseason banquet and made the mistake of allowing Hubbard to speak. In addition to frustration about his own career, Hubbard knew that his best friend on the team and one of its few Blacks, All-American lineman Ray Pryor, believed Hayes had discouraged NFL teams from drafting Pryor the year before.

“That didn't go well because I was angry and said some things I probably shouldn't have right there in public at the banquet,” Hubbard said. “I was thinking, ‘I won't have to see Woody again. I'm gonna let it rip.’”

Hubbard already knew that Hayes was not someone to apologize. The coach hadn’t done so when he took a swing (and missed) at Hubbard as a sophomore after losing his temper at practice, something Hayes sometimes did to anyone nearby when enraged.

Hubbard found out soon enough that Hayes also didn’t hold a grudge. Two weeks later, he offered him a job as running backs coach, the first Black assistant coach in Hayes’ 17-year tenure to that point.

“I was blown away,” he said.

Hubbard’s coaching debut came at a pivotal time for Ohio State. Freshmen were ineligible then, but it was no secret that the 1967 recruiting class was special and those “Super Sophs” would lead the Buckeyes to the 1968 national title.

But it wasn’t without some internal controversy. One of those sophomores, fullback John Brockington, had already shown his rare talent in practice. The incumbent, Jim Otis, was also a great player but not as gifted.

The coaching staff voted on who should start. The assistants picked Brockington, who was Black. Hayes overruled them and picked Otis, who was white. Hubbard believed then that race played a role in Hayes’ decision.

It wasn’t the only issue in which Hubbard wondered about Hayes back then regarding race. Hayes was conservative politically and supported Richard Nixon. Nixon would be elected president that year after using the so-called “Southern Strategy” designed to appeal to whites opposed to the Civil Rights Movement.

“What his politics were wouldn't have been a big deal had it not been for the other stuff with John Brockington and Jim Otis,” Hubbard said, “I mean, there was a lot of stuff going on at the same time. You couldn’t separate it.”

Hubbard took issue when Hayes once complimented Hubbard’s penmanship, which Hubbard interpreted as surprise that a Black man had flawless handwriting. Then there was the issue of Hubbard’s paltry salary. Even at the end of his time at Ohio State, Hubbard made only $18,000. He believed that the white assistants had to be making more than that.

But Hubbard now believes that much of what he thought about Hayes was wrong. Take the Otis-Brockington matter. He later learned that Otis’ father was Hayes’ college roommate. If Hayes favored Otis, Hubbard said, it was because of that, not racism.

As for being underpaid, well, he wasn’t alone. Hayes regularly turned down raises for himself, and Hubbard found out many years later that he made more than some of the assistant coaches. They were so embarrassed by their meager salaries that it was a topic they didn’t discuss amongst themselves.

Hubbard also noted that when members of the Black community he’d befriended in town wanted to have closer ties to the program, Hayes was fully supportive.

Hubbard also appreciated Hayes’ response after a bad recruiting experience in southern Ohio, which was his recruiting area at the time. Hubbard finished with his day’s work around dusk and decided to get a room at a hotel in town. But every place said it had no vacancies, even though Hubbard noticed there weren’t many cars in the parking lot. Hubbard drove around until he saw a Black man, who confirmed Hubbard’s suspicions.

When Hubbard told Hayes about it, the coach declared, “Well, we just won’t recruit down there.”

Hayes shifted Hubbard’s recruiting territory to include Columbus and Washington, D.C. Two of his signees were an undersized running back from Eastmoor named Archie Griffin, who became a two-time Heisman Trophy winner, and Cornelius Green from Washington, who would become Ohio State’s first Black quarterback.

Asked to sum up his feelings about Hayes on the issue of race, Hubbard said he has come almost full circle.

“I think that he stood on the good side,” he said. “I would have to say that now. And I think I've done a good enough job of letting you know that most of my time, I didn't think that. But now knowing that just about every issue that I may have had, I've resolved it had nothing to do with race – the money issue, the Brockington-Otis issue.”

Hubbard said he never heard Hayes use a racist slur and believed him to be open-minded.

“I think whenever there was something that I felt I could help him to understand better, if he understood it and didn't just totally disagree with it, I think he'd make a change,” Hubbard said.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch