Rob Oller: Woody Hayes, Jim Tressel or Urban Meyer? Ranking best Ohio State football coach

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State football coaches, from left: Woody Hayes, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer

The locomotive that is Ohio State football needs an elite engineer who doubles as conductor, keeping the program on schedule and punching the ticket to a national championship.

Keeping the train on track is essential to success, but doing it for four quarters is not enough. In fact, game-day coaching isn’t necessarily even the best indicator of how a career is assessed, which makes picking the best coach in OSU history an exercise that carries an asterisk.

It has to be Woody, right?*

*Yes, but with botch jobs and baggage near the end of his career.

Through the fall, The Dispatch ran its “Anatomy of a Powerhouse” series documenting what made Ohio State football a popular and successful brand. Consider this column an addendum to that series, focusing on the coaches who best built and bolstered the Buckeyes program.

When deciding upon the most successful coach in school history, Wayne Woodrow Hayes gets the majority of support. Woody’s legacy hopscotches across generations, from the 90-year-old who recalls when Hayes arrived at Ohio State in 1951 to the 9-year-old who for Christmas received a black cap with red Block “O.” 

Hayes won three poll championships with the Buckeyes (1954, 1957 and 1968) and achieved a .761 winning percentage (205-61-10) over 28 seasons. He also owned a 16-11-1 record against Michigan.

Hayes helped transform Ohio State into a consistent national title contender, but even more impactful was his pugnacious, larger-than-life personality that catapulted the Buckeyes into the national consciousness.

Rob Oller

Jack Park, longtime chronicler of Ohio State football history, said of Hayes, “ I think Woody Hayes had more impact upon the status of The Ohio State University than any other human being.”

But then the asterisk: Hayes’ legacy is complicated by factors that include punching Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman during the 1978 Gator Bowl, which cost Hayes his job, ripping up sideline markers on national television and losing more national championships than he won. 

I reached out to Dispatch beat reporters Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman and retired Dispatch columnist Bob Hunter to gauge where Hayes ranks among Ohio State coaches. All three put Hayes No. 1, but with some reservation based on typos that mar his game-day coaching resume. 

“For better and sometimes worse, Woody is the face of the Buckeyes program more than any other person,” Rabinowitz said. “As an X's and O's guy, there were plenty better, and the game passed him by late in his career, but he was a great motivator and his players (eventually) learned to adore him.”

Hunter covered Hayes while the Old Man was still coaching.

“It’s a complicated question because it mostly depends upon your primary criteria,” Hunter said of ranking coaches. “Is it winning percentage, longevity or coaching brilliance? Woody’s stubbornness hurts him on the last one — over the years I think he lost some important games because of it. But for a combination of all three it would have to be Woody, in part because of his success over almost 30 years.”

Kaufman, a younger southern Californian who grew up in the shadow of the Rose Bowl, also gives the nod to Hayes.

“He is more than anyone else synonymous with Ohio State football,” Kaufman said. “There’s a statue of him, after all. But I’d give some thought to … making (Jim Tressel) 1a.”

And so the discussion kicks up a notch. As Kaufman points out, Tressel (2001-10) began the current run of success against Michigan (17-2 since 2001), and the 2002 BCS national championship ended the Buckeyes’ 33-year title drought.

Also, had Ohio State missed on its 2001 hiring of John Cooper’s replacement, its modern performance might more closely mirror Michigan, Nebraska and Tennessee, all former powers whose success did not carry into the 21st century.

Then there is Urban Meyer (2012-18), who took Ohio State to another level, especially with recruiting. 

“What a ridiculous (.902) winning percentage,” Rabinowitz said of Meyer. “And he did a masterful job coaching the 2014 championship team.”

Meyer also was 7-0 against Michigan. Still, Rabinowitz ranks Urban third behind Tressel, who enjoyed a longer tenure — 10 seasons to Meyer’s seven — and coached the Buckeyes into three national championship games.

Of course, the Buckeyes lost two of those title games, which counts as a mark against Tressel when considering the question: “Which coach would you choose if Ohio State had to win one game?”

Few would choose Hayes. Park initially chose Paul Brown (1941-43) who in 1942 led Ohio State to its first national championship, but switched to Meyer, who also won two national championship games at Florida. I reminded the historian about the Buckeyes’ 31-0 loss to Clemson in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl and the shocking regular-season losses to Iowa (2017) and Purdue (2018), all coming under Meyer. 

“Those Purdue and Iowa losses are hard to explain,” Park agreed, adding, “I might pick Ryan Day. It’s a short period of time, but I’d give him consideration.”

Day is still relatively green, but his 22-1 record suggests he may be on his way to at least entering the team picture.

For that to happen, Day would need to win two national championships and remain at Ohio State for a minimum of five more seasons. Even then, topping Hayes would be a tall task.

How to take the first step? By breaking the Buckeyes’ 0-4 skid against Clemson on Friday in the Sugar Bowl. We’re about to find out if Day, whose lone loss was to Clemson last season in the College Football Playoff semifinal, can engineer a win in the biggest of games.

roller@dispatch.com

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