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College football titans toss tradition of political sway

02/21/2016, 1:05am EST

OSU, UM leery of inflaming partisan ill will

College football titans toss tradition of political sway

Ohio Gov. James Rhodes and Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes stand with President Nixon in 1970. Mr. Hayes had supported Mr. Nixon in his White House bids. OHIO STATE ARCHIVE

COLUMBUS — Coach for Kasich? Urban Feels the Bern? Meyer for Marco?

Don’t hold your breath. 

As Ohio prepares to play its usual outsized role in selecting the nation’s next president, a muddled field of candidates would no doubt covet an endorsement from one of the state’s most popular figures — Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer. 

There was a time when big-name college coaches were veritable kingmakers, wielding their lionized stature for political influence. 

Woody Hayes. Bear Bryant. Joe Paterno. 

Few held more sway in their states. Richard Nixon credited the support of Mr. Hayes — the venerable former Buckeyes coach — for his upset win in Ohio over John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential election. It remains the only post-World War II presidential race in which the winner did not carry Ohio. 

But those days are long past. In an era of increasingly hostile partisan division — and where college football has grown into a multibillion-dollar business — coaches now treat politics as the third rail. 

They are not touching it, especially at public universities. 

Asked by The Blade if his voice has a place in this campaign season, Mr. Meyer smiled. He looked across the Buckeyes’ team meeting room toward Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and cracked, “Gene thought it would be a good time to tell you my thoughts on the election coming up. Gene, is it OK?”

“No, my job description is very clear and that’s to coach Ohio State football and the focus is on 17 to 18 to 22-year-olds,” Mr. Meyer said. “I have strong beliefs, but I’m not going to share that with you guys. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

In this way, Mr. Meyer is a prototype modern football coach. 

In four years at Ohio State, he is 50-4 with a national championship and a statewide approval rating roughly equal to that of free ice cream. Mr. Meyer, who has registered as a Republican in the past but is unaffiliated in Ohio, has occasionally lent his name to educational issues — he appeared in a television ad backing a 2013 levy for Columbus City Schools — or a former Buckeyes player running for local office.

Reflecting the changing climate, however, Mr. Meyer does not mix his scarlet public life with his red private one. He has never thrown his weight behind a candidate for state or federal office. 

As recently as 2001, former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was among 11 coaches from what are now known as the Power Five conferences who contributed money to candidates for Congress or president at least once during their coaching career, according to campaign finance records. 

Today, there are only two. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz has donated $4,050 to three Iowa Republican congressional candidates since 2006 while Alabama’s Nick Saban gave $2,400 to Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) in 2010. (Mr. Saban is a West Virginia native.)

The rest keep their politics to themselves, lest any booster or corporate partner take offense. 

“Agents advise you, ‘Why would you get in the middle of this?’ ” said Jay Paterno, whose father, Joe, the legendary late Penn State coach, was an active GOP supporter and gave a seconding speech for George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention. “I thought it was important, and my dad thought it was important to try to have a voice and to take a stand. If people thought you could do some good, do some good for the country. 

“But things have changed since 1988 and even 2008 in that, the backlash that people get now is so much stronger. We stir up so much divisiveness when it comes to politics that I understand exactly why people and coaches wouldn’t want to take a stand.”

Another era

A football monarch like Mr. Hayes now seems like a character from another epoch. 

Before America grew more polarized than ever and the echo chamber of 24-7 news channels and social media robbed the last shreds of civility from the political discourse, Mr. Hayes forayed well beyond his football cocoon. 

His famously explosive temper as the Buckeyes’ coach from 1951 to 1978 obscured a complex man. 

An English and history major at Denison University and lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II, Mr. Hayes, a faithful Republican, loved politics. He regularly lunched with professors at the Faculty Club and encouraged his players to appreciate their place in the broader world. Team road trips often turned into U.S. history lessons. 

Greg Lashutka, a Buckeyes tight end in the 1960s who later became the mayor of Columbus, recalled one such trip to Iowa. The day before the game, Mr. Hayes arranged for the team to tour the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum just outside of Iowa City in West Branch. 

“Well, the curator makes a mistake, and after five minutes, Woody cut him off,” Mr. Lashutka said. “For about 40 minutes, he talked about Hoover and Europe and Russia, then looked at the curator and said, ‘Did I make a mistake? No? OK, let’s go guys.’ ”

The coach counted Mr. Nixon among his closest friends, the two first meeting at a reception after a Buckeyes’ win over Iowa in 1957. Mr. Nixon wanted to talk about football. Mr. Hayes wanted to talk about foreign policy.

“You know Woody,” Mr. Nixon said in the eulogy at Mr. Hayes’ funeral in 1987, “we talked about foreign policy.”

Three years after they met, Mr. Nixon, trailing in Ohio during the 1960 presidential race, turned to his friend to record a radio ad on his behalf. Mr. Nixon narrowly lost the election, but he carried Ohio by 273,000 votes, attributing Mr. Hayes’ support to what presidential historian Theodore H. White called the “greatest upset of the election.”

A few days after the election, Mr. Kennedy flew to meet the vice president in Key Biscayne, Fla., as a photo-op show of national unity. 

His first question: “How the hell did you carry Ohio?’”

What could Mr. Nixon say?

If the correlation between Woody’s imprimatur and the rout in Ohio is impossible to measure, it did not hurt. Mr. Hayes enjoyed a standing here nearly on par with Mr. Bryant in Alabama. (The Crimson Tide coach was so popular that he received 1½ delegates at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.) Since 1892, only one other president, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, was elected without winning Ohio — and that win came with a caveat. Republican Thomas Dewey narrowly took Ohio with Ohio Gov. John Bricker as his running mate. 

Mr. Hayes later stumped for Mr. Nixon’s successful White House bids in 1968 and 1972, then, after Mr. Nixon resigned in disgrace amid the Watergate scandal, backed his successor, Gerald Ford in 1976. 

President Ford may have been an All-American football player at Michigan — no small badge of dishonor to Mr. Hayes — but politics transcended the rivalry. 

“As much as he has some reservations about any Michigander, he came out and endorsed me,” Mr. Ford said at a 1976 rally in Findlay. “That was the greatest compliment I could have received.”

Of course, Mr. Hayes could only do so much. Jimmy Carter captured Ohio by 11,116 votes and, narrowly, the presidency. Mr. Hayes later confided that if he could do it again, he would have left the football team for a few weeks that fall to stump for Mr. Ford, according to the 1991 book, Woody Hayes: A Reflection.

Changing times

Over the years, Mr. Hayes nudged many of his players to get involved in politics. He did not always agree with them. A disciplinarian who preferred a clean-shaven military look, he resented the counterculture and anti-war protests of the 1960s and remained fiercely conservative to the end. But he supported them, regardless of their leaning. 

In 1981, he even endorsed — gasp — a Democrat. 

Ben Espy, a 1961 Sandusky High graduate who played four years at Ohio State, was running for a seat on the Columbus City Council, when in the middle of a hard-luck campaign, he got hit by a drunken driver. The accident left him rattled but unharmed. 

Mr. Hayes called to check on his former player, then asked if there was anything he could do to help his campaign. 

“Well, if you can cut a commercial for me, I would be grateful,” Mr. Espy recalled saying. “He said, ‘Come to my office tomorrow morning.’ So I prepared him a script and everything.”

The endorsement read: “I’m supporting Ben Espy because I believe in him. He’s intelligent, he’s proven that in the classroom and in law school and as a lawyer. He’s honorable, which is more important yet. He’s a worker, he’ll get things done, and he’ll stay with it. And that’s why I’m endorsing Ben Espy.”

“He looked at it, he bottled it up, and threw it into the trash can,” Mr. Espy said. “He talked for exactly 37 seconds and took one take.

“I jumped from sixth place to second place in two weeks.”

With the help of Woody the 37-second Democrat, Mr. Espy won the seat, where he would remain for the next 10 years. 

In 1991, Mr. Espy ran for mayor of Columbus against Mr. Lashutka, turning the former teammates into political rivals in a closely contested race. (Mr. Lashutka won with 52 percent of the vote.) Their old coach was gone, but his influence endured. 

“Woody’s wife, Anne, called us both in, and said, ‘I’m not going to have any shenanigans,’ ” Mr. Espy said with a laugh. “She told us, ‘I’m going to give you both the same amount of money. I want a clean contest, and if I hear you talking about each other, I’m going to call you right back in.’ ”

More money at stake

A generation later, it is a different world. 

In Mr. Hayes’ final season in 1977, he earned a salary of $43,000. Today, Mr. Meyer is the state’s highest-paid employee, paid $6.5 million per year to keep Ohio State’s golden goose gushing. The Buckeyes’ athletic department generated $170.9 million in revenue last year, according to federal data. 

The financial stakes are greater than ever, and so are the headaches. 

Even a tweet complimenting President Obama can touch off a culture war, as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discovered last month. Mr. Harbaugh attended the State of the Union address as a guest of Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.), then posted, “@POTUS and @FLOTUS knocked it out of the park tonight at #SOTU16. A+++.”

Mr. Harbaugh received a deluge of hostile responses. Among the few suitable for print read: “Well I used to like you. Stick to football.”

And so coaches do.  

Mr. Tressel was among the last coaches to navigate a middle ground. 

At Ohio State, he supported the GOP behind the scenes, most recently donating $1,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2008 and $500 to Rep. Steve Stivers (R., Columbus) in 2009. 

But the man nicknamed the senator — a nod to his sweater vest and habit of saying a lot without saying much at all — observed a clear line. “When it comes to political endorsements about candidates,” he said in 2008, “it’s out of bounds.”

Mr. Tressel, who is now the president of Youngstown State University and has attended private fund-raisers for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, did not return a message for comment.

His successor, Mr. Meyer, and his assistants — none of whom has contributed to a political campaign — leave even less of a trail. OSU policy allows employees to engage in political activity as long as no university endorsement is suggested, though that line blurs when you are the unofficial frontman of the school. 

“Our coaches have the right to express their views and I do not restrict them,” Mr. Smith said. “However ... coaches do not want to alienate parents of recruits, fans or potential fans, donors, one politician versus another, etc. As public figures, coaches are more careful with this than in previous years.”

Mr. Lashutka called it an unfortunate reality. 

“The repercussions are just so big today that people are trying to be hands off when they really should be getting involved in the debate,” he said. “That’s what a university is all about, healthy constructive debate.”

Sorry, Mr. Kasich

This campaign season, Mr. Meyer would seem a natural candidate to endorse the presidential run of Mr. Kasich, a Republican targeting the moderate wing of his party and a graduate of Ohio State. 

Mr. Kasich has courted big-name football endorsements elsewhere, appearing with former Buckeyes and New England Patriots star Mike Vrabel at a rally in New Hampshire and with former Clemson All-American quarterback Tajh Boyd in South Carolina last week. No one would represent a bigger coup than the pride of his home state. 

Of support from Mr. Meyer, Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges said, “Of course it would matter.”

“I think people would covet it and they would seek it,” he said. 

That is, unless maybe they already know the answer. Mr. Kasich’s representatives did not return messages for this story. 

“I just feel like right now we haven’t really developed the kind of close relationship with Urban where we would go to him with those kind of things,” Mr. Borges said. 

Urban for Kasich?

Mr. Meyer does not approve this message. 

Contact David Briggs at:, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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