Jim Tressel certainly isn’t the first football coach in NCAA history to feel the wrath of sanctions.
He’s not even the first one at Ohio State.
It would probably surprise many in the Buckeye Nation to know that Woody Hayes and his program were hit with a one-year probation by the Big Ten back in 1956. The reason? Several members of the football team were being paid for jobs despite the fact they were not showing up to work while others were receiving money directly from the coach himself.
That’s right. Woody Hayes was paying his own players.
Of course, things were a little different 55 years ago. The NCAA had been around in one form or another since 1906, but the governing body for collegiate athletics hadn’t moved into its so-called modern era until 1952. Even then, the NCAA was not the myopic behemoth it is today as individual conferences held much more sway over their member institutions. In fact, until July 1952 when the NCAA moved its headquarters to Kansas City, it shared office space in a Chicago hotel with the Big Ten.
In April 1956, Big Ten commissioner Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson announced Ohio State and Hayes would be placed on probation for one year and made the Buckeyes ineligible to represent the conference in the 1957 Rose Bowl.
Wilson’s ruling came as a result of special investigator Jack Ryan’s 10-week probe into Hayes’ program that found “a serious irregularity in the off-campus work program for certain football players (who were) being advanced monthly wages for either two or three months with no enforceable liability to repay in kind or in services.”
Ryan further uncovered the fact that Hayes had provided “assistance to unnamed members of the Ohio State football squads from his personal funds in amounts which are said to total approximately $400 annually over a period of five years.”
OSU director of athletics Richard Larkins said there would be no appeal, and university president Dr. Howard L. Bevis added, “Any violation of the rules of which we have been guilty will be stopped. We mean to live within the rules.”
A one-year probation with disqualification for the Rose Bowl was a fairly stiff penalty in 1956. Even so, the Big Ten did not come down as hard on Hayes and his program as it could have – and certainly not as hard as the NCAA probably would have had the infractions occurred today. Not only would Hayes and his program have likely faced more severe penalties, the players involved would have probably been suspended as well.
But the Big Ten confined its ruling strictly to the football program. In 1956, that was key for Ohio State since football players had not yet become one-sport specialists. They participated in several other sports, including baseball where such football players as Howard “Hopalong” Cassady and Galen Cisco were also stars.
The conference declined to suspend or sanction any of the football players involved and OK’d them to fully participate in spring practice sessions including the annual spring game set for May 5 of that year. Even better for the squad, the Big Ten decided to take no action with regard to the Buckeyes’ eligibility to contend for a third straight conference title in the fall.
In other words, the probation had little teeth with the exception of the Rose Bowl ban.
As Tressel has done in 2011, Hayes took his medicine in 1956.
“All my life,” the coach said, “I have been taught respect for properly delegated authority, and for this reason I do not believe we should appeal the decision.”
But Hayes couldn’t help himself and quickly added, “This, however, does not infer that I agree with the severity of the penalty nor the matter in which the investigation was made.”
The coach made it clear he believed the situation was a witch hunt initiated by the national media, and in reality Hayes was at least partially right.
The investigation was triggered by a lengthy story in the Oct. 24, 1955, issue of Sports Illustrated on the coach and his program titled “The Ohio State Story: Win or Else.” About three-quarters of the way through the piece, reporter Robert Shaplen wrote, “A recruit (for Ohio State football) can count on some financial help from Hayes if he is ‘in need.’ Woody insists he never forks up for a luxury … but it’s certainly also true that he makes sure he won’t lose any valuable men by financial default.”
During the 10-week investigation by the Big Ten – the NCAA never got involved – Hayes admitted he gave players money from his personal funds, but the coach steadfastly refused to name any player to whom he gave the money. He insisted his reasoning was not because he feared any penalty or sanction, saying he would not name names because he feared the players involved would suffer public embarrassment.
A coach doing something he knew was wrong to protect his players. Why does that sound familiar?
(A final note: Contained in that same SI article from October 1955 was this interesting quip from Bevis to prove that things haven’t changed much over the years at Ohio State: “We should have a university of which the football team can be proud.” You can read the entire article here.)