George Steinbrenner Was Woody Hayes in Pinstripes
Soon after I met George Steinbrenner for the first time during the early 1980s, I had two thoughts. First, I'd never seen anybody so pale. Second, as we chatted outside of the New York Yankees' old spring headquarters in Ft. Lauderdale, he had many of the traits of the primary guy we were discussing.
"Definitely. Absolutely, they were similar, because they both were fiery, and they both hated to lose, and they both wanted their players to always give their best," said Dick Brubaker, 78, over the phone from his home in Newbury, Ohio.
Brubaker was a co-captain of the Ohio State football team that won a national championship in 1954, when the famously volatile yet secretly compassionate Hayes was the Buckeyes' head coach, and Steinbrenner was Hayes' graduate assistant.
Just so you know, Steinbrenner also was famously volatile yet secretly compassionate, and here's something else: As much as the late Yankees owner had baseball in his soul during his nearly four decades of trying to wrap world championships in pinstripes more often than not, he was a football guy in his heart.
Steinbrenner left Ohio State to become a full-time football assistant at Northwestern. Then he spent a couple of years doing the same at Purdue before he retired from coaching to accumulate millions in the family's shipping business in northern Ohio.
The Yankees eventually became Steinbrenner's obsession after he purchased the team in 1973, and you know much of the rest: seven world championships, beer commercials, the hiring and firing of managers at an extraordinary pace (including Billy Martin five times), battles with the commissioner and the feds, Seinfeld spoofs.
It's just that you rarely hear about the biggest thing that made Steinbrenner function as Steinbrenner.
That football thing.
Which goes back to that Woody Hayes thing.
I discovered as much after somebody introduced me to Steinbrenner on that morning in Ft. Lauderdale. He was extremely pleasant, and he asked for my background. When I mentioned I graduated from Miami (Ohio) University, his eyes became larger than baseballs, and he blurted out, " 'The Cradle of Coaches'. Paul Brown. Weeb Ewbank. Sid Gillman. Ara Parseghian. Bo Schembechler ..." And Steinbrenner continued to rattle off the names of other Hall of Fame coaches who either graduated from Miami (Ohio) or worked there until he got to his man.
Wayne Woodrow Hayes.
He was a contradiction -- just like Steinbrenner.
While Hayes managed 13 Big Ten titles and three national championships during his 28 seasons at Ohio State, he also triggered a slew of controversies -- ranging from the shredding of a yard marker after a referee's call to nasty blowups with the media to his rapid firing in December of 1978 after he slugged a Clemson player running near the Ohio State sidelines in a bowl game.
There also was that other Hayes, the reflective one, the one I saw during several of our one-one talks in his post-coaching years. To me, Hayes was kindly, and he never was less than captivating. I even attended his funeral in 1987, when another man of controversies and contradictions delivered the moving eulogy without notes -- Richard Nixon.
Anyway, the more I huddled with Steinbrenner during that spring morning, the more I heard the Buckeye Battle Cry in my head.
And for good reason.
"He loved Ohio State, and when I was there, George was stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base outside of Columbus, and he used to come up to the locker room all the time and kind of hang out with the football players, and that's how I got to know him," said Brubaker, of the former track standout, decent running back and sports editor of the student newspaper at Williams College in Massachusetts as an undergraduate.
After Steinbrenner's honorable discharge in 1954, he worked toward a master's degree in physical education at Ohio State. He also got his coaching itch from his fascination with Buckeye players, especially running back Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, a future Heisman Trophy winner and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
"George and I and Cassady and a couple of other guys would go out to lunch every now and again," Brubaker said. "I wouldn't say we were close friends, but I certainly knew George. When I played professional football in Chicago (with the old Cardinals), and he was coaching in Chicago (at Northwestern), I ran into him there. Plus, we had a reunion of that 1954 team a few years ago, and because George used to hang out with us a lot, I sent him an invitation."
Steinbrenner couldn't attend, but the others reminisced about Woody and also about George, with Brubaker adding, "He was pretty knowledgeable about football, and he loved athletes. My impression was that he really liked to hang around them. He particularly liked Cassady, who worked for him in the Yankee organization, and who was a physical fitness person for the Yankees. Then, in the summer, (Cassady) would coach (first base) for the Yankees' farm team in Columbus."
That's Columbus, as in Ohio State, where Hayes' explosive ways helped make the Buckeyes visible for a slew of reasons.
The same went for Steinbrenner with the Yankees.
"Just like Woody, George knew what he wanted, and he was a forceful personality," said Brubaker, who played two years as a wide receiver in the NFL with the Cardinals and one with the Buffalo Bills of the AFL before he acquired a law degree.
Added Brubaker, "I loved Woody. He was great to me. He was terrific, and he made a real influence on my life. Frankly, I think anybody who came in contact with Woody was influenced by him one way or another. So, yeah, George was influenced by Woody, because even though I wasn't close to him by any stretch of the imagination, the times that we connected through the years, George was always great with me.
"Some of the stuff I hear and read about George is surprising. Then again, I never played for him."
Neither did I, but Brubaker played for Woody (and I interviewed him on occasion), and Brubaker cherished Woody (and so did I), which means George mostly was just fine, too.