Few sports fans would argue that we needed yet another book about the “Ten Year War” – the intense rivalry between the University of Michigan and Ohio State football teams and their iconic coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. The subject has been covered voluminously in books, magazines, newspapers, and videos (I have reviewed a few myself).
So I have to credit Michael Rosenberg for coming up with a new angle to approach this classic subject. His book, War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America in a Time of Unrest, uses the backdrop of the protest movement in the era of Vietnam and Watergate to situate this sports rivalry within the culture and history of the time.
This allows him to portray the players and coaches as human beings with opinions and emotions beyond the football field while reminding the reader that the university, and the surrounding community, obviously had to deal with a lot more than just the success of the football team.
But while this background is interesting – the different levels of political agitation on the Ohio State versus Michigan campus for example – what really makes the book shine is Rosenberg’s portrait of Woody Hayes.
By placing Hayes in this historical context and by connecting his work as a coach with his unique personality and background – his inspirations, dreams and deep seated beliefs – Rosenberg captures Hayes as a multidimensional person rather than simply as an icon or caricature.
Rosenberg highlights two figures, among others, who made an impact on Hayes life: General George S. Patton and Ralph Waldo Emerson. And at key moments in the story we see how these influences made Hayes the man he was. Military history and tactics were never far from Woody’s mind and he regularly used the language of war to describe football. This is interesting but not shocking or hard to understand.
But Rosenberg’s use of Emerson quotes to flush out why Hayes might have acted the way he did or had the attitude he did jump out at the reader. It is hard to believe that a Transcendentalist poet/essayist would best capture the mindset of the famous coach but Rosenberg makes a strong case that this is one of the most effective windows into understanding Hayes’ life.
Rosenberg also helps show how Hayes was a traditionalist in an age of upheaval and conflict. He frequently visited the troops in Vietnam and supported the war until the bitter end. He became friends with Richard Nixon and was upset when the president resigned; seeing that act as cowardice in the face of your enemies.
Of course Hayes is most known for his temper on and off the football field. Rosenberg discusses the theatrical nature of his temper when trying to reach his team – and how this seemed to decrease in usefulness over time.Â He also makes note of the role diabetes may have played in his temper; including the actions that led to his being fired.
Hayes, however, always saw himself as a teacher. He was deeply read in history (particularly military history) and was engaged with politics and current events. Even in the era of student protests and anti-war demonstrations he continued to reach out to young people and he was always ready to decry what he saw as an assault on the traditional values that made America great. Hayes may have been increasingly at odds with the spirit of his age but he never stopped wrestling with it and attempting to make an impact. His competitive drive and energy drove him to never quit trying.
Hayes was clearly an incredibly unique individual who burst onto the college football scene and left an indelible imprint. But he was also a product of his time and time eventually passed him by; or caught up with him depending on your perspective. There seem to be some parallels with his friend Richard Nixon in this. Both men built impressive careers before being brought down by poor judgment. And both men attempted to live out the remainder of their lives so as to not be defined by those infamous acts; with mixed success.
Rosenberg covers the other side of the field as well, but Bo Schembechler doesn’t stand out quite like Hayes. The iconic Bo really develops after this “Ten Year War” period. Sure, the personality is there but it doesn’t quite blossom until after Hayes recedes. But this history is a necessary foundation for understanding the events that were to come.
The other character who stands out in the book is Michigan athletic director Dan Canham. Canham was a critical figure in the development of modern college sports and in many ways made Michigan football the marketing giant that it is.Â It seems off that this influential figure is not better known outside of sports historians.
War As They Knew It is much more than a sports book. Sure, it is a fascinating story about one of college football’s greatest rivalries and the coaches who put it on the map. But it is also a valuable look into the time period through the lens of college athletics. You don’t have to be a fan of Michigan or Ohio state football to enjoy the story because the characters and events involved transcend sports.
Of course, if you are a fan of either program and their legendary coaches this is a must read. And really anyone interested in the history and development of college football would do well to check it out. You will come away with a better understanding of how the schools became the dominant programs in the conference and even the nation at times. And you will understand better the men behind these programs as they faced each other in intense competition on the field and dealt with the tumultuous times outside the stadium and practice field