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
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
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
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.
- Image via Wikipedia
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; l 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. 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 neccesary 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. 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
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