MOUNT VERNON — I thought I was seeing things. I opened my front door and there he was, standing on my front step — the coach. I mean THE COACH. It was Woody Hayes in the flesh. Right down to his determined stare, stern mouth and black ball cap with the ‘O’ insignia on the front. It took me a second or two to shake off the cobwebs and realize that it wasn’t the beloved Buckeye coach and it was still too early for Halloween.
My four decade flashback was none other than Fredericktown’s Jim Stoner, who will be portraying one of college football’s enduring legends in a charity fundraiser called, “Woody Hayes: Life Lessons,” which will benefit an orphanage in Mali Saba, Kenya. The event will take place Thursday at 6 p.m. Waterford United Methodist Church at 20595 Waterford Road in Fredericktown. There will be a buffalo and pizza dinner and then, Stoner will conjure up an evening of fun and memories as Woody.
The transformation to Coach Hayes even caught Stoner by surprise the first time he saw himself in the mirror.
“I looked at my graying hair,” Stoner said. “Then I started working on setting my lower jaw just right and, all of a sudden, I can do Woody Hayes.”
At around the same time, Stoner met Walt Adamkosky, who wrote a play about Hayes, which had been performing to audiences all over the Midwest. At one time, Adamkosky wanted Stoner to take on the title role in the play.
“He gave me the costume,” Stoner said. “Then he saw me and said, ‘Yeah, you can pull this off.’ He was really impressed and he does Woody himself sometimes.”
Stoner has studied Hayes’ life to prepare for this 30 minute performance.
“Newcomerstown was his hometown,” Stoner said. “When he was growing up, he and his brother used to box in a friend’s barn. All the kids would have boxing matches where they would have wagers. His dad would have to pretend like it wasn’t going on. Woody really respected his dad. He was his mentor and his supporter.”
Hayes, who was in the US Navy in World War II, coached at Dover-New Philadelphia High School. He was an assistant coach at Dennison University, becoming head coach in 1946.
“That was when all the GIs were coming back,” Stoner said. “He knew how to handle GIs because he was a GI and he whipped them into shape. He got them to quit smoking and quit partying all the time. He started bringing them to his house and tutoring them. He took them from a bunch of hard-nosed GIs to a decent team. They respected him because he got them graduated and that was very important to him.”
After a stint at Miami (Ohio) University, he landed the head coaching job at Ohio State in 1951.
“I tell a lot of stories from Walt’s play,” Stoner said. “I just have to watch my language, since I will be in a church.”
He will talk about one of the great friendships of college football — between Hayes and Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.
“Woody and Bo were great friends,” Stoner said. “It was just a friendly rivalry. They really cared about each other, but when it came time to play against the ‘place up north,’ they got fired up.”
Hayes led Ohio State to five national championships, but Stoner believes that the best teams were the 1968 team and the ones from the 1970s with Archie Griffin.
“Those years, right in there with Archie,” Stoner said. “(Hayes) integrated football with Cornelius Greene at quarterback. The board of directors was against him for starting a black player at quarterback.”
Hayes, who had been recruiting black players like Jim Parker and others, for years, ran into opposition in the 1970s when he named Greene his No. 1 signal caller. Stoner slipped into character, recalling Hayes’ answer to his critics.
“I’m not here to pacify you white board members,” ‘Woody’ Stoner said. “I’m here to win football games.”