Knowing the Score - Part II
By John Porentas
Left to right:
Ernie Godfrey, Woody Hayes, Esco Sarkinen, Lyal Clark. Circa 1954
Photo courtesy of Jenny Spangler
There is no doubt that Woody Hayes knew the score when it came to Ohio State football.
Hayes knew you had to win enough to bring home Big Ten and national championships, and he knew that you had to beat Michigan.
Hayes set out to do all of those things when he took the Ohio State job, but in 1953 his team went 6-3, a record that was considered sub-standard for Ohio State. To make matters worse, one of those losses was a shellacking by Michigan in Ann Arbor by a score of 20-0.
The common theme in OSU's losses that year was that the defense allowed too many points. In addition to the Michigan loss, the Buckeyes had lost 28-13 to Michigan State and 41-20 to Illinois. Hayes had to shore up his defense and he knew it, so he turned to Lyal Clark.
Hayes lured Clark off Wes Fesler's Minnesota staff and took the unprecedented step of giving Clark total and complete control of the defense. Giving up control was not something that Hayes did easily, but he took that step with Clark. He was rewarded very quickly for making that decision.
With Clark in total control of the defense Ohio State went 10-0 in 1954 and claimed both a Big Ten and National championship. Only three teams reached double-digit scoring that year against the Buckeyes. No. 2 ranked Wisconsin put up 14 points in OSU's 31-14 win over the Badgers. No. 13 Iowa also scored 14 in OSU's 20-14 win over the Hawkeyes, and No. 18 Cal managed 13 points in OSU's 21-13 win over the Bears.
OSU's defense registered two shutouts that season, blanking both Michigan and Pitt. The defensive success paved the way for the first 10-0 season in OSU football history, and the architect of that defense was Lyal Clark. From that season forth Clark was Ohio State's defensive mastermind, and in that era, that was tantamount to being nearly equal to the head coach.
"The thing that was totally unique for the coaches of that era, collegiate football had gone to single platoon," said current Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau who played for OSU in the Hayes - Clark era and agreed to an exclusive the-Ozone interview for the purposes of this article.
"Our practices were organized so that those of us who were on the starting team would spend half of our practice on offense and half of our practice on defense.
"Those who were what they called red-two, or the second team, when we were on offense they were on defense. Those were the 22 men that were going to play most of the time, so the defensive coaches were installed at one end of the practice field literally, and the offensive coaches at the other.
"At the mid-point of the practice, you had a rotation and you went and spent the rest of the practice on the other side of the ball."
As LeBeau described, OSU's teams of that era spent the same amount of time with Clark that they did with Hayes. He was as influential as Hayes himself on those football teams, and Ohio State was better for it.
"He was THE defensive coach on Woody's staff. That in itself gave him a position and standing," said LeBeau.
"I don't know that they had assistant head coaches titles in those days but he pretty much was that.
"I think that a great deal of Ohio State's success in that era, and I think that if Woody were here he'd be the first to tell that too, was that he leaned a lot on Coach Clark and Coach Clark delivered," LeBeau said.
"The two of them together were a very formidable coaching alliance. They built a damned-tough football team on the field."
Woody Hayes and Lyal Clark. Circa 1964
Photo courtesy of OSU archives
When it comes to Lyal Clark, why don't we know the score?
When it came to defensive football, there were few if any who were Lyal Clark's equal in his era. Clark modernized OSU's defense by installing a defense that very closely resembles what today is being called the 3-4 defense. His innovations and forward-thinking approach made OSU defenses the formidable units that LeBeau described, yet very few know of him. He seems like almost a forgotten man in OSU history.
"People of my era realize what a great defensive coach he was, but you don't hear his name much," agreed LeBeau.
The answer to the question of Clark's near-anonymity may be in his basic, fundamental nature. He simply did not like the limelight, and made sure he stayed out of it.
"He avoided cameras like the plague," said his daughter Jennifer Spangler.
"He didn't want to have to do interviews. He never, absolutely never, would go on Woody's TV show. Never. He did radio sometimes, but he would never go on TV."
Woody loved the Woody Hayes Show, and delighted in parading players and assistant coaches onto the set and in front of the cameras, but Clark would have none of it. No matter how Woody tried, he could never get him on. Clark was one of the few people who could do that, say no to Woody, and live to tell about it, but tell him no he did. He simply did not want to be out front, though he wife Mary Ann made up for that a bit.
"My mom was on," said Spangler.
"One time Anne Hayes hosted the show because Woody and all the coaches were out in California for the Rose Bowl, and she had the coaches wives on."
Scoring the styles
The contrast between the basic nature of Woody Hayes and Lyal Clark could not be more stark. Hayes was outgoing and bombastic, Clark quiet and unassuming, yet both men expected and got excellence from the players they coached. Though Clark was quiet by nature, he was anything but weak. When he had an opinion he would express it, even if it meant crossing Hayes himself. In that regard, he was totally unique on the OSU coaching staff, because nobody argued or crossed Woody, except Lyal Clark.
"That's true, and he was a fairly understated man, but believe me, when push came to shove he could express his opinion as well as anybody, but he was quiet, he really was," said LeBeau.
Even when Hayes dug his heels in, Clark would not relent, and that on occassion led to confrontations between the two men that were at times "emotional".
"I can remember stories about them having to take my father's glasses away from him because he'd say 'Where's Woody, I'm going to kill him that son of a bitch if I can find him!'" said Spangler.
As far as we know, Clark and Hayes never actually came to blows. What is ironic is that this quiet, reflective man was one of the few that Hayes could not intimidate or back down. In that regard, he was very unique. He was also the man to which Hayes gave the most autonomy and respect. In his own way, Clark ran the OSU defense with the same iron fist that Hayes ran the OSU offense. It's just that at times Clark had to brandish his iron fist at Hayes himself, and he did just that when it was needed.
Clark coached OSU's defenses up into the mid-60s. During that time OSU claimed four national championships. Late during that time period his health began to prematurely fail. He was plagued by emphysema and finally in the mid-60s decided to retire.
"Basically he said he didn't think it was fair to the kids or anyone because he couldn't be at his best," said Spangler.
His relatively early retirement for health issues to some extent explains why he is somewhat lost in OSU football history.
"I think that's why people don't remember him as well because he would have coached forever with his knowledge. I remember his health got bad," said LeBeau.
"I remember being sad that Coach Clark's health wasn't good and he wasn't going to be able to continue coaching."
Lyal Clark. Circa 1960
Photo courtesy of OSU archives
Clark never returned to coaching due to his health issues and in 1971 died as a result of the emphysema. His widow, my friend Mary Ann, told me that LeBeau attended his funeral and in her words, wept openly at her husband's coffin.
Though he never returned to coaching after his retirement, Clark did one last thing for the Ohio State football program he had helped build into national promenence. As his health was declining he recruited his own replacement on the OSU staff. He called an up and coming coach by the name of Bill Mallory and got him to come to Columbus to take the job he was vacating. Years later Mallory told the story of Lyal's pitch to him.
"Let me tell you about Woody," Lyal had said to Mallory. "He's not the easiest guy to work for. I think it's important to understand that 90 percent of the time he is as good as anybody. The other 10 percent....he's a pure bred jackass."
Mallory took the job, and of course the Mallorys became good friends with the Clarks. Mary Ann told me that she used to joke with Mallory's wife that not only had her husband taken Lyal's job, but that Mrs. Mallory had gotten Mary Ann's game tickets as well. She laughed when she told me that story, and swore it was absolutely true.