In 1978, the legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes lost control of his emotions during a Gator Bowl game against Clemson and slugged the Clemson linebacker who had just made a critical interception that doomed a comeback effort by Ohio State with two minutes to go in the game.
Hayes hit the player, who had been tackled out of bounds, right in front of the Ohio Sate bench. Hayes was fired and roundly condemned for his stupid, albeit emotional action. Now we have another such act, in which a New York Jets coach tripped a member of the opposing Miami Dolphins as the player was running in front of the Jets bench to cover a punt.
In both cases, the player who was attacked was out of bounds when the intrusion into the game took place. Some argue it is important the Dolphin player was out of bounds. I do not think it relevant where the attack occurred.
Today, the sports world is debating is whether this is a big deal, this latest example of coaching assault. For that is what these were. These were what lawyers cause assaults. One man attacks another without any proper basis. The fact that the player attacked was not seriously hurt is, to me, of no significance.
Hayes threw a punch. The Jets coach tripped a player. Each was a wrongful and totally mindless act by a coach against a member of the opposing team. Each victim might have been seriously harmed. Each coach apologized and expressed regrets. In my view, the proper authorities at Ohio State were correct to fire Hayes. One cannot have a head coach who exhibits such poor judgment and such total inability to control himself. In a university the coach is a member of the faculty and supposedly a teacher. At the time of his attack, Hayes was 65 and surely knew better. He was furious at the kid who made the play that was about to cost Hayes a win. Why, I ask, should the Jets coach be treated differently? What message does the NFL send if it lets this event pass without serious disciplinary consequences?
Perhaps I am just old fashioned. Perhaps I am a romantic who believes in the sanctity of the game and in the vestigial element of good sportsmanship that remains extant. I am stunned by the lack of discipline and intelligence exhibited by the Jets assistant coach. Of course, he sees his mistake now. He wonders how to explain to his children what he did and why it was wrong.
One can be sympathetic to him without being sentimental about the duty of the league to assess the proper penalty. If I were in charge, I would surely suspend this coach for a year. I would order him to undertake some counseling and to visit some orthopedic hospitals to see how difficult it is to recover from the kinds of injuries his trip might have caused. Suppose the Dolphin player had torn up his knee or even broken his leg or neck. Football is a dangerous sport. The NFL has issues with concussions. It should not have to worry about coaches tripping players who happen to be running close to the opposing team bench.
Woody Hayes was punished severely and I can recall few who believed he did not deserve what he got. I hope the NFL sends a strong message to all who have access to the players that interference in the game will not be tolerated. The league makes determined efforts to protect the defenseless quarterbacks against harmful hits. Now let us protect the innocent player against the thoughtless coach. How far have we fallen when a fine sport has to confront intemperate assaults by persons not even in the uniform of the opposing team.
Fay Vincent, a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries, served as the commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989-92.