Rob Oller commentary: Woody wary of hippies during trip to Berkeley
The insulated bubble college football players spend their time in occasionally bursts, revealing to them a world where pain, sacrifice and conflict go beyond the typical locker-room clichés.
Today, reality sashays in by way of social media. A tweet about Syria. A Facebook post debating the need for “boots on the ground.” Politics via iPhone. Many yesterdays ago, the reality of war viraled across campuses differently; not by handheld screens but by the screams of hand-holding protesters.
A little more than 40 years ago, as the Vietnam War wound toward its conclusion, campuses were embroiled in student protest. Places like Ann Arbor, Mich., Madison, Wis., and, tragically, Kent, Ohio, took center stage as places of pushback against U.S. military involvement overseas.
But the epicenter of protest was Berkeley, Calif., home of the University of California, whose football team, the Golden Bears, will play host to Ohio State on Saturday.
Berkeley — or “Berzerkley,” as some like to call it — has a history of protest, dating to the 1930s when students objected to the U.S. ending its disarmament policy.
The Free Speech Movement began at Cal in the mid-1960s, leading to protest marches and confrontations with police that involved the destruction of public property, burned draft cards and fire hoses turned on the “rioters.”
Ohio State coach Woody Hayes was aware of Berkeley’s rebel reputation when he prepared Ohio State to play at Cal on Oct. 7, 1972.
Jim Kregel was a junior guard for the Buckeyes in ’72. Though he held an anti-war stance — his brother, Mike, was serving in Vietnam at the time — Kregel followed the lead of other teammates. Speak up and risk the wrath of Woody.
“Coach Hayes was really p----- off about (the Berkeley protests),” Kregel said. “I remember him telling us there would be more damn people throwing Frisbees on the hill (above) the stadium than would be at the game.”
“Woody actually whispered in the locker room, because he was sure the joint was bugged by hippies,” Kregel said.
Like coaches before him, and ones to come, Hayes hated distractions, and the war was a major attention-getter for 18-year-olds whose friends and family members were hunkered down in bamboo jungles on the other side of the planet.
“Woody wanted to keep us isolated and focused on the game and not worry about protests,” former Ohio State offensive tackle Merv Teague said. “The war was still going on, and we did have some concerns. You’d walk past the TV and see the demonstrations. But Woody kept a very strong influence over us.”
It is tempting to think the threat of being drafted made teen boys mature faster. Football players were more capable of making adult decisions than today’s version, right?
Not so fast.
Rick Galbos, a senior running back and captain on the 1972 Buckeyes, said that although college students “were not going to stand for some of this old stuff” their parents believed, the main goal still was to have fun.
“Half of school was partying. In the old days, it was let’s go up to High Street and have a beer,” Galbos said.
The difference is that High Street in April 1970 had tanks patrolling its lanes and helicopters hovering overhead, the result of rioting between students and police that led to Ohio State canceling spring quarter a month early.
By 1972, things had quieted at Ohio State, but Berkeley still buzzed.
“We didn’t stay in Berkeley. We stayed in San Francisco,” Galbos said. “When you look back on it, I wouldn’t doubt it was intentional, to stay away from the hippies. They were anti-war, and Woody was on the other side.”
Ohio State ended up defeating Cal 35-18 and returned to Columbus without incident. But during the flight home, Kregel could not help but wonder why his life was tucked safely inside the protection of a college football team while his brother was off fighting a war he did not believe in.
“I felt like, ‘Why do I deserve this when my brother is in Vietnam?’ ” Kregel said.
The Buckeyes are back in Berkeley this week. The bubble remains intact. Here’s hoping they appreciate it.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.