Hayes Disciple Has Seen It All

For our July interview, BSB sat down for a Q&A with legendary boxing manager and former Ohio State football staffer John Johnson. What follows is an excerpt from that interview.

At a boxing gym in northeast Columbus, Ohio, posters of championship boxing fights divide two waves of framed memories. Photos of boxing champions like Muhammad Ali and James “Buster” Douglas dot the left and pictures of legendary Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes and two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin sit to the right.

“None of this,” John Johnson said, pointing to the boxing pictures, “would be possible without this,” as his gaze moved to the Ohio State section.

Johnson grew up the son of a coal miner in Red Jacket, W.V., and his rise to fame began when he spent a few years as a graduate assistant at Ohio State the 1970s after improbably talking his way into a spot on Hayes’ staff.

Such was his devotion to Hayes that a 1990 Sports Illustrated story by Richard Hoffer noted that Johnson’s “heroes are Jesus Christ and Woody Hayes, not necessarily in that order.”

That SI story was written because of Johnson’s second act. He eventually worked his way into boxing, soaking up a wealth of information from former Ali trainer Angelo Dundee. He first made a name for himself as the manager for Steve Gregory, a then-little known Columbus boxer who ultimately fought for the WBA World super heavyweight title in Denmark in 1979.

Gregory lost that bout to Ayub Kalule in a unanimous decision, but his work with the boxer caught the eye of J.D. McCauley, Douglas’ uncle. Johnson began working with Douglas in 1984, and in 1990 Douglas knocked out heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in Tokyo with Johnson at his side to claim The Ring, WBC, WBA and IBF World Heavyweight titles. To this day, the victory by the Columbus native Douglas is still considered one of the greatest upsets in not just boxing but sports history.

Johnson has met multiple United States presidents and to this day maintains friendships with several Ohio State stars from the 1970s, including Griffin and Pete Johnson, in addition to dozens of boxing luminaries.

Johnson recently sat down with BSB at his gym to discuss his memories of Hayes and Ohio State’s powerhouse 1970s teams as well as his time as Buster Douglas’ manager.

BSB: What was your life like when you were growing up?
Johnson: “My dad worked in the coal mines 40 years. Same mine, same shift. Archie’s family is from the next county over in southwest West Virginia. I’m from Mingo County, they call it Bloody Mingo County, where the Hatfield-McCoy feud took place and the Matewan Massacre took place. Archie’s dad worked the coal mines. My dad came to Ohio and became a janitor. Forty years, same mine, same shift and they laid him off. ‘We don’t need you anymore. That’s it – see ya.’

“Archie’s dad came up here (to Columbus) and worked at a place called Ohio Malleable, which was like a steel plant. I was in there one time and there were like fires burning and it wasn’t a real pleasant place to be. Archie’s dad was a great guy, and we’ve talked about the fact that there’s no way he and I could measure up to our dads and who they were and so on and so forth.”

BSB: How did you end up coaching at Ohio State?
Johnson: “I went to high school in the northern part of Ohio and ended up coming to Columbus actually going to work in the finance business and was pretty successful. I got married and had kids and was successful. I eventually met Dick Walker and Ed Ferkany, two coaches at Ohio State. At that time there were no NCAA regulations about who could recruit and I started helping them recruit. Through that I got to know Coach Hayes.

“I was doing really well in the finance business but I decided I wanted to coach football. So I went to Coach Hayes, who I had met from doing the recruiting stuff, and I told him I wasn’t happy with what I was doing and told him I wanted to be a football coach. He put his arm around me and said, ‘Come help me coach.’ So I started school.

“I’m 28 years old and married with two kids. I sell my home, move into an apartment and the next five years I got my bachelor and my master’s because I wanted it so bad. It was almost 24 hours a day between coaching and going to school. Three summers I worked at Anheuser-Busch for 70 straight nights, but that’s how I made money to go to school.”

BSB: What do you remember most about Woody Hayes?
“He was there for me. I had a really controversial career at Ohio State. I’ve been a very controversial, crazy person. I always say I’ll stand up for what I believe in even if I have to stand alone. Sometimes that’s not the easy way. Someone said Coach Hayes had five people you could put on one hand that he trusted and I was lucky enough to be one of them and that’s amazing. Here I was, this graduate assistant coach. And he was there for me and trusted me.”

BSB: What was Woody like during Michigan week?
Johnson: “He was uptight. He was very uptight. Everybody was watching out. Everybody loved it when he threw one of his tantrums and got all crazy. Nobody laughed while he was doing it, but inside we were laughing. Not on the outside. He did some crazy stuff.

“With him, the Michigan game was everything. Temperament-wise, I’m more related to Urban and Woody, but I give Jim Tressel credit too because knew the importance of the Michigan game. I’ve made the statement before that I’d rather lose every game on the schedule and beat Michigan than win every other game and lose to them. Coach Hayes instilled that in me. Our Monday practices were always the Michigan practice. All season. We’d spend one day every week getting ready for a game that was months away. But that was Woody.”

BSB: Do you have any particularly memorable stories involving Woody?
“Martha Mitchell was (United State Attorney General) John Mitchell’s wife. She had said that Richard Nixon should resign. Coach Hayes said, ‘You don’t think he’ll do that, do you?’ Our meeting room had a phone jack but it didn’t have a phone. You had to go get a phone if you wanted to use it. So he said, ‘Go get me a phone.’ I bring the phone in and he calls the White House. At the time, I had called it a couple times before for him. What they did since there was no Caller ID was ask what number you were calling from. They must have somehow had a way of knowing who you were.

“So he calls the White House and they answer. He said, ‘This is Coach Woody Hayes, let me talk to the president.’ Two minutes later… ‘Mr. President, one of my coaches came in and said Martha Mitchell said you should resign. Well you’re not going to resign, Mr. President. You hear me? You listen to me.’

“One thing I found out from being around him talking to Gerald Ford and Bob Hope and others: Coach Hayes would say something and the other person would say, ‘Yep, you’re right, Woody.’ He just totally dominated conversations. He was a very dominating and strong person. But that was crazy. I mean, he just called the president – and did all the talking, too.”

BSB: Why do you think Woody trusted you so much?
“What happened was Pete Johnson’s freshman year, he wasn’t getting to play, not even making the traveling team. He was thinking about leaving and I went to Coach Hayes and told him and then Coach Hayes watched him at practice and Pete went from fifth team to third team. Of course he went on to play great against The Team Up North and scored three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.

“He didn’t do well academically because he was so down about his playing time. He’s a very, very smart guy but just didn’t care about going to school at the time. I’m living on the north side of Columbus and I get a call from Coach Hayes. He said, ‘John, get down here right now. I don’t care what you’re doing. This is Coach Hayes. Get your ass down here right now.’

“I’m shaking because I don’t know what I did. When I went in, I saw the secretary and she said he was over in (OSU director of athletics Ed) Weaver’s office. This was in St. John Arena. I walked over there and he was walking back. He was left-handed and put his left arm around me and pulled me in close and said, ‘John, I know you can do it. I know you can do it. I know damn well you can and I know you’re going to do it.’ I said, ‘Do what, Coach?’ And he said, ‘Get Pete through school.’

“Coach Hayes said, ‘Man, he could be the best fullback ever’ – which he turned out to be. I went to get his schedule and I don’t want to attack this person, but the statement was made to me that Pete wouldn’t make it. So I was like, ‘Screw you guys.’ I went to Pete’s classes and I had my classes scheduled so I could make sure he was going to class. Pete’s a very, very smart guy. We kind of stuck it to them, because Pete Johnson is the first – the first – African-American to make academic All-American at The Ohio State University. So we kind of proved everyone wrong. It gave Coach Hayes tremendous faith in me. Nobody thought he was going to make it.”

BSB: How did you meet Buster Douglas?
“We hooked up in 1984. He called me because knew about Stevie and that I’d taken him to the world championships. He went to his uncle J.D. and they came to my house. We were talking for a while and for whatever reason I went into the kitchen and got a paper plate and brought it in. I laid it on the table and then on the floor and I said, ‘That’s what we’ve got. There’s nothing in that plate. If you listen and pay the price, some day you’ll be a heavyweight champion and there will be millions in the plate.’

“Six years later, I get a phone call offering a fight with Mike Tyson. During those six years we had some great victories and devastating losses, the worst being his mom dying 23 days before the fight. He came to my house that morning and after a while I asked him if he wanted me to postpone the fight. He said, ‘No, my mom wants me to fight and my mom wants me to win.’

“A week later we went to Tokyo, and the reason the fight was in Tokyo is that nobody here would pay a cent to see Buster Douglas fight Mike Tyson. Ed Schuyler, who was a boxing writer for the Associated Press went to Tokyo to cover the fight. He was going through customs and they asked him what he was here for and he said to work. They asked how long he’d be working and he said, ‘About a minute and a half.’ That’s what most people thought, but we knew we were going to win.

“Coach Hayes said the height of human desire is what wins, be it on the Normandy beaches or Ohio Stadium. We had that great height of desire to win and to prepare to win. Ring Magazine calls it the Upset of the Century.”

BSB: Why were you so confident he’d knock Tyson out?
Johnson: “Coach (Urban) Meyer, the first time we talked down in his office, he sat down where he’s got those four couches and he said, ‘Buster, what were you thinking when you went to the ring?’ and James said he was confident he was going to win. He asked me, and I said honestly I thought were going to make him quit. I thought we’d beat the hell out of him for six or seven rounds and he’d say, ‘I’m done.’ I thought the bully in him would quit.

“But man, I told him to his face – and hugged him when I told him – that he fought his heart out. He took a beating and he was hurt bad and he still tried to get up and fight. That’s when I really gained respect for Mike Tyson.”

BSB: Since you mentioned Urban Meyer, what do you think about the job he’s done?
Johnson: “During the season I sent Urban an email and I said, ‘I love you just because you’re like Coach Hayes and you’re a disciple of Coach Hayes. I see it in his mannerisms and everything about him – it’s like Coach Hayes, and he’s proud of that.”

BSB: What went through your mind when the knockout occurred?
Johnson: “He fell in our corner. The referee, the count felt like it was taking forever. But when he hit seven and Mike rolled over to get his mouthpiece, I knew he wasn’t going to get his mouthpiece and get up in time, and I started up the steps. I said, ‘Coach, we did it,’ and looked up in the air because I know Coach Hayes was like, ‘Yes!’ I knew his attitude would be, ‘Go kick his ass,’ because that’s the attitude he had under all circumstances.”

The full interview can be found in the July issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin.

Buckeye Sports Top Stories