The coaching staff assembled by Pepper Rodgers at Kansas University in 1968 is known as one of the greatest in college football history, based on the success so many assistants went on to have as head coaches.
That staff doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves for unwittingly generating one of the greatest stories in sports history. Terry Donahue, in town to handle color commentary for Westwood One’s broadcast of KU’s upset victory against Georgia Tech, told the story during an enjoyable dinner at Lawrence Country Club.
Donahue, inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his remarkable work at UCLA — in 20 seasons, he had a winning record against USC and he won bowl games in seven consecutive seasons — told the tale of a prank that backfired to the benefit of the man being pranked.
Dave McClain, then offensive line coach at KU, forever talked about Woody Hayes, legendary Ohio State football coach whose career ended when he hauled off and slugged the Clemson player who had the audacity to intercept a pass against Woody’s Buckeyes.
The rest of the coaches on Pepper’s staff suspected McClain was full of it when he claimed he never would work for Hayes. They all knew he idolized the man and were convinced he would walk barefoot on a bed of nails all the way to Columbus to work for him.
John Cooper, then the Jayhawks’ defensive coordinator and later the head coach at Tulsa, Arizona State and Ohio State, decided to put the staff’s suspicions about McClain’s interest in working for Hayes to test. Cooper had heard Ohio State was in the market for an offensive line coach and put Donahue, the D-line coach, up to telling McClain that Hayes had called looking for him to discuss a job opening. Donahue handed McClain the fake message with Woody’s office phone number.
The plan called for McClain getting clued into the joke once he started dialing the number. Then the coaches would rib him along the lines of, “I thought you said you’d never work for Woody Hayes.” It went awry. McClain slipped away to make the phone call before Donahue noticed. Hayes took the call and told McClain that he was mistaken. He had not left him a message about the job.
“As long as we’re on the phone, why don’t you tell me about yourself,” Hayes said.
The more they talked, the more it became evident to Hayes that this was a man whose philosophy seemed in lockstep with his. Hayes arranged for McClain to come to Columbus for an interview. Woody hired him and McClain had a pack of mischievous boys-will-be-boys to thank for that.
Before coming to KU, McClain had worked for Bo Schembechler at Miami of Ohio. McClain left Ohio State for the head coaching job at Ball State and did such a fine job of applying the lessons he had learned from Schembechler, Rodgers and Hayes at Ball State, he landed the top job at Wisconsin, where he went 46-42-3 and was looking forward to the 1986 season when he died at age 48 of cardiac arrest.
The Big Ten Coach of the Year award is named after McClain. If an annual trophy for the best college prank ever is sculpted, it ought to be named after Cooper and Donahue.