Woody Hayes spent his last two days as the head football coach of Ohio State University in much the same way he had passed countless others during his 28-year imperial reign.

He talked about Life and Football as if they were one, teaching his team and anybody else who cared to listen what he perceived to be the basics of both. He preached platitudes in which he believed fervently. He went out gruffly, defiantly -- still glorifying "winners" and "working together," cursing laggards and that newfangled invention, the forward pass.

The General -- as the 65-year-old student of military strategy and history liked to be called -- got a standing ovation Thursday from the conservative audience at a luncheon he addressed.

In the course of a rambling 30-minute speech, he proclaimed football to be America's most important builder of character, praised "the great effort the people of Jacksonville made during World War II," blasted skeptical reporters as "nosy pipsqueaks," and expressed unfailing loyalty to Richard Nixon: "He's still a great friend of mine; I don't have many friends, but I don't lose them."

He could have gone on dispensing wisdom for hours, no doubt, but cut himself short to hasten his return to the troops he was polishing for Friday night's Gator Bowl game. "I've still got to do a damn press conference -- it'll be a short one, believe me," he said apologetically, "and then I've got to get back to my boys."

The listeners leapt to their feet and applauded. No one knew then that Friday's game would be Gen. Hayes' last, that in the final two minutes of Ohio State's 17-15 loss to Clemson he would fly into one final fit of sideline rage, punch a Clemson player, and subsequently lose his job.

In retrospect, Hayes' last two days were tinged with ironey. Especially that "meet the coaches" luncheon, and the last speech he would give as commander-in-chief of the Ohio State gridiron.

"This game of football used to be pretty important to me. It isn't anymore. Now it's just damn near everything," he said. "It represents and embodies everything that's great about this country because the United States of America is built on winners, not losers or people who didn't bother to play."

One of the things that rankled Hayes' detractors over the years, more than his contentiousness in defending those truths he deemed to be self-evident, was his apparent hypocrisy. He ruled out the possibility of dissent or even discussion. Hayes always declared that football build solid citizens, then went out on the field and behaved like a thug if he lost.

Hayes recited for the luncheon audience his honor roll of great Buckeye athletes, including Jack Nicklaus, John Havlicek, Archie Griffin and Jesse Ownes -- "who in 1936 drove that no-account Hitler out of his own stadium because he didn't want to present an Olympic gold medal to a black man." He spoke in proud, reverential tones of the Ohio State tradition... and then went out and soiled it.

"There is not a university or athletic conference in this country which would permit a coach to physically assault a college athlete," OSU president Harold Enarson said Saturday in explaining why he and Athletic Director Hugh Hindman had decided early Saturday morning that Hayes had to be fired. Hayes had refused to resign saying "that would make it too easy for you."

Hayes told his Jacksonville disciples: "One thing we teach in the football course at Ohio State and demonstrate every Saturday -- and this is not the case everyplace -- is how to play and win together." And yet, when Clemson middle guard Charlie Bauman intercepted the fateful pass that killed the Buckeyes' last drive, Hayes ran out and attacked him alone.

"One thing he would never put up with was fighting, especially on the field," Kelton Dansler, a star Ohio State linebacker, said sadly. "And then he started a very ugly fight... When he looks back, I think Coach Hayes will remember a whole lot about this game."

Hayes prided himself on his ability to speak for them, thereby isolating and protecting them from the divisive forces he imagined to be lurking behind every camera, microphone and notepad.

"Sometimes there are great efforts made to infiltrate the locker room, to get one kid to say something against another kid," the General said Thursday. "I never have permitted this, and I never will. Any problems we have within our squad, we'll keep to ourselves."

Hayes turned out to be the biggest problem. Most of his players over the years did think of him in a fatherly way, with respect and admiration.

"I know a lot of his former players have come back and said that all the stuff Coach Hayes told them didn't mean that much at the time, but after they got away and thought about it, they realized he was telling them right," Dansler said. But that had started to change.

"The attitude is different from when I first came to Ohio State four years ago," Dansler said. "There was a loss of respect for elders -- younger players to older players and older players to coaches.You could feel it in the air. When I was a freshman, we all thought the best players were playing. The last couple of years, it seemed like some people should have played more than they did...

"Guys wondered about some of the things.Coach Hayes did, and were embarrassed by others, but they didn't say anything. Some might have been afraid of him, because you never know what he's going to do. But if you don't know what the players are feeling, you're not really in touch."

The final irony of Thursday's luncheon was that tales of Hayes' temper were a source of comic relief. Frank Howard, the old Clemson coach, talked about some of Hayes' most celebrated sideline snits and jokes, "Woody, if you kick any markers, I hope you break your toe."

Keith Jackson, the ABC-TV commentator who emceed the luncheon recalled an episode from last New Year's Day, when Hayes threw a tantrum during a 35-6 loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and punched the goalposts at halftime.

Hayes grinned as Jackson said, "Woody, they don't pad the goalposts as well in the Gator Bowl," and handed him a pair of boxing gloves.

Everybody laughed. It was a funny gag. But it doesn't seem so funny anymore.