Three Things Can Happen When You Pass and Two of Them Are Bad

Woody Hayes? Darrell Royal? Bernie Moore?

Dear Quote Investigator: It’s football season and I received an email from a friend with a collection of quotations from coaches and players. One of the sayings about passing the ball is credited to Woody Hayes, but I think it should probably be attributed to Darrell Royal, coach of the Texas Longhorns:

Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.

Can you determine who first expressed this aphorism?

Quote Investigator: Candidly, the results of this exploration are confusing. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a column by Bud Shrake in the Dallas Morning News in 1962, and it supported the belief that Darrell Royal created and/or popularized this adage [DRDM]:

Two plays later Wade threw another pass. The ball was batted into the air and Aggie linebacker Jerry Hopkins intercepted at the Texas 49.

You could almost hear Royal repeating his maxim: “When you throw a pass three things can happen to it, and two of them are bad.”

In 1963 the book “Darrell Royal Talks Football” by Darrell Royal with Blackie Sherrod was published, and it discussed the primary author’s philosophy of coaching.  A version of the aphorism was given, and Royal did not give credit to anyone else when he used the expression [DRDR]:

I might say this: we’ve always been a running team and I’m sure we will continue to be so. (We’ve been criticized for it, I might add.) But I’ve always felt that three things can happen to you whenever you throw the football, and two of them are bad. You can catch the ball, you can throw it incomplete, or have it intercepted.

Over the years other individuals have been connected to the saying. For example, in 1966 Woody Hayes, the celebrated football coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, was attached to the aphorism [WHPD]:

Woody also professes to the theory that when you pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad.

The early evidence points strongly to Darrell Royal as the creator of this saying. But there is a key piece of counter-evidence that appeared in an interview that Royal gave in 2005 that was published in The Columbus Dispatch. Royal himself attributed the maxim to Woody Hayes according to the reporter [DRWH]:

“Now, you can hear some stuff in a barbershop. You can pick up some wisdom there. I’m just a model of the people I’ve been around in my life, and Woody was one of those people.”

Royal credits Ohio State’s Hayes, his contemporary and friend, with being the first one to say three things can happen on a pass play and two of them are bad.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The earliest citation in this presentation attributed the maxim to Darrell Royal. This cite was dated November 1962 and the details were given above. Next, Darrell Royal’s 1963 book about coaching mentioned previously contained the maxim. Next, in December 1963 an Associated Press story yet again credited the aphorism to Royal [DRVA]:

Texas Coach Darrell Royal says, “There are three things that can happen on a forward pass – and two of them are bad.” He meant an incompletion and an interception, of course.

Top etymology and quotation tracing expert Barry Popik also found that early citations credited Darrell Royal with the expression.

In January 1964 the New York Times reported “Royal Is Chosen as Coach of Year,” and the article included a quotation from Royal discussing the maxim. The newspaper did not mention any other coaches sharing the adage with Royal [DRNY]:

Royal’s teams stress defense and a running rather than a passing offense. He has said three things can happen when a team throws a pass—one good, two bad.

“You complete the pass, that’s good,” he repeated yesterday. “You don’t complete it, that’s bad. Or the other team intercepts it and that’s very bad.”

A few days later in January 1964 the Associated Press sports writer Jim Becker published a comical article containing a collection of quotations. However, the supposed quotes were parodies and not actual quotes. The saying under investigation was well known enough in 1964 that Becker created a humorously altered version and attributed it to Bernie Moore [YVBM]:

Bernie Moore, commissioner of the Southeast Conference: “Our teams prefer the fumble following a third down punt, but the field goal in moderation is okay. Three things can happen to you on a touchdown and two of them are bad. Touchdowns run the score up. Fans don’t like them. We had a game down here the other day that was 5-3. You’ve got to watch that. Leave the scoring circuses to the pros.”

In January 1966 the aphorism was ascribed to Coach Woody Hayes. This citation was given earlier in the article [WHPD]:

Woody also professes to the theory that when you pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad. Nevertheless he instructed Long to pass 23 times for 14 completions and 154 yards.

In 1969 Life magazine claimed that Woody Hayes was the first to give voice to the maxim [WHLM]:

It was Woody Hayes who first said, “There are only three things that can happen on a pass, and two of them are bad.” His style was celebrated as the ultimate in dull, enormously successful football.

The connection between the saying and Royal was still robust in 1974 as shown by this excerpt from an Associated Press article [DRTB]:

The most famous quote in Darrell Royal’s quotable career goes something like this: “Three things can happen when you pass the ball, and two of them are bad.”

Sometimes the person using the quotation was unidentified. In a Los Angeles Times sports column in 1978 the words were placed on the backboard of an anonymous coach [ACLA]:

It was an era when college coaches pasted up on the blackboard conservative things like, “When a forward pass is thrown, three things can happen, and two of them are bad,” or “He who lives by the pass, dies by the pass.”

In 1991 the Dallas Morning News unabashedly credited Royal with the football proverb [DRDN]:

Darrell Royal said it first : “When you put the ball in the air, three things can happen to you and two of them are bad.’

Lastly, in 2005 a journalist who was interviewing Darrell Royal stated that Royal gave credit to Woody Hayes for the saying. Here is a slightly longer excerpt [DRWH]:

“The things I said came from my upbringing in southwest Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl,” Royal said. “I shined shoes in a barbershop. Now, you can hear some stuff in a barbershop. You can pick up some wisdom there. I’m just a model of the people I’ve been around in my life, and Woody was one of those people.”

Royal credits Ohio State’s Hayes, his contemporary and friend, with being the first one to say three things can happen on a pass play and two of them are bad.

In conclusion, the data in newspapers in the early 1960s and the contents of Royal’s book show that Royal popularized the expression. However, Royal stated that Woody Hayes was responsible for the saying in 2005. So, QI will defer to the judgment of Royal and suggests that the questioner credit Hayes. Thank you for this tricky question.

[DRDM] 1962 November 23, Dallas Morning News, “Texas Presents Something New?” by Bud Shrake Section 2, Page 2, Column 5, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)

[DRDR] 1963, Darrell Royal Talks Football by Darrell Royal with Blackie Sherrod, Page 97, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper in 4th printing February 1964)

[WHPD] 1966 October 23, Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Bucks Rebound, Beat Wisconsin”, Page 8-C [GNB Page 59], Column 5, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[DRWH] 2006 September 9, The Columbus Dispatch, “Royal took Longhorns from oblivion to No. 1″ by Todd Jones, Section Sports, Page 07E, Columbus, Ohio. (NewsBank)

[DRVA] 1963 December 29, Victoria Advocate, Middies See Chance For No. 1 Spot, [Associated Press], Page 11A, Column 2, Victoria, Texas. (Google News Archive)

[DRNY] 1964 January 9, New York Times, Royal Is Chosen as Coach of Year by William N. Wallace, Page 24, New York. (ProQuest)

[YVBM] 1964 January 15, Youngstown Vindicator, Likely Opinions On Field Goals From Sports Personalities by Jim Becker, [Associated Press], Page 42 [GNA Page 22], Column 3, Youngstown, Ohio. (Google News Archive)

[WHLM] 1969 November 21, Life, The Reincarnation of Woody Hayes by William Barry Furlong, Start Page 51, Quote Page 52, Column 1, Volume 67, Number 21 Time Inc., New York. (Google Books full view)

[DRTB] 1974 December 30, Toledo Blade, Mistakes Wreck Texas’ Hopes, [Associated Press], Page 12 [GNA Page 23], Column 5, Toledo, Ohio. (Google News Archive)

[ACLA] 1978 January 27, Los Angeles Times, “Johnny U., Model QB” by Jim Murray, Page F1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[DRDN] 1991 September 19, Dallas Morning News, “Ground attack keeps Plano in control at 2-0″ by Tom Williams, Section Plano, Page 1g, Dallas, Texas. (NewsBank)