SEE ALSO: Former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce remembered
Earle Bruce rocked a fedora and suit in his final game with the Ohio State football team.
The Buckeyes, rallying for their already-fired coach, came from behind that day in Ann Arbor and rocked the Michigan Wolverines.
Bruce’s fedora wasn’t the only fashion statement that Saturday in November 1987. Many of Bruce’s players wore headbands with “Earle” written on them. It was their way of letting then-Ohio State President Ed Jennings how they felt about his firing of “Old 9 and 3.”
Bruce had taken on the unenviable job of replacing a legend in Woody Hayes, who was fired in disgrace after a career-ending meltdown.
After going 11-1 in 1979 — his first season — and losing only to Southern Cal, 17-16, in the Rose Bowl, Bruce’s teams always seemed to go 9-3. He was 5-4 against Michigan and 81-26-1 overall with the Buckeyes, but Bruce was under-appreciated, especially by Jennings.
That changed as the years passed, in part because no matter where Earle went, part of him stayed at Ohio State, even though he was an adopted son of Ohio, coming to Columbus in 1949 from Coumberland, Md., to play for Hayes.
Bruce worked all over the country in a coaching life well spent, but as former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said, “his heart was always in Columbus.”
After retiring from coaching in 1992 (his last job was at Colorado State) he got to take a 25-year victory lap as Head Coach Emeritus at Ohio State, where two of his former assistants — Tressel and Urban Meyer — coached the Buckeyes to national championships.
Long before that victory lap ended Friday morning with his death at 87, Bruce had become revered in Columbus.
The men he coached and the assistants he employed knew it from the start.
“Earle was a difference maker in my life and career and those of many others,” said Tressel, now a university president himself at Youngstown State. “Like any teacher, he had high expectations for you and he expected you to meet them.”
Meyer, now the Buckeyes head coach, was similarly inspired by Bruce.
“I’ve made it clear many times that, other than my father, Coach Bruce was the most influential man in my life,” he said.
“Every significant decision I’ve made growing up in this profession was with him involved in it. His wife [Jean] and he were the role models for Shelley and me. They did everything with class. He was not afraid to show how much he loved his family and cared for his family.”
Bruce was passionate, especially when it came to the annual game in November against That Team Up North.
The feisty former high school coach — who got his start in coaching at Salem — certainly passed it onto Tressel and Meyer.
“Earle was passionate about everything,” Tressel said. “Whatever the discussion was, he was passionate. It could be football, politics, family or his coaches. He always had that fire.”
Even in his later years, Bruce was a constant presence at Ohio State. He was a fixture in the press box at Ohio Stadium and often accompanied the Buckeyes on the road.
When Ohio State and Florida met in early 2007 in a BCS national championship game pitting Tressel and Meyer against one another, Bruce was in his glory. I got to spend an hour sitting with him at a table on the veranda at an Arizona resort a few days before the game.
It was one of those rare opportunities — a delightful, unexpected and unscripted one-on-one — you never forget.
Let’s just say Earle never lost the ability to inspire. When it was finally time to go our separate ways, I felt like putting on a helmet and pads and hitting someone.
“I spent three years with Earle as an assistant at Ohio State and all 10 of my years as the head coach, he was always there,” Tressel said. “He and [former Buckeyes head coach] John Cooper co-taught my class at Ohio State. I feel like I actually coached 13 seasons with Earle. I could always go to Earle and John and bounce things off them and some input on things.
“Sometimes, I didn’t even ask for input and I got it anyway.”
That was Earle, who never stopped coaching. He just eventually stopped getting paid to do it.
Bruce’s family said he battled Alzheimer’s in recent years. His wife Jean died in 2011.
“Earle lived a good, passionate life,” Tressel said. “The last couple of years were tough, but he lived a great life.”
Bruce was active as a game-day analyst for a radio station and he hosted an annual “Beat Michigan” tailgate the Friday before The Game, whether it was in Columbus or Ann Arbor.
“They’d decided to have the last one in Ann Arbor [this past season] and we got to be there with him,” Tressel said. “You could tell that Earle’s health wasn’t the best, but you could see him smiling and how much he enjoyed being there with all those guys around him.
“This obviously comes as a little bit of a shock today,” Tressel said. “But when something like this happens, you realize how fortunate you were to be around someone like him.”
Tressel is not nearly alone. Eleven of the last 16 college football national championships have been won by head coaches who once worked for Bruce. Tressel, Meyer, Nick Saban and Pete Carroll all saw their careers start as Bruce assistants.
There are many more branches on the Earle Bruce coaching tree, and that may well be his lasting legacy.
But more than 30 years later, I can still see Bruce — fedora cocked on his head — pacing the sideline at Michigan Stadium. I can still see the Buckeyes — joyous and saddened in the same bittersweet moment — carrying him off the field one final time.
Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.