Succeeding a legend is often an impossible task.
That’s what Earle Bruce faced when he replaced Woody Hayes as Ohio State’s football coach, in 1979. Bruce didn’t win a national championship, as Hayes did multiple times. But he became a legend in his own right, anyway, for as much as what he did off the field as on it.
Bruce, who suffered a stroke in 2015 and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last year, died Friday morning. He was 87.
“He was a great man, a wonderful husband, father and grandfather, and a respected coach to many,” his four daughters said in a statement. “Our family will miss him dearly, but we take solace in the belief that he is in a better place and reunited with his beloved wife, Jean. We thank you for your prayers and good wishes.”
Bruce had a record of 81-26-1 in nine seasons at Ohio State. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003 for a coaching career that also included tenures at the University of Tampa, Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Colorado State.
>> Nate Beeler cartoon: Remembering Earle Bruce
Though he never won a national title as a head coach, several of his protégés did. Current Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and former coach Jim Tressel, Alabama coach Nick Saban and Seattle Seahawks and former Southern California coach Pete Carroll were among those who served as assistant coaches under Bruce.
“I’ve made it clear many times that, other than my father, Coach Bruce was the most influential man in my life,” Meyer said in a statement. “Every significant decision I’ve made growing up in this profession was with him involved in it.
“His wife and he were 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, who had been an assistant under Hayes, was Iowa State’s coach when Ohio State hired him to replace Hayes, the Buckeyes coach for 28 years. Hayes was fired for punching Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman at the end of the 1978 Gator Bowl.
In Bruce’s first season, Ohio State nearly won the national title as he opened up what had been a stodgy offense. The 1979 Buckeyes opened the season unranked before ascending to the No. 1 ranking after an 18-15 victory at Michigan to cap an undefeated regular season. Ohio State led No. 3 Southern California in the Rose Bowl before the Trojans rallied for a 17-16 victory.
That first season would prove to be the best Buckeyes team he would have. Ohio State went 9-3 the next six seasons and 10-3 in 1986.
The Buckeyes began 1987 ranked No. 5, but star wide receiver Cris Carter was ruled ineligible before the season, which went south. Ohio State lost 31-10 to Indiana and then lost three straight games heading into the finale against Michigan.
That prompted Ohio State president Ed Jennings to order Bruce’s firing. Athletic director Rick Bay objected and resigned in protest.
The game in Ann Arbor that year became one of the most memorable in the history of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. His players wore headbands that read “EARLE” and “BRUCE” and the underdog Buckeyes upset the Wolverines, 23-20. Bruce, wearing a fedora, was carried off the field as he pumped his arms in triumph.
He won five of nine games against Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines.
“I don’t think he gets as much credit for being a smart football coach as he was with X’s and O’s,” said Chris Spielman, an All-American linebacker at OSU in the 1980s. “He was really bright, and tough and demanding. In other words, for me he was the perfect coach.
“But the most important lesson he taught me was when he got fired, that whole week, he didn’t want to take away from the players’ experience of Michigan week. Even though everything was about coach Bruce, it did not affect how we practiced or the enthusiasm, the experience, of Michigan week.”
Spielman said he drew on that selfless attitude throughout his professional playing career and when his wife, Stefanie, fought through several bouts of cancer that eventually took her life.
“When Stefanie had her battle, it was always the team before me,” he said. “Whatever I was going through internally, it didn’t matter because it was the team first. That was a lifelong lesson I took from him.”
After his firing at Ohio State, Bruce was hired as Northern Iowa’s coach in 1988. The next season, Colorado State hired Bruce. He went 22-24-1 in four seasons.
Bruce later coached in the Arena Football League, including one season, in 2004, as the coach of the Columbus Destroyers.
He worked as an Ohio State football commentator for WTVN-AM starting in 1993. After his stroke, he appeared on taped segments until Alzheimer’s set in. Bruce was a tireless fundraiser for Alzheimer’s research, raising more than $1 million. The disease has hit several other members of his family.
Bruce was born March 8, 1931, and raised in Cumberland, Maryland. He was recruited by Ohio State coach Wes Fesler, but he played only for the freshman team in 1950 before a knee injury ended his career.
“I went back home to Cumberland and I didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to go,” Bruce said in an interview for his book, “Buckeye Wisdom.”
Fesler was fired after the 1950 season. He was replaced by Hayes, who sent an aide to Maryland to persuade Bruce to return to Ohio State and help the coaches.
“Little did I know that I would be the guy to replace Woody Hayes,” Bruce said.
Bruce coached at several Ohio high schools before Hayes hired him as an assistant coach in 1966. Hayes was notoriously difficult on his assistants, and Bruce was no exception.
In his first spring, Bruce felt tightness in his chest. The team doctor and athletic trainer explained to Bruce that the symptom was common among first-year assistants under Hayes.
“They said, ‘Welcome to the club,’ ” Bruce recalled.
They advised him to take a Valium, take a long bath “and just cuss Woody Hayes until you’re done. Then you’ll walk away and have no more chest pains.”
Bruce did that, but his 4- and 2-year-old daughters heard him and got scared that their father was in trouble.
Though he admitted there were times that he wanted to do Hayes harm, he eventually developed tremendous fondness and respect for him.
“He’s my No. 1 guy,” Bruce said. “I’m probably more like him in coaching than anyone else.”
That was true, though he didn’t have Hayes’ occasionally uncontrollable rage. But he did have Hayes’ passion. Even in retirement, his face would turn red and he looked loaded for bear if he disagreed strongly with an opinion.
In his later years, whatever hard feelings he harbored about his firing from Ohio State had long faded. On Oct. 1, 2016, he was given the rare of honor of dotting the “I” when the Ohio State marching band performed Script Ohio before the Buckeyes’ game against Rutgers.
“I can’t imagine how unbelievable it was for him, knowing how much he loves this place and what an honor it is,” said his grandson Zach Smith, Ohio State’s wide receivers coach. “For me, it was amazing to witness and experience because I knew how much it meant to him. It showed how much love and respect Buckeye Nation had for him.”
Bruce stood and basked in the attention as the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Then he doffed his hat — a fedora such as the one he first wore, with a suit, before the 1987 Cotton Bowl. His fired-up players upset Texas A&M that day.
Asked what he remembered about his former coach, former OSU running back Keith Byars, arguably Bruce’s best player at OSU, recalled many attributes.
“There’s a whole lot of ‘first things’ that come to mind,” Byars said. “Enthusiasm. His love for Ohio State University. His love of being a football coach. His love for people. He was a football coach’s football coach. He loved the game.”
John Cooper agreed. He succeeded Bruce at Ohio State, and in the last two decades grew to be good friends with him.
“You talking about a true Buckeye. I don’t know of anybody — whether he’s a fan, a coach, a player — that loved Ohio State more than Earle Bruce,” Cooper said. “And what you saw from him is what you got. There no middle of the road with him. He told you like it was.
“He was tough, hard-nosed, and in my opinion, one of the best to ever coach the game.”
When the Woody Hayes Athletic Center was renovated and expanded in the mid-2000s, then-coach Jim Tressel made sure offices were set aside in the facility for Bruce and Cooper, who coached the Buckeyes from 1988-2000.
Tressel, now the president of Youngstown State University, had served as an assistant on Bruce’s staff in the mid-1980s.
“Coach Bruce was truly a difference-maker in my life and the lives of so many Buckeyes,” Tressel said in a message to The Dispatch. “He taught us how to do it right, and challenged us with extremely high expectations. … I love him and I will miss him.”
Bruce is survived by four daughters, Lynn, Michele, Aimee and Noel. He also has nine grandchildren. Jean Bruce died in 2011.
A public celebration of Bruce’s life is scheduled to be held at St. John Arena at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. Bruce’s family will receive friends from 4-8 p.m. Wednesday at Schoedinger Worthington Chapel. Services and burial will be Thursday at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church for family, close friends, former players and coaches.
Dispatch reporter Tim May contributed to this story.