The phone rang at 3:30 in the morning. Earle Bruce was on the other end.

“I’m staying,” he said.

To be fair, it was only 12:30 a.m. where he was that day in January 1987 — in San Diego at a football coaches’ convention. But as far as he was concerned, time was standing still.

Not only was the University of Arizona after him to be its new football coach, but he actually had agreed to take the job the night before, and he knew my story saying as much already was set to be printed in the morning edition of The Dispatch.

It was too late for a rewrite.

“Sorry about that,” Bruce said, “but I’ve changed my mind and I wanted you to know.”

He explained that in the interim he had spoken with several friends and OSU players. They had been, he said, emotional conversations.

“I’m going with my heart,” Bruce said. “I’m staying.”

Those last two words were huge, and he knew it.

>> Nate Beeler cartoon: Remembering Earle Bruce

One reason Arizona was after him, offering a lucrative multiyear contract, was that he had just led Ohio State to a 10-3 season. It had started with back-to-back losses to Alabama and Washington, but he had rallied the team to nine straight wins. Then came a crushing 26-24 loss to Michigan — the “guarantee” game by Wolverines quarterback Jim Harbaugh — that left OSU with a Big Ten co-championship and Cotton Bowl berth.

In that Cotton Bowl, Bruce revealed an image change. As he stood in front his team before its field entry before kickoff, he wore a suit and fedora, not his usual OSU jacket and cap. The Buckeyes, led by linebacker Chris Spielman and quarterback Jim Karsatos, went out and upset Texas A&M 28-12.

In postgame interviews, when I reminded Bruce that his team had just finished 10-3, his face drew up into that customary scowl and he retorted: “Yeah, no more of that 9 and 3 (bleep).”

Critics had stamped the nickname “9-and-3 Earle” on him because, after his first season of 1979 when as Woody Hayes’ successor he took the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record and the brink of a national championship, he’d gone 9-3 from 1980 through ’85. That not-bad-but-not-great run had left Bruce feeling the heat to improve not only from fans and media but also from his Ohio State bosses.

When Arizona came after him with its offer, the OSU administration led by president Ed Jennings refused to counter. Bruce already was operating under the first extended contract — three years — in OSU football coaching history. Rick Bay, the athletic director at the time, wanted to sweeten the pot, but was not granted the authority.

So Bruce not only listened to Arizona, he agreed to take the job. Then he changed his mind, believing his future belonged with the Buckeyes.

Within months, his dream began to unravel. On March 12, 1987, Hayes died. As long as Hayes was alive, insiders believed, Bruce was untouchable in regards to being fired.

An Ohio State alumnus, he’d been an assistant on Hayes’ staff in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he was a Hayes disciple, and when Hayes was fired after the Gator Bowl in 1978, Bruce — then head coach at Iowa State — had the guts to take the OSU job.

On that same March day in 1987, news broke that a grand jury was investigating a couple of sports agents, and that star OSU receiver Cris Carter had been implicated for taking benefits. Carter was dismissed from the team for breaking NCAA rules.

Thus were the beginnings of the cascade of events culminated by three straight losses late in the 1987 season that led to Bruce’s firing on the Monday of the week leading up to the regular-season finale at Michigan.

It turned out to be one of the memorable episodes in the history of The Game. Before kickoff, OSU players sported “Earle” and “Bruce” headbands as a show of respect for their coach, then the Buckeyes went on to upset the Wolverines 23-20.

That left Bruce with a 5-4 record over Michigan and its coach Bo Schembechler. And the Buckeyes had finished 6-4-1 — again, no more of that 9-3 stuff.

In the years after Bruce decided to turn down Arizona and stay at Ohio State, he never admitted that he had made a colossal error. Indeed, his decision actually helped endear him to OSU fans as the years progressed.

tmay@dispatch.com

@TIM_MAYsports