Zach Smith was with Earle Bruce, his grandfather, when the former Ohio State football coach died early Friday.
Later in the morning, Smith felt compelled to travel to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“I wanted to see my players, get around them,” the Buckeyes’ wide receivers coach told The Dispatch. “Going through this mourning process and having my players reach out to me and … (being) around them is how you get through things like this.”
That closeness is what Smith saw as a young boy watching his grandfather’s relationships with his players. It’s why he wanted to become a coach himself.
“When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I wanted to do something impactful,” Smith said. “Not something to make money or do something that was ‘fun.’ When I saw the unbelievable impact he made in other people’s lives, that was all I needed to see to know what I wanted to do.”
Bruce was a devoted family man to his late wife Jean and four daughters. It can be difficult to put in the time to be a successful coach and do that as well. Smith said the two sides of Bruce were inextricably linked.
“He was a great football coach because of the father he was, the grandfather he was, the person he was,” he said. “That transcends a profession. It’s what made him great in his profession.
“He genuinely cared about people he worked with, he coached, he mentored — and his family. It was all the same. It was one big family to him.
“The impact he had on his family and on his players was so great that it will continue to pay forward to generations upon generations. He left a lasting impact that will forever be felt due to his relationships.”
Bruce suffered a stroke in 2015 and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2017. Once a regular presence at the practice facility, that changed as the disease progressed. But on March 8, his 87th birthday, he attended an OSU practice for the final time.
“You could really see the decline in his health and he was really frustrated and upset with the Alzheimer’s and not being able to come out,” Smith said. “That day he got to come out, he lit up like a Christmas tree.
“You saw a different person than you had been seeing because he loved to be around it. He loves the Buckeyes and loves the game. With all the players interacting with him, he was a different human being.”
Bruce was the Buckeyes head coach at Ohio State from 1979-87 and an assistant under Woody Hayes before that. He coached at several other places, but at heart he was a Buckeye.
“That was in his blood,” Smith said. “People say that. He lived it. The Buckeye community really felt that. They felt he was one of them.
“It wasn’t someone who came here, worked here and left and went other places. It was somebody that, no matter where he was coaching, was a Buckeye.”