It was just before Ohio State took the field for a game at Illinois in 1982 when then-fourth-year OSU coach Earle Bruce turned to assistant Glen Mason and delivered a stunning statement.
“I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Well bud, I’m coaching for my job today,’ ” Mason recalled Friday, in the wake of the news of Bruce’s death.
The Buckeyes were coming off three straight losses at home early in that season. All but forgotten was the way Bruce had taken over for the fired Woody Hayes in 1979 and led the team to the brink of a national championship before a one-point Rose Bowl loss to Southern California. They had gone 9-3 in the two seasons since then and seemed on their way to a worse-than-that record in ’82.
“But at Illinois we played a heck of a game, we ended up winning (26-21), and the rest was history,” Mason said.
That team reeled off seven straight victories, with a finish that included wins over Michigan and over Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl. To this day Mason, who went on to become a successful head coach at Kent State, Kansas and Minnesota, thinks the way Bruce righted that ’82 ship was as great a coaching job as he’s seen.
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“But Earle really thought that day at Illinois if we’d lost our fourth in a row, he likely wouldn’t be the coach the next week,” Mason said. “He wasn’t panicked, though. It was just kind of a matter of fact, 'OK, let’s do our job.' ”
That fundamentalist approach was one of the things players and coaches from the nine-year Bruce era at OSU remembered. But there was one word that running back Keith Byars, lineman Jim Lachey and quarterback Mike Tomczak, along with Mason, used first to describe Bruce.
“Passion,” Lachey said. “He had a passion for Ohio State football as great as anyone I’ve ever been around.”
Byars, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy race to Doug Flutie in 1984 and was the odds-on favorite to win it in ’85 before a broken bone in his foot stunted that season, said Bruce’s passion endured. And he meant well after he was fired by OSU in 1987 yet returned years later to become a media darling. Byars shared the radio mic with him at one point.
“Every night he’d have you ready to run through a brick wall again for the game,” Byars said. “His passion for football never changed. Being a football person is more than a job. We’re football lifers.
“I was talking to the (current Ohio State) team last week when they were getting their gold pants for beating Michigan again and I told them, ‘I’m going to be that 85-, 90-year-old guy in the upper stands on a Friday night in a high school stadium watching football because I love the game that much.’ And that was coach Bruce.”
Tomczak was central to the 1982 team’s renaissance. But as a first-year starting quarterback, he had been benched by Bruce headed into the third of those three straight losses against Wisconsin. Later, Bruce told him why.
“He said, ‘You know, Michael, if I had started you and we wouldn’t have won, you would never have played again at Ohio State,’ " Tomczak said. “That always stuck with me, because it gave me that chip on my shoulder. … He was so supportive.”
Bring up Bruce to Tomczak and “I don’t think words can describe what he truly meant to me. He always supported me as a person first. … He molded me. He was one of the many reasons I went to Ohio State, and that’s why I’m a Buckeye for life.”
So Bruce was a fundamentalist, he had passion, compassion and one more important thing for the job. Remember, Lachey said, Bruce replaced Hayes.
“Coach Bruce had guts,” Lachey said, “because Woody Hayes, talk about a god-like figure, that was him. And to replace him, they got Earle and he did about as good a job as you could do replacing a legend.”