Old football coaches don’t fade away, they simply re-emerge in a new and often nicer world than the one they toiled in for so long.
So it was with Earle Bruce, the former Ohio State coach who died Friday at age 87. When he coached the Buckeyes, Bruce had his media meltdowns. Fans were tough on “9-3 Earle,” too. The pressure of the job, combined with a general coaching tendency to control every aspect of the program, turned Woody Hayes’ replacement into a fair facsimile of Wayne Woodrow himself.
Then Bruce retired as a coach and became a radio analyst — a media personality! — for WTVN and it was like the Grinch hearing those joyful voices down in Whoville. And a happy “Fah who Foraze,” to you, too.
Bruce did an adequate if not overwhelming job at Ohio State from 1979 to 1987. But Bruce the radio analyst was fantastic. There was no façade to the man who once famously wore a fedora during the Cotton Bowl. Bruce never hid his partiality but also brought objectivity to his analysis. When the Buckeyes stunk, he said so.
Former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman, who worked with Bruce on radio and co-hosts his own morning sports talk show on WXZX in Columbus, marvels at the job his former coach did with a microphone in front of him.
“I thought he was tremendous on the radio,” Spielman said. “He was everything you wanted an analyst to be — a straight shooter. He doesn’t get enough credit for how good he was.”
Earle’s Everyfan approach to radio turned a sometime coaching ogre into a beloved broadcast presence in Columbus. Bruce became the grandfather who says exactly what he thinks, this time about players he spent nine years trying to keep quiet.
Jack Torry, Washington bureau chief for The Dispatch, covered Ohio State for the Citizen-Journal when Bruce coached the Buckeyes.
“He was a pain at times to cover,” Torry said. “He regarded everything as top secret. I sat next to tackle Bill Jaco on the team bus from the hotel to Minnesota’s stadium and casually chatted with him. Afterwards, Earle accused me of interviewing players on the bus. He went bananas when I reported he had kicked an offensive tackle off the team.”
Torry eventually came to regard Bruce as an outstanding coach but could not have seen a radio career in the making.
What happened to transform Bruce from press devil into media darling? It’s called retirement, which mellows not only the man but the fans who once had it in for him. Former head coaches are like backup quarterbacks. What’s not to love?
“You don’t do anything when you get out of coaching to make people not like you,” said John Cooper, the former Ohio State coach whose career was not unlike Bruce’s — a mix of highs and lows with a gradual fade at the end that led to both being fired.
Coop is more popular than when he coached the Buckeyes. And much less of a punchline. He insists he is the same person now as then, with one important exception.
“The first word you learn around here is ‘No,’” he said, adding he should have said it more often early in his Ohio State tenure, especially when it came to accommodating the media.
Cooper explained that only when looking back can a coach better understand why he behaved the way he did.
“When you coach, you’re so dang tied up in it that you don’t get out very often,” Cooper said. “You never see Urban (Meyer) out, but that’s the life of a football coach. Now I’m out in the community, playing golf, taking walks with my wife and enjoying life. That’s why you look back after you’re out of it and, ‘Lord, have mercy.’ ”
Thank the Lord there also is life after coaching. Otherwise, we never would have enjoyed the on-air beauty of Earle Bruce.