If Ryan Day finds the same success following a college football coaching legend in Urban Meyer that Earle Bruce did following another legend, Ohio State will play for the national championship this season.
A long shot? Yes, but that’s also what most people thought in 1979, when Bruce was hired to replace Woody Hayes, who had been fired after the 1978 Gator Bowl.
Forty years ago, all Bruce did was coach the Buckeyes to within 83 yards — the distance of Southern California’s winning drive in the final minutes of the Rose Bowl — of being voted Associated Press poll champions. Ohio State, ranked No. 1 in the final AP regular-season poll, finished No. 4 at 11-1, the lone blemish a 17-16 loss to the Trojans on New Year’s Day 1980.
It was a sterling season that few fans saw coming, mostly because Bruce was taking over for Hayes, who had run the program since 1951.
Without the power of Woody, players initially struggled with team identity.
“We were not sure who we are,” said Bob Atha, a sophomore in 1979 who handled kickoffs and long field-goal attempts.
Players knew what to expect from Hayes. Run the ball first. Second. And third. But also walk on eggshells around the “old man,” who would go berserk during practices — “Megatons,” the assistants called the meltdowns — if plays were not executed perfectly. Assistants edited practice mistakes out of the daily film to keep Hayes from going off.
Bruce was an unknown commodity. The 47-year-old had ties to Ohio State — a 1953 OSU graduate and former Hayes assistant — but lacked big-name recognition, having come from Iowa State after a stint at the University of Tampa.
There was some trepidation in the scarlet-and-gray ranks, but also a dirty little secret: A growing number of Ohio State fans, and even some players, were not sorry to see Hayes go. There were whispers — few went public with their concerns — that the game had passed Hayes by.
Bruce’s hiring did not excite the masses; many considered him Woody-lite. As it turns out, a lighter touch was just what the Buckeyes needed.
“That ’79 team was still Woody’s, mostly all returners,” said former linebacker Al Washington Sr., whose son, Al Washington Jr., is the linebackers coach under Day. “But what Earle brought to the situation was a new style. He was a breath of fresh air … that type of offensive ball had never been played (at OSU). Earle was a very good coach and a very good person. He was kind of high strung, but so was Woody.”
Bruce, who died on April 20, 2018, at age 87, was not afraid to throw the ball. It might not have been his first choice, but neither was it a last resort.
“It was like I went from wide guard to wide receiver,” said Doug Donley, a junior on the ’79 team. “Earle was a good mix between Woody and who he was. We loved Woody, but you can’t throw the ball only six times a game.”
Day might call that many passes on the first series of Ohio State’s season opener against Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
The differences between Day and Bruce don’t end at play-calling. Bruce was more like Hayes in personality than Day is like Meyer. Is that good or bad? I have heard it proffered that Day might be too nice to succeed on the same level as Meyer.
Two thoughts: First, forget personality. Day could be the most demanding coach in America — making Nick Saban look soft by comparison — and still would struggle to match Meyer’s record with the Buckeyes: 83-9 (.902), including 7-0 against Michigan, a national championship among two playoff appearances, and never losing more than two games in a season.
Second, nice guys win, too. Jim Tressel and Dabo Swinney come to mind.
Washington Sr. chimed in on the topic.
“The way I see it, don’t take kindness as a sign of weakness,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’m weak. It just means I’m nice. Does it matter if someone hits you while smiling or frowning? At the end of day, you’re still knocked out.”
There also is this: Players often appreciate hearing a new voice. Day has been in the program the past two seasons, but only as deputy sheriff. His words now hold more weight, and how they come across offers a fresh perspective. Through eight months on the job, Day has come off as more relaxed but just as competitive as Meyer, according to players.
Ditto the transition from Hayes to Bruce.
“When Earle came in, it was like new life,” Atha said. “We were willing to do whatever it took to win. To this day, it’s as close-knit of a team as I’ve ever been involved in.”
Similarities between the 1979 and 2019 Buckeyes go beyond new coaches, to new systems. Few knew exactly what to expect from Bruce’s offense in ’79; this season, OSU’s defense is ripe for examination.
Just as Bruce overhauled Hayes’ offense, Day brought in four new defensive coaches to fix what failed last season in what was the worst defense statistically in school history.
Then there is the talent factor. The current roster is dotted with future NFL players and five-star recruits. Still, there is some mystery, especially at quarterback. Justin Fields has never taken a nonscrimmage snap in the Horseshoe.
The 1979 team also was rich in talent, including sophomore quarterback Art Schlichter. The roster just needed a new coach to bring the best from the talent.
Bruce was it.
“It was a new face, and we wanted to win desperately,” Atha said, explaining how the ’79 Buckeyes were better than advertised. “We felt we were talented and not given much respect.”
Sound familiar? New coach. Tons of talent. Chip on the shoulder.
Let’s see what happens.