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B1G Historical Perspective - EARLE

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How a symbolic gesture said goodbye to a very good coach

Ohio State head coach Earle Bruce
USA Today Sports

To say Earle Bruce lived and breathed Ohio football would be an understatement. Bruce was recruited to Ohio State from Cumberland, MD’s Allegany High School in 1949. After playing for Wes Fesler’s Buckeyes, Bruce was a successful high school football coach in Ohio before returning to Columbus as one of Woody Hayes assistant coaches in 1966 (the year this ‘writer’ was born). After head coaching stints at the University of Tampa, Colorado State, and Iowa State; Earle Bruce was hired as Buckeyes head coach following Woody Hayes’ firing following the 1978 Gator Bowl.

In his first season leading Ohio State, the Buckeyes went 11-0 and rose to #1 in the AP Poll before losing the 1980 Rose Bowl Southern Cal (17-16). Following this were six straight 9-3 seasons, which also included 2 more Big Ten titles (a shared title with Iowa in 1981 and an outright title in 1984). Ohio State went 10-3 in 1986 - due to an extra game versus Alabama in the Kickoff Classic - and won their fourth Big Ten title (shared with Michigan). Also in 1986 Earle Bruce hired a wide receivers coach named Urban Meyer (Things certainly appeared to be well heading into the 1987 season.

As perhaps a bad omen for the 1987 season though, Wayne Woodrow Hayes passed away on March 12 of that year. Woody Hayes death foreshadowed more adversity for the Buckeyes. All America wide receiver Cris Carter was ruled ineligible for the 1987 season for signing with a sports agent. And in a somewhat unusual move, Ohio State named punter Tom Tupa as their starting quarterback.

However, the 1987 Buckeyes had talent. They were led by All America linebacker Chris Spielman and defensive end Eric Kumerow. After getting wins to start the season against West Virginia and Oregon State, Ohio State traveled to Baton Rouge and played LSU to a 13-13 tie. A win over Illinois in the conference opener got the Buckeyes to 3-0-1 and kept them at #9 in the Associated Press poll. Then, the bottom fell out.

The Indiana Hoosiers traveled to Columbus and left with a 31-10 victory. This was Indiana’s first victory over Ohio State since Woody Hayes first season in 1951, and was described by none other than Earle Bruce as follows, “I’ve known about Ohio State football since I was a freshman here in 1949. This is the darkest day in Ohio State football since I have been associated with it.” Back-to-back wins at Purdue and versus Minnesota kept Ohio State in the AP poll; however, three straight losses to Michigan State, at Wisconsin (a Badgers team that went 3-8), and Iowa had Earle Bruce very much on the proverbial hot seat.

The last-second loss to Hayden Fry’s Hawkeyes was apparently the breaking point for Ohio State President Dr. Edward Harrington Jennings (who FYI earned his PhD at the University of Michigan). In hindsight Ohio State’s 5-4-1 record through 10 games of the 1987 season was reason enough for Jennings to pull the strings to oust a head coach he had issues because of one or more of the following reasons: Bruce wasn’t Woody Hayes, Bruce didn’t win National Championships, Bruce had interviewed for the Arizona job after the 1987 Cotton Bowl, Jennings wanted a more dynamic personality as head coach (like say Arizona State head coach John Cooper), or some other reason that nobody knew of at that time.

Jennings decided that since Ohio State needed to knock off Michigan in the finale to become bowl eligible he’d dismiss Earle Bruce on November 16, allowing Bruce to coach the finale versus the Wolverines. Upon hearing of Jennings’ decision to fire Bruce, Athletic Director Rick Bay resigned in protest. Earle Bruce would indeed coach the finale versus Michigan, but not before the players would make their own protest.

In the locker room before the game, Earle Bruce noticed that the players were all wearing white headbands, apparently imimtating Walter Payton and Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears. At first Bruce was irate, saying that he didn’t permit the players to wear these types of headbands. However, within a moment or two he was nearly in tears as each headband had EARLE written on it.

Ohio State players wearing the EARLE headbands
Getty Images

The Buckeyes took the field at Michigan Stadium and played the Wolverines (who themselves were having an off year sitting at 7-3) tough. Ohio State fought back from an early 13-0 deficit to cut Michigan’s lead to 13-7 at halftime. The Buckeyes outscored the Wolverines 16-7 in the second half. At the final gun, the Buckeyes had earned a 23-20 victory versus the Wolverines; and Earle Bruce earned a moment of redemption.

Prior to the Michigan game, Earle Bruce earned another moment of vindication. Returning to his home after Dr. Jennings had fired him, Bruce noticed a lot of noise outside. Stepping outside of his home, Earle Bruce was stunned to see The Best Damn Band in the Land on his front lawn, playing ‘Across the Field’ in his honor. As neighbors and onlookers watched, Earle Bruce was in tears from this gesture from the University’s marching band.

The Best Damn Band in the Land would honor Earle Bruce one more time. During the October 1, 2016 homecoming game versus Rutgers, Earle Bruce had the honor of dotting the i in Script Ohio (as shown below). It’s the least that could have been done (in this ‘writer’s’ opinion) for a man who personified Ohio State Buckeye football.

Historical Perspectives

Northwestern - The Upset

Purdue - The Forward Pass Comes to the Midwest

Indiana - The Real Game of the Century

Nebraska - Surrender Whites

Michigan State - Earning a Rematch

Rutgers - A Program-Changing Season

Illinois - Running the Table

Maryland - Frank Reich’s First Comeback

Minnesota - The Field Goal

Iowa - Another Field Goal (Actually Four of Them)

Penn State - $20,000 a Point

Michigan - Strike a Pose