Earle Bruce loved Ohio State, fans took a while to embrace him


I was looking for a cinnamon roll and some coffee but Earle Bruce has his eyes on something else.

One of the things the former Ohio State football coach, who died at 87 on Friday, did in retirement was to work as an analyst on WTVN radio’s pre-game show before Buckeyes games.

On an Ohio State bowl trip, maybe one of its many Fiesta Bowl match-ups in Phoenix, Bruce and his wife were staying at the media hotel where I had a room.

Early on the morning of the game, I went to a hospitality room set up for the media to get some breakfast and coffee.

At the front of the room, there was a big-screen television and one of the early bowl games from the Eastern time zone was already on it. Penn State, I think, was playing someone. At least, it involved one of the teams from the Big Ten.

As I sat down on a couch in front of the television, I heard a familiar voice from behind me bellowing at the images on the screen.

It was Bruce, still coaching football in retirement. “No, no, no. You’re lined up all wrong,” he screamed at Penn State’s defensive coaches, who for some reason must have been having trouble hearing him from 1,500 miles away.

He appeared to be correct when Penn State’s opponent gained 10 or 15 yards on a running play after the ball was snapped.

The next thing I heard was the former coach expressing his disbelief when Penn State lined up the same way on defense on the next play.

“Oh, my God, they’re doing it again,” said Bruce – who was now pacing back and forth behind me – talking loudly to no one in particular.

Bruce coached his last game at Ohio State in 1987, five years before I began covering OSU football for The Lima News. He retired from college coaching in 1992 but in his mind maybe he never stopped coaching.

And he never stopped offering candid, often blunt opinions on Ohio State, a school and football program he seemed to never stop loving, even when it fired him. Even when he sued it and got a $471,000 settlement after his dismissal.

His radio analyst’s job came with a seat in the press box, which was two rows directly behind my seat. He wasn’t a constant critic, but when he delivered the occasional verbal hit it was Joey Bosa-esque.

Bruce was fired in 1987 after nine seasons of taking on the uneviable task of following the legendary Woody Hayes, who had brought him to Ohio State as an assistant coach.

In those nine seasons his teams were 81-26-1, won at least a share of four Big Ten championships, went to two Rose Bowls, and beat Michigan five times.

From the perspective of three decades later Bruce’s firing is almost universally viewed as unjust. But many people might not remember how he quickly he went from an often criticized coach to beloved figure among Buckeyes fans.

Before he was fired, Bruce was far from beloved by many Ohio State fans. But his popularity took off the day Ohio State president Ed Jennings fired him in an unbelievably tone deaf, clumsy manner five days before the Michigan game.

While he was Ohio State’s coach he battled both die-hard Hayes fans who would have been unhappy with whoever followed the deposed legend and the perception he couldn’t get OSU to an elite level, created by six consecutive 9-3 seasons.

Bruce quieted most of those critics over the years. And when his successor John Cooper went 2-10-1 against Michigan, he became even more popular.

As comebacks go, the one he made was very impressive. He will be missed.

And somewhere today if the angels aren’t lined up right, they’re probably hearing about it.

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