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Rob Oller | The Columbus Dispatch | October 1, 2016

Legendary coach Earle Bruce dots the 'i' before homecoming game

  Earle Bruce drives to Ohio Stadium before the Rutgers/Ohio State game.

Neck veins emerge like night crawlers after rain when football memories flood Earle Bruce's mind. Mention a big win or bad loss and the former Ohio State coach sets his jaw, squints and leans into you -- exactly as he did while coaching the Buckeyes from 1979 to '87.

There is some Woody Hayes in there, which is understandable. Bruce briefly played for and coached under Hayes (1966 to '71) before replacing him. More on that in a minute.

Bruce is 85. But talk football with him and time reverses. The stroke he suffered in August of 2015? Mostly behind him. Jog his memory and he is fine. Get him going about the 1985 Iowa game, when the No. 8 Buckeyes knocked off the No. 1 Hawkeyes -- or mention former oily Texas A&M coach Jackie Sherrill -- and Earle is back on the sideline. Setting his jaw. Leaning in.

The man deserves to be honored, and it happened Saturday before the homecoming game against Rutgers, when Bruce will dot the "i" during Script Ohio. He ranks it among his greatest honors, right there with the time Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, after losing to the Buckeyes in 1987, told the Ohio State coach, "I hate losing. Hate it. But not today." It was Bo's way of paying tribute to Bruce, who had been fired earlier in the week.

Many critics pointed to the Buckeyes' propensity to finish 9-3 under Bruce -- it happened six straight seasons -- but Earle also was 5-4 against Michigan and had a better record against Schembechler than did Hayes (4-5-1).

Bruce is credited with somewhat modernizing Hayes' methods, especially on offense, which immediately led to an undefeated regular season in 1979 that would have ended with a national championship if not for Southern California tailback Charles White rushing for 247 yards and the winning touchdown in the Trojans' 17-16 Rose Bowl win.

"Oh bleep," Bruce blurts.

Pop, pop. Out come the veins in his neck.

It should be noted that Bruce's .755 winning percentage is not drastically worse than Hayes' .761 (and ranks fourth, one spot behind Hayes, among the eight coaches who spent at least five seasons at OSU). Still, Bruce is only remembered by many as the coach who replaced Hayes when the Old Man was fired after the 1978 Gator Bowl.

"Following Woody" no longer is the burden it was when "the old-timers demanded we always be 10-0," Bruce said. But while the weight has lifted, replacing a legend seldom means enjoying a clean getaway from the predecessor's legacy.

Make no mistake, Bruce admires Hayes, who recruited him as a running back out of Maryland and burned coaching toughness into him. Earle remains very much old school, but he also learned what not to do from watching Hayes.

Hayes was hard on his assistants, most of whom held a love-hate relationship with their boss. Earle attempted a more progressive approach. That doesn't mean he never fired assistants -- he famously canned Nick Saban after the 1981 Liberty Bowl -- but he was less impetuous than his predecessor.

Bruce often was on the receiving end of Hayes' rants, and once was "fired" from picking which movies the team saw on trips.

The night before the 1969 game at Minnesota, Bruce innocently chose the counterculture biker movie "Easy Rider" -- which he knew nothing about -- because "the players threatened to throw me in the lake if I picked a Disney movie," he said.

When the Buckeyes defeated the Golden Gophers "only" by a 34-7 score -- "Woody wanted 65 points," Bruce recalled -- Hayes blamed the offensive malaise on "that damn movie" and assigned running backs coach Rudy Hubbard to select future films.

In his residence-home apartment in Hilliard,Ohio where he lives alone after the 2011 death of Jean, his wife of 56 years, Bruce leaned forward on his couch.

"Have I told you the Valium story?" he asked.

Do tell.

"I had never coached with Woody -- wow -- and the last day of spring practice (in 1966) my heart is pounding and I go to the training staff and the doctor said, 'Welcome to the club.' I said, 'What's the club?' He says, 'We're going to tell you how to get rid of this heart palpitation. Here's a Valium. I want you to go home, get the tub filled up, take the Valium, jump in the tub and for 45 minutes you cuss that son of a bitch right out.'"

Bruce followed the doctor's orders until his daughters, ages 4 and 2, knocked on the bathroom door and asked, "Who's in there with you, daddy?"

Bruce was not always easy on his assistants, but only because he held them to the high standard he knew them capable of achieving.

Former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman counts Bruce's culture of accountability as his old coach's lasting legacy.

"He had the capability of seeing what each individual was capable of, and holding him to that level." Spielman said. "He had enough respect for you not to lower that standard."

Well done, coach. Enjoy your special day.

This article was written by Rob Oller from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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