The Mystery of Earle Bruce : He Had Best Record in Big Ten for Nine Years; Why Was He Fired? Don’t Ask, He Doesn’t Know
Somewhere, sometime Earle Bruce did something to get himself fired as Ohio State’s football coach. Which takes us to that all-important $471,000 question: What did Bruce do to lose the only job he ever wanted?
“If you find that out, then I want you to come back and tell me,” said Bruce last week, sitting at home on a cold, blustery winter afternoon.
He’s in for a considerable wait, since the person who knows best why Bruce was fired on Nov. 16--Ohio State President Edward H. Jennings--isn’t saying. Legal reasons.
The school’s Board of Trustees isn’t saying, either. Nor is the influential Wolfe family, which owns the city’s only newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, is principal owner of the CBS television and radio affiliates, and is a major contributor to OSU. Nor is the powerful Galbreath family, another strong financial supporter of the school. Mum’s the word here.
This wasn’t just any firing, mind you. This was war, full of petty jealousies, innuendoes and cheap shots galore. This was mighty Ohio State, where Woody Hayes once walked, where the band dots the I in the Script Ohio formation, where the naming of a new assistant coach leads the local evening sportscasts. This was lawsuits and resignations and settlements--Bruce’s $471,000, for instance--like you wouldn’t believe.
At controversy’s center were Jennings, Athletic Director Rick Bay and, of course, Bruce.
Jennings is still here, though there seems to be some question of how long.
Bay resigned in protest, choosing a principle over a president’s mandate.
Bruce, fired for the first time in his 32-year coaching career, was hoping for a call from Southern Methodist University, since it needed a football coach. But then came news Thursday that Forrest Gregg had accepted SMU’s job offer. So much for that.
Bruce can hardly remember when he spent this much time inside his own house. December, January, those are the months he’s in other families’ homes, sampling a mother’s home-baked pie, sipping a cup of coffee, telling any recruit who will listen why Ohio State is the greatest place in the world.
Bruce would maybe tell a story or two about the legendary Hayes, the man he succeeded in 1979, about Buckeye tradition, about impressive graduation rates, about Ohio State football being the only game in town.
Now look at him. The big decision of the day involved dinner: Cook vegetables and shrimp in a wok or dine out with his wife, Jean, and friend and family attorney, John Zonak? Next up for Bruce: Clean the basement or the garage?
“I’m seeing parts of this house that I’ve never seen before,” said Bruce, laughing a sad little laugh.
Odd as it may be to think of Bruce with a dust mop and a can of Pledge, that is his fate at the moment. He is a 56-year-old football coach who won 81 games, lost 26 and tied 1 during his nine seasons at Ohio State. He had the best record in the conference in those nine years, including two outright Big Ten titles and two shared. And he is without a job. Worse yet, no one has told him why.
So here he sits in his home outside of Columbus, wearing blue and gray sweats, sneakers, fidgeting with an eyeglass case decorated in OSU script. On Bruce’s right ring finger is a 1984 Big Ten championship ring, large enough to keep an Ohio State metallurgy class busy for days.
He is Ohio State-educated, once a scholarship player for Hayes, later an assistant coach and still later, Hayes’ own choice as head coach. This was the job he cherished, and now, after a 1987 record of 6-4-1, it is someone else’s.
“I don’t know what to say,” Bruce said. “I can’t quite put it all together, why it should happen. That’s what I can’t understand. I thought that if you had a bad record and lost one season . . . you hang on for a year. Woody always said that if you had one bad year, you better have a good one the next. You couldn’t have two bad seasons back to back at Ohio State, or probably anyplace. I agree. So I felt kind of safe. But you never feel too safe.”
Bruce didn’t get fired because of his coaching abilities. If there’s one thing Bruce can do, it’s win football games. As a high school coach, Bruce lost only 12 of 94 games. His teams at fabled Washington High in Massillon, Ohio, were 20-0.
At the University of Tampa, Bruce stayed one season and finished 10-2. He came close to dismissal at Iowa State, but then turned that struggling program around with three consecutive 8-3 records. “And the NCAA didn’t even think about investigating him,” said Gil Brandt, Dallas Cowboys vice president-personnel development, and a close friend of Bruce.
Said Lou McCullough, a former OSU assistant coach and later Bruce’s athletic director at Iowa State: “Earle would have to be in the top five (coaches) in America. To go 8-3, 8-3, 8-3 at Iowa State, that’s like Northwestern winning the Big Ten.”
Ohio State hired Bruce partly because he was family, partly because he won games--lots of them--and partly because Hayes approved. So revered was Hayes, that even after his own firing for striking a Clemson player during the infamous “Punch Bowl” in Jacksonville, Fla., Ohio State administrators still sought his advice on the new coach.
There had been talk of hiring Lou Holtz, then the coach at Arkansas. But Holtz reportedly said he wasn’t interested in submitting himself to a protracted selection process. Bruce’s name emerged.
And that was that. Ohio State had the coach it thought it wanted. Bruce had the job he knew he wanted. “It’s a dream come true,” he said shortly after his appointment.
An 11-1 record that first season was followed by six consecutive 9-3 seasons, a 10-3 year and the recently completed and supposedly fateful 6-4-1 season. Not exactly the resume of someone you jettison into unemployment.
But this is Ohio State, where things are not always as they appear. Despite the successes--the wins, the bowl appearances, the Big Ten championships, a noteworthy academic record, an honest program--there grew this disenchantment with Bruce and his ways.
In approximate order of likely truth, the three most popular theories are:
(1) He wasn’t one of the fellas.
This, Bruce will not deny. He never was one for cocktail parties, banquet chatter and board room protocol. Still isn’t. He could have done without the media, too.
“I’ve never been one to blow smoke,” he said. “I don’t think I can do that. And I’m not a politician and I didn’t profess to be one when I accepted the job. It’s never been a problem.”
So Bruce thought. His thinking was that as long as he won, the so-called “downtown faction” and university hierarchy would remain silent. He was wrong.
Said Bay: “He simply was not popular with certain influential people around the city and certain members of the Board of Trustees. He’s not the most charismatic person in the world and he could be abrasive, but at some time or another, Earle apparently rubbed people the wrong way. It was clear from the day I arrived that he was not the most popular guy on our staff (to those certain influential people).”
Bruce agreed. And guess what! He wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“I don’t think I had good relationships with the people downtown, because I don’t have time to go downtown,” he said. “Downtown is important. That’s what people talk about here. When you say downtown, I guess you’re talking about . . . the governor, the mayor, the power structure of the community. You’re talking about the Wolfes, some members of the Board of Trustees. You’re talking about all of that.
“I always thought the football coach’s job was to coach football,” he said. “If someone’s going to take care of the downtown faction, it’s going to be left up to the university president, the athletic director, whoever. Not that I’m against that, but I deal with the parents, some of the alumni, the boosters.”
This is where Bruce might have miscalculated. He won games, sure. But how was he at maintaining that delicate relationship with the university and community power brokers? Turns out, not so hot.
And if you need proof of how serious OSU administrators are about that relationship, ask Jennings what he considers to be the primary duties of an Ohio State football coach. He doesn’t mention victories.
“Like any of our people, the most important responsibility is to represent the mission of the institution and represent that well to all the various constituencies,” he said. “And I’ve said that 100 times.”
And each time it seems to say that Bruce failed to please those various constituencies: The big-money contributors, the legislators, the city’s old guard, the student body, the faculty, the Board of Trustees.
According to proponents of Reason No. 1, Bruce simply didn’t play the backslap game enough, and when he did, he did so reluctantly and not very well. The downtowners apparently wanted Cary Grant in cleats: Suave enough to tie a Windsor knot and brash enough to guarantee wins over, say, archrival Michigan.
Instead, they got this plump little man who changes moods--from fierce to gentle, from gentle to fierce--in a moment’s time, who made the mistake of wanting only to coach football.
“I don’t like one phase of what happened to me,” Bruce said. “I don’t like the firing. I don’t particularly care for the president. I don’t care for some members of the Board of Trustees, but I have no selection in that.
“I guess the best way to explain it is, they’re not my kind of guys, that’s all, my kind of people. Probably, that’s why I’m fired, because I’m not their kind.”
(2) He wasn’t Woody.
At the OSU bookstore is a mini-mart’s worth of Hayes merchandise. Hats, buttons, photographs, coffee mugs. Each one reads: “American Football Legend . . . Woody Hayes . . . 1913-1987 . . . ‘You Win With People.’ ” Visit a local shopping mall and you can buy a 90-minute video on the life and times of Hayes. Some of the local art galleries even sell portraits of Hayes, sort of the Bear Bryant of the Midwest.
This is the legacy Bruce chose to follow. There, for all to see, was Hayes’ singular OSU record of 205-61-10, five national championships, to say nothing of the 13 Big Ten championships he won or shared.
Also there was his penchant for philanthropy, for history, for his complete commitment to Columbus and OSU.
Bruce couldn’t compete with that, nor did he want to.
“I went to school here,” Bruce said. “I was an assistant coach here. I love Ohio State. But I knew the difficulties coaching at Ohio State.
“I saw what happened to Coach Hayes. They always want to build up the good times, but I was there when they put the airplane around (a plane, carrying a banner calling for Hayes’s dismissal, was flown above the campus).
“I was there when they hung him in effigy at the bonfire for homecoming. I was there when they treated him bad. I knew what this job was. And I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
The comparisons began with Bruce’s first game. Woody would have done this. Woody would have done that.
It didn’t stop there. Woody would have eaten more often at the faculty dining room. Woody would have given this speech. Woody would have found time for this charity appearance, that social function. Everywhere, St. Woody.
“Bruce was a good football coach, but he was a football coach ,” said Paul Hornung--the retired sportswriter, not the former Notre Dame football player--who covered Ohio State football, first for the school newspaper and then the Dispatch, beginning in 1937 and until 1981. And when Hayes wrote his book, Hornung was asked to help.
“But the guy (Bruce) succeeded was one in a million, an extraordinary human being. That’s not a knock on Earle. It’s just, maybe we were spoiled after 28 years.”
(3) He was too smart for his own good (Or, How Bruce Angered The Fellas With a New TV Deal And a Trip to Arizona).
During his first year as Ohio State’s coach, Bruce said he earned $44,000 in salary, cheap for replacing a legend and overseeing one of the most intense programs in the country. According to his most recent contract--a three-year deal signed in 1986--Bruce received $87,120 in annual salary.
But as is common practice in many Division I programs these days, he had his own radio and television shows, worth about $210,000, a football camp and a shoe contract. In all, Bruce reportedly earned about $330,000.
It was the weekly TV show that caused the most controversy. It wasn’t that he had one, it was that he switched stations.
Last year, his show was on Channel 6. Before that, Channel 4. Before that, Channel 6. Before that, Channel 10--the Wolfes’ station.
Bruce’s show attracted viewers. Lots of them. It also attracted recruits, which along with the money, was one of the main reasons Bruce did the show.
So everyone was happy, beginning with Channel 10 in 1979. The ratings were impressive. Station officials say that only a few coaches across the country did better. Advertising was strong. Recruits were given another dose of Ohio State pomp and pageantry.
“The TV show is the greatest recruiting gimmick there is,” Bruce said.
Then it gets murky. Channel 10 and Bruce disagreed over something. What, nobody is quite sure. Channel 10 was supposedly upset because of a contract violation by Bruce.
“He didn’t violate a contract because none existed,” said Gene D’Angelo, president and general manager of WBNS-TV and a staunch Jennings loyalist.
Bruce was supposedly upset over money.
“It was fine,” he said. “It was a falling-out over some little things.”
Whatever it was, Bruce moved to Channel 6, which just happened to be the main competition of front-running WBNS. Then on to Channel 4, where Bruce and Zonak were forced to produce and market their own show.
The same thing happened this year at Channel 6.
“The last three years, we’ve done it by necessity because no one wanted it,” Bruce said.
Actually, Channel 10 and Bruce almost agreed to a deal last fall “but except for his own negligence, he blew it, and I walked away from it,” said D’Angelo. “I have no regrets.”
The effects are arguable. Bruce, when asked if his problems with WBNS could have angered the Wolfes and contributed to his firing, said, “Yeah, I think it did.”
But D’Angelo and Zonak thought otherwise.
“That whole big thing about his TV show is a bunch of . . . " said D’Angelo.
Added Zonak: “Contrary to what some people believe, I do not believe the Wolfes had anything to do with the firing.”
Which leaves Arizona, the University of, that is.
Arizona offered Bruce a job for comparable money, more security--a five-year deal rather than the three-year deal he had to fight for at OSU--and less pressure. In other words, Arizona could live with six consecutive 9-3 seasons.
Bruce accepted the offer “for a little while” while attending a coaches’ convention in San Diego last January. But then star OSU linebacker Chris Spielman called, wanting to know if the rumors were true. “What’s going on?” he asked a surprised Bruce.
Bay and OSU assistant coaches met with Bruce in his hotel room. They talked about Ohio State’s chances for a Big Ten championship, even a national championship, so well regarded was the 1987 team.
Other friends and associates told him to use the Arizona offer to improve his contract status at Ohio State.
“It was a much better deal than he had at Ohio State,” said a Bruce supporter. “But he was told, ‘You will not be happy at Arizona because you’re an Ohio State guy.’ ”
On Jan. 7, 1987, Bruce told Arizona he was staying put.
“I guess I led with my heart,” he told reporters at the time. “I’m a Buckeye. I’ll always be a Buckeye.”
OSU was ranked fourth in preseason polls and expected to win the conference title. That was before All-American wide receiver Cris Carter was declared ineligible because he had signed a contract with agent Norby Walters. Injuries did the rest to ruin OSU’s hopes.
And don’t think anyone forgot the Arizona trip, either.
“Bruce always said this was the job he wanted,” Hornung said. “And then he interviewed at another job, another area. I always felt that maybe that hurt him some.”
There are other rumors floating about. Most of them would make great movies of the week:
--Zonak speculated to reporters that Jennings was under intense pressure from the Board of Trustees because of “carousing and excessive drinking.” And it didn’t help that Jennings was going through a divorce. As a way to lessen that pressure, he fired the unpopular Bruce.
Said Jennings this week: “There’s a lot of nasty rumors around about me. There’s a lot of nasty rumors around about a lot of people. But I think we were analyzed pretty good and nobody can confirm those nasty rumors.”
--Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste suggested that Bruce went to the local horse track too much. Bruce, said Celeste, also might have been partly responsible for former OSU quarterback Art Schlichter’s gambling problems.
The Schlichter rumor has long since been dismissed. As for the occasional visits to the track, Bruce apologizes for nothing, as does Ohio State when it accepts the substantial contributions from the Galbreath family, known throughout the country for its involvement in thoroughbred racing.
The rest are silly. Bruce was overweight. He was a poor dresser. He was humorless. . . . This gets you fired?
Truth is, Bruce would have done just about anything to keep his job. He half hoped that Jennings would change his mind, that maybe some deal could be worked out. He even told Zonak that Ohio State could have the settlement money back, “Every bit of it and another $100,000 to coach again . . . if I had $100,000.”
Too late. He was gone after the Michigan game, a sweet and precious win if there ever was one.
“That was the greatest victory I’ve ever been associated with,” he said.
Bruce had beaten the Wolverines, 23-20, after trailing, 13-0. He had beaten his friend Bo Schembechler. And in a sense, he had beaten the downtowners.
The University of Kansas offered Bruce a job recently, but he declined.
Those familiar with the offer say that perhaps he should have taken it. The money was good and it included a five-year rollover contract. Those are tough to get when you are 56.
“I might have made a mistake not taking that job, I guess,” he said. “You only get so many opportunities. But I vowed I would never look back.”
He does, though. Not often, but enough times to grow angry.
Bruce said he remembers meeting with Jennings in early December and asking Jennings if he could explain the reasons for his firing.
Jennings, who was bound by an agreement not to discuss the case after the settlement, said he could not. Before the agreement, yes. In fact, Jennings said, he offered, through Bay, to meet with Bruce immediately after the decision.
“Either Earle chose not to come or the athletic director didn’t tell him,” Jennings said.
And now it was December. Again, too late to change things.
“You can tell me in private what they are,” said Bruce to Jennings. “I don’t have to talk about it.”
“No, I can’t,” said Jennings.
So Bruce asked another question.
“Why, last year after the Cotton Bowl, when they offered me the job at Arizona, why didn’t you tell me to go? Why didn’t you say, ‘Earle, take that job. I think it will be good for you and good for us.’ ”
Said Jennings, according to Bruce: “The timing wasn’t right.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Bruce last week. “Timing for what? For who? I don’t understand that.”
Simple, said Jennings. “We would not evaluate a person simply because an opportunity came forward.”
Depending on whom you talk to, Bruce was a coach to be admired. “Hard work, integrity, forthrightness . . . that must not mean too much to that leadership,” said McCullough.
Or a coach to wave goodby to. “I don’t think there’s any lesson,” said D’Angelo. “We fired a football coach one day.
“I’m going to tell you something, football goes on. When Ohio State opens up this fall, Ohio Stadium will be packed, period.”
Which is to say Bruce won’t be missed, period.
On the day he was fired, Earle Bruce returned to his house in the suburbs and tried to understand why Ohio State had done this to him.
Or why seven months after his 1986-87 OSU personnel evaluation had read in part: “Great job! Ohio State is lucky to have you!” he was dismissed.
And most disturbing, why honesty, a clean program and an impressive record weren’t good enough anymore.
Then he heard music. Trumpets and saxophones and tubas blared, cymbals crashed and drums thundered at his doorstep. The windows rattled. The walls shook slightly. Neighbors raced from their houses.
Seems a 49-car caravan carrying about 150 Ohio State Marching Band members had driven to Bruce’s neighborhood, parked at block’s end, marched down the street as if in the Rose Parade and played “Across the Field” for their former football coach.
Bruce bawled like a baby as the music washed over him.