He returned to the town where he had played college football to coach college football. His teams won 76% of their games. His student-athletes graduated. NCAA investigators weren’t the least bit interested in his recruiting tactics.
Some powerful people in the town didn’t like him, though. They wanted friendly conversation and their backs slapped, but he was more into pounding on his players’ pads and screaming, "%&$!, you’re better than that.” And one influential group who contributed lots of money to the school was very unhappy when he moved his television show from their channel to another.
So he was fired.
Earle Bruce was deeply wounded when Ohio State President Edward H. Jennings fired him in the fall of 1987, the week before the final game of his ninth season as the Buckeyes’ head football coach, a game Bruce won, 23-20, over rival Michigan. This was no run-of-the-mill coaching change. It was like cutting a first child out of the will.
The bond may have been severed that day, but Bruce will always be part Buckeye. He’s proud to be a “card-carrying, lifetime member of the alumni association.” He still calls the Ohio State job “the epitome of coaching.” Not long ago, he thought it was the only job he ever wanted.
And he doesn’t know what schmooze means.
“Loyalty is blind,” Bruce said. “I thought I could just win and they’d never be able to get me. They proved me wrong.”
So he ached. He watched his family mourn, and their tears made him angry. And, sure, he was bitter for a while. In time, however, he began to look at it as just another bell-ringer of a tackle. And he had been knocked down plenty of times before.
Bruce had played football, taught football, loved and lived football all of his life. Getting knocked down is part of the game, he had always told his players, and the most important part of the game is getting back up.
So he shook off the effects of the blow and got back in the game.
“If you always live in the past, you’re never going to be happy,” Bruce said. “I can’t live in the past. I can’t be bitter. I’ve got to be better.”
Before the first game of the season, Colorado State Coach Earle Bruce asked his players to list their goals for the year. No. 1 on the list was a bowl berth.
True, the Rams had recovered from a two-year record of 2-21 to go 5-5-1 last season, Bruce’s first in Ft. Collins, but considering they hadn’t been in a bowl game in 42 years, Bruce figured this was a pretty lofty goal.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything to stop wishful thinking,” he said at a preseason press conference. “You need dreams. Every once in a while, I dream about hitting the lottery.”
But, just like that, bingo , the Rams rang up the right numbers--8-4--to be winners in the NCAA’s version of the big spin.
So, as the Colorado State players chugged up the ramp leading from the field at Orange Coast College’s LeBard Stadium--where they were preparing for their Saturday night date with Oregon in the Freedom Bowl--Bruce plopped down on the back of an equipment cart and smiled sheepishly.
“I told the players, ‘I don’t mind you putting that down, but realize we’re reaching awful high,’ ” he said. “I mean I thought it was a great goal, but I didn’t really think it was attainable. I like to put goals down that we can reach. To go to a bowl that quick. . . .”
Bruce clearly is no pessimist, but a trip to a bowl game was, well, as one life-long Colorado State fan put it, “just plain unthinkable.” Ram fans never have visions of Orange Bowls or Sugar Bowls or even Sugar Plum Bowls dancing in their heads at Christmas.
“Are the folks in Ft. Collins appreciative?” Colorado State Athletic Director Oval Jaynes asked. “Some of the people at Colorado State are still stunned that he’s our football coach.”
Mark Driscoll, a vice president at the Ft. Collins First Interstate Bank, was a quarterback for the Rams in the early ‘70s. During his first three years, Colorado State was 6-26-1. When the Rams went 6-5 during his senior season, it was cause for a town-wide celebration.
“You didn’t even dream about a bowl game,” he said. “This football program has been so far down for so long that people used to say, ‘If we just won a couple of games and got to .500, it’d be so great.’ The fact that Earle has turned this thing around in two years and is taking this team to a bowl, it’s just absolutely incredible.”
Driscoll remembers the press conference two years and a day ago, when Bruce was presented as the new coach at Colorado State, and Driscoll went to verify with his own eyes that this was really the same Earle Bruce who had that 17-year college coaching record of 132-67-1.
“For Colorado State to get a guy with a track record like that was wonderful,” he said. “Previous coaches had been assistants at major programs or guys who had won at the small-college level. We had never had a coach that won in the big time. And here was a guy who had won at the highest level.
“I remember the excitement. It was, ‘Hey, we got a guy here who knows what to do.’ ”
There seems little doubt of that. All you have to do, as Bruce points out, is check that record. The man had three consecutive eight-victory seasons at Iowa State, for gosh sakes.
“I’ve never doubted I could coach,” he said. “If you go back and check my record, my God almighty, I don’t know. . . . No matter where I’ve been, we’ve won, and we’ve won at one hell of a rate.”
And he’s done it his way--a little Woody Hayes, some George Patton and a generous portion of Andy Griffith--but always the general who plans battle strategy and then climbs into the lead tank.
“There are two kinds of coaches, I think, the players’ coach and the administrative type,” said Todd Yert, a senior fullback from Mission Viejo. “Coach Bruce is not only head coach, but he’s offensive coordinator, and he also he runs everything else or at least puts his hand in everything. He wants to be in the middle of all of it.”
On the field, Bruce, 59, is a blood-and-guts type who screams with the best of them and has been known to make assistant coaches run wind sprints. He demands total effort all the time.
“Coach Bruce is a hard-core disciplinarian,” Yert said. “He’s into intensity and discipline on the field. It was a change from what we had before, but I think we all now understand where he’s coming from.
“I mean, you can kid around with him about how conservative his Volvo is and he’ll kid back. You can go in and just talk with him any time. But there’s no joking on the field. On the field, he’s a whole different man.”
The Colorado State football team obviously responded. “They just needed some attention,” Bruce says.
The Rams were not a talentless team before Bruce arrived. They were competitive if not very successful, a sort of Incredible Collapsing Football Team. The year before Bruce took over, the Rams lost eight games they were leading in the fourth quarter.
“I’ve been around CSU football for 20 years, as a player, as an assistant coach for four years,” Driscoll said, “and we’ve had some good players, and we’d play people tough and then find a way to lose. Earle has taught them to find a way to win. I think that’s the most satisfying thing for some of us who’ve been around for years. It’s really fun to finally have a team that doesn’t beat itself.
“And they’ve done it with hard work. The work ethic is so much different from when I was playing and coaching and from what I’ve seen of the previous coaching staffs. They just plain work harder.”
The pain of practice paid off for the Rams on Nov. 3 when they upset then-unbeaten Wyoming, 17-8. But Jaynes says the biggest victory of the year came Nov. 24 at Hawaii, after Colorado State had accepted a bid to the Freedom Bowl.
“You know Hawaii, there’s so many distractions,” he said. “Then we got behind, 21-3, and I was thinking, ‘What a way to end the season.’ But you know what? Earle would not let the kids lose that football game. I mean he just refused to let them lose.
“To come back and beat them, 30-27, was the biggest win we had all year. We knew we were coming here, but you want to go into a bowl game feeling good about yourself.”
It’s been that kind of a feel-good fall for the people of Ft. Collins, who have welcomed Bruce and his wife, Jean, into the community the way a Mercedes dealer welcomes a guy who just won the lottery into his showroom. While Bruce admits that he never would have left Ohio State if Jennings hadn’t jettisoned him three years ago, he insists he has found peace and fulfillment in Ft. Collins. So why look back?
“No matter where you coach, the most satisfying thing is to see your team play as well as they can and give great effort,” he said. “And that’s what’s so satisfying about this team. They work hard in practice. They take coaching. They’re great to be with.
“It’s fun. I’m really enjoying what’s going on for our program. I can see the spirit, attitude, development, enthusiasm. It’s exciting. I’ve got a great home on a country club in a nice neighborhood and I really like it. Hell, I probably know my neighbors better in two years in Ft. Collins than I did in eight or 10 years in Columbus.”
He says he hasn’t felt even the slightest temptation to thumb his nose at the Ohio State hierarchy and yell, “Who’s sorry now?” And, because he’s an alumnus, he says he has every right to criticize the lackluster success rate of Buckeye Coach John Cooper. But he really can only feel sorry for him.
Bruce discovered that winning football games wasn’t enough at Ohio State. Not winning them must be hell. He found out you had to be good at cocktail parties and board-room politicking.
If he’d only known the meaning of schmooze back then.
“I only know coaching,” Bruce says. “I know how to coach a football team. And I know what’s important. I don’t sit back and wave a flag, I coach. I’m on the football field. I call the plays. I’m involved in everything.
“Dealing with players, academics, recruiting--I can do all of that. But if you’re asking me to be someplace else where I’m not really needed, I’m not too interested in that. I want to promote the program. I don’t mind going to alumni meetings and booster-club meetings, but I can’t be doing something three times a day and still prepare to play football. I’m not here to blow smoke. I’m want to go do my job.”
Bruce took the Buckeyes to eight bowl games in nine years and had the best record in the Big Ten over those nine seasons, including two outright conference titles and two shared championships. But his inability--or maybe his refusal--to play the power brokers’ game apparently cost him his job.
He also made some powerful enemies when he decided to move his television show from WBNS, a station owned by the Wolfe family--major contributors to Ohio State--to another station. Bruce doesn’t blame the Wolfes, but he does think WBNS General Manager Gene D’Angelo, a close friend of Jennings, played a major role in swaying opinion against him.
“I don’t know if anyone will ever know truly what happened there,” Jaynes said, “but there’s never been any doubt that Earle Bruce is one of the great coaches in the country today. He runs an honest program. He’s a great teacher and a great motivator. Everywhere he’s ever been, all he’s done is win.
“I don’t think Earle harbors any ill feeling toward Ohio State. He’ll always be a Buckeye. It’s where he went to school, and certainly he has a lot of roots in state of Ohio. You don’t spend 30 years of your life in a place and just forget it.”
Bruce isn’t trying that hard to forget, even though these are painful memories. At least he can now look back with some perspective.
“It’s very hard to be appreciated in Columbus,” he said. “Woody Hayes, when he was fired, then he was appreciated. I mean a lot of people appreciated him when he was there, but the ones who were doing the talking were the ones who didn’t appreciate him. I saw the airplanes go around the stadium carrying banners to get rid of Woody and I heard the chants.
“That’s just part of Columbus, and you’ve got to be able to take it. They’re just so used to winning. If you lose, you’re a bum. If you win, you’re just barely OK.”
At Ohio State, Bruce worked in maintenance. At Colorado State, he’s into construction.
“There’s always satisfaction when you build,” he said. “When I see a guy build a house and he starts from scratch and it’s a masterpiece, you get a lot of satisfaction from that. I’m not sure which job is more difficult, but I do know which job is more pleasing.”
Bruce hasn’t had this much fun building since he turned around the program at Iowa State. And the people of Ft. Collins are ready to grab their tools and help. The Rams’ average attendance this season was 26,244 in 30,000-seat Hughes Stadium, but Bruce hopes to see expansion in the quaint stadium at the base of the Rockies.
“Earle and I have talked a lot about rebuilding this program and the long-term goals,” said Jim Smith, a Ft. Collins investment consultant who played offensive guard for the Rams in the mid-'60s and is head of the former players’ group. “He wants to leave this a much better place for the next coach. He says, ‘When we have trees lining the entrance to the stadium and new seats in both end zones to handle the big crowds, we’ll know we’ve arrived.’ ”
That day might not be too far off, given the waves of recruits arriving in Ft. Collins these days.
“It used to be there wasn’t any way you could get in-state football recruits to even visit CSU,” Smith said. “Now, when you read the local papers of the top recruits in the state and where they’re making their visits, Colorado State is on almost every list. The kids recognize the fact that he’s a national name, that he’ll produce winning teams, that he’ll get great players and that it’s going to be a great program.”
Earle Bruce took a job at Northern Iowa for one year because he just couldn’t bear to spend the football season in Columbus. He took the job at Colorado State because it seemed like a good place to do what he does best without complications and too many external pressures. He just hoped he wouldn’t see any cartoons depicting him as an overweight, sloppy buffoon in the school newspaper. He never figured to be canonized, though.
“There’s no question his leadership and his coaching ability are the reason we’re in the Freedom Bowl,” Jaynes said. “People in Colorado call him the Earle of Ft. Collins. He’s not the John Wayne type, but he’s concerned about his players and about getting the very best out of them on and off the field, and that’s what coaching is all about.
“A lot of frustrations can go through your life when you leave a place like Ohio State. But you have to tuck those frustrations away and get on down the road. With Earle, the last two years, I’ve seen the twinkle in his eye. And this football team means so much to him because of where we had to come from and where he had to come from.”