I always liked Earle Bruce a lot. It's tough to be the guy that replaces a legend; most people would rather be the guy that replaces the guy, but Earle Bruce jumped into the OSU head coaching job with both feet. When I moved to Columbus, Woody was still in the background, an ever present and eternal part of OSU, but Earle was the guy calling the shots on the sidelines.
In many ways, Bruce modernized Ohio State football. At the end of the Woody Hayes era, the Buckeyes were becoming a square running peg in the round hole of a passing explosion. They had the best pure passer the school had ever seen, and he was only a freshman, but matching him up with Woody 'three things happen when you pass the ball and two of them are bad', Hayes seemed like a bigger mismatch than Miley Cyrus and normalcy. Ohio State struggled to a 7-4-1 record, and after the infamous ending to the Gator Bowl in 1978, the Woody Hayes era was over, suddenly and without warning.
Bruce, a former assistant under Hayes who had left to take the head coaching job at Iowa State, took over in 1979 and proceeded to come within two points of a National Championship. Ohio State went undefeated in the regular season, beat Michigan 18-15 in Ann Arbor, but lost to USC 17-16 in the Rose Bowl. During his time as head coach, the Buckeyes became one of the most prolific passing teams in the conference, as quarterbacks like Art Schlichter, Jim Karsatos, and Mike Tomczak teamed up with receivers like Mike Lanese and Cris Carter to give the Buckeyes a potent attack through the air.
From 1980-1985, Ohio State would go on to post six consecutive 9-3 seasons, and Bruce was dubbed ''ol' 9-3 Earle', yet that was good enough to get to two Rose Bowls. In 1986, the Buckeyes finished 10-3, won the Cotton Bowl on New year's Day (Back when the Cotton Bowl was one of the big four bowls), and with a returning senior class lead by Chris Spielman and Cris Carter, many people felt OSU would be primed for a serious run at the national championship.
But Carter had signed with an agent and was declared ineligible, and the Buckeyes' season fell apart once OSU hit conference play. What was supposed to be a Big Ten Championship, a Rose Bowl, and a shot at the national championship became a 5-4-1 disaster by the time Michigan week rolled around. After three consecutive losses to Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin, Ohio State president Edward Jennings fired Bruce the day after the Wisconsin game, and most everyone was stunned. Bruce had incurred the wrath of the fan base at times by not being able to do better than 9-3, but he was even against Michigan, and in an era that finally saw more than one Big Ten team become bowl eligible at the end of the season, he had taken the Buckeyes to a bowl in every season and had gone 5-3 in those games.
In short, Earle got hosed. The morning after it broke that he was fired, friends and neighbors gathered in front of house to serenade him, and backlash over his firing grew as the week went on. By the time of The Game, unbeknownst to him, the team followed a trend started by Chicago Bears QB Jim McMahon during the year before, which he used as more of a protest against Pete Rozelle and the NFL over things he thought silly or ridiculous.
Every player came out of the locker room with a white headband around their head with one word written on it in black marker: EARLE.:
Ohio State started off slow, but in the second half caught fire, and eventually overtook the Wolverines and won, 23-20. As Ohio State fans stormed the field – in Ann Arbor – the team put Bruce on their shoulders and carried him off the field, coat, tie, and fedora:
Michigan coach Bo Schembechler told Bruce at the end of the game, "I always mind losing to Ohio State, but I didn't mind so much today."
At the time of his firing, Bruce was the third-winningest coach in Ohio State history, and that win on the road would be Ohio State's last victory in Ann Arbor until 2001. Today, Bruce is rightfully remembered as one of OSU's best coaches, is an ever present part of the program, and was an instrumental figure in getting Urban Meyer to accept the head coaching job.
Go Bucks. Beat That Team Up North.