When a legend leaves his post, whomever has to fill his shoes is faced with steep challenges, crushing expectations and the looming shadow of success. That’s the situation Earle Bruce faced when he took over the Ohio State program after Woody Hayes was dismissed as head coach of the Buckeyes after the 1978 season.
Bruce was thrust into a role that was previously held by a five-time national championship-winning coach—and one who created an aura of success that still lingers in Columbus today. The expectations for the Pittsburgh-born coach were gigantic. And even though he never won a national title, Bruce guided the Buckeyes to four Big Ten championships, and had the program on the doorstep of a national championship in 1979. Michigan holds Bo Schembechler in near God-like status, and he never won a title either. Additionally, Bo had a losing record (4-5) against Bruce’s OSU teams.
Full disclosure, though, on my part: I was born in the John Cooper years. I didn’t live through the Bruce era of OSU football. However, I think that gives me a little more of an unbiased opinion when looking back at Bruce’s career in Columbus. Over the course of his nine-year tenure, eight of those years ended with the Buckeyes in a bowl game; of those eight trips, five of them would be considered major bowls. (A major bowl game is defined as either the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta or Cotton Bowl.)
If we want to compare Bruce to Schembechler, then, well, they had similar ending stats when it came to winning the big bowl games. Both, however, pale in comparison to Woody Hayes’ record in those big postseason matchups.
Earle Bruce in Major Bowl Games
|1979||Rose||v. USC (L, 17-16)|
|1980||Fiesta||v. Penn State (L, 31-19)|
|1983||Fiesta||v. Pittsburgh (W, 28-23)|
|1984||Rose||v. USC (L, 20-17)|
|1986||Cotton||v. Texas A&M (W, 28-12)|
|Major Bowl Record: 2-3|
Woody Hayes in Major Bowl Games
|1954||Rose||v. USC (W, 20-7)|
|1957||Rose||v. USC (W, 10-7)|
|1968||Rose||v. USC (W, 27-16)|
|1970||Rose||v. Stanford (L, 27-17)|
|1972||Rose||v. USC (L, 42-17)|
|1973||Rose||v. USC (W, 42-21)|
|1974||Rose||v. USC (L, 18-17)|
|1975||Rose||v. UCLA (L, 23-10)|
|1976||Orange||v. Colorado (W, 27-10)|
|1977||Sugar||v. Alabama (L, 35-6)|
|Major Bowl Record: 5-5|
Bo Schembechler in Major Bowls
|1969||Rose||v. USC (L, 10-3)|
|1971||Rose||v. Stanford (L, 13-12)|
|1975||Orange||v. Oklahoma (L, 14-6)|
|1976||Rose||v. USC (L, 14-6)|
|1977||Rose||v. Washington (L, 27-20)|
|1978||Rose||v. USC (L, 17-10)|
|1980||Rose||v. Washington (W, 23-6)|
|1982||Rose||v. UCLA (L, 24-14)|
|1983||Sugar||v. Auburn (L, 9-7)|
|1985||Fiesta||v. Nebraska (W, 27-23)|
|1986||Rose||v. Arizona State (L, 22-15)|
|1988||Rose||v. USC (W, 22-14)|
|1989||Rose||v. USC (L, 17-10)|
|Major Bowl Record: 3-10|
Bowl games, to me, are a litmus test to determine how well a program stacks up against an equivalent program in a different conference. While Bruce only went to five major bowl games, he won two of them—and didn’t get blown out in any of them. The one-point Rose Bowl loss to USC to cap off the 1979 season was for a de facto national championship. So, while Earle never did win a championship, he was within a point of getting there.
It’s hard to fill the shoes left by a legend. Hayes ended his OSU coaching career as a five-time national champion and 13-time conference champion. Whomever took over the program had huge expectation. While the four conference crowns won by Bruce don’t stack up to anywhere near Hayes, remember that Woody was in charge of the Buckeyes for 28 seasons; Bruce didn’t even get a decade at the helm.
The relatively short tenure for Bruce at OSU is kind of disheartening, considering that in six of those seasons he had the Buckeyes at a very respectable 9-3. While people can complain that 9-3 wasn’t good enough, two of those years saw the Buckeyes claim a share of the Big Ten, and another two times the Bucks were in second place. The Ohio State years were a big reason for Bruce’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002. According to the Hall of Fame, a head coach can become eligible for enshrinement when he’s “been a head coach for a minimum of 10 years and coached at least 100 games with a .600 winning percentage.” Bruce coached 108 games at OSU and won 81 of them—leading to a .750 win percentage.
I’ve mentioned this before in previous pieces, but winning is a hard thing to do. To consistently be at the top of the football food chain makes you an outlier, not the rule. Woody Hayes had a dominant run for the Buckeyes, and only a few other coaches in the country during that era could say the same thing. Especially with the agreement between the Big Ten and the conference now known as the Pac-12 to play in the Rose Bowl at season’s end. John McKay’s USC Trojans would spoil the Buckeyes’ (and Big Ten’s) hopes of a national title, and vice-versa. Bo never won the big one at Michigan, but ran the table in most years. The fact that Bruce could have a winning record against Bo, and make the Buckeyes competitive in every year but his last, proved that he was more than a good coach.
Bruce’s firing, I think, comes from the unreal expectations set by the Hayes years. In fact, Hayes became a victim of his own success. In this story from the Los Angeles Times, Bruce mentioned that he was at Ohio State when an airplane was flown in the sky calling for the dismissal of Hayes as coach. Sure, people want you to win. But, what they don’t mention is that when you win, people expect it again—and again. Look at what’s happening now in the Urban Meyer years. He had the hottest start in Big Ten history, won a title, and when the Buckeyes fell apart against Iowa in the 2017 season, murmurs on message boards suggested that Meyer, a three-time national championship winner, had lost his way.
Just imagine if Twitter existed during the Bruce years at OSU. After about the third season with a 9-3 outcome, I bet the hot takes would’ve come calling for his firing, saying that he was the false heir apparent to Woody, and so on and so on.
But, before his final season in Columbus, one that ended on a sour 6-4-1 note, Bruce had the chance to take the coaching job at the University of Arizona. According to Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, Bruce changed his mind about wanting to be the next Wildcat coach, and instead “went with his heart” and stayed at Ohio State. Bruce went with his heart, and paid the price. Dick Toomey, the man who would eventually take over at Arizona, had a 13-year career as the man in charge of the Wildcats—and ended with the most wins in school history.
Bruce was a Buckeye through a through. He graduated from OSU, and was part of Hayes’ coaching staff prior to becoming a head coach in the college ranks. He knew the expectations were sky-high if you were the football coach in Ohio’s capital city. And yet, he took over the reigns—and stayed for as long as he could.
If I were in the same situation as Bruce, I would’ve been on the first flight to Tucson, Arizona, after the 1986 season ended. With a Cotton Bowl victory added to the resumé, it would’ve seemed like as good a time as any to leave. Arizona was on the rise; Larry Smith departed the Wildcats for greener pastures at the University of Southern California. So, the program wasn’t necessarily on the rocks. 9-3 seasons at Arizona would’ve gotten Bruce bottomless contract extensions; a 10-2 season here and there may have gotten him a statue outside the stadium. At Ohio State, a 9-3 or 10-2 season keeps your head slightly above water—and that’s only if one of those wins includes Michigan.
Looking back, it’s now very evident: Bruce was the right guy to fill the void left by Woody—and he did as good of a job as any could have. No matter what the haters say.