Bruce comfortable in Hayes's shadow at Ohio State
Earle Bruce, a football coach through and through, talks forthrightly about his job at Ohio State. "There's pressure at Ohio State because everybody wants to win football games ," he said during a recent Eastern swing. "We've had 77 consecutive sellouts and probably 40,000 people waiting to get seats. If we didn't sell out, I'd have a tremendous problem."
Bruce, a graduate and former assistant coach at Ohio State, stepped into the vacant shoes of deposed head coach Woody Hayes two years ago. He handled what was an akward situation with diplomacy, paying tribute to his former boss while divorcing himself from the controversy surrounding Hayes's firing. The university decided it had had enough of Woody's notorious outbursts after he punched a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl.
Though he's notched two winning seasons since his arrival from Iowa State, Bruce doesn't feel he's outrun Hayes's long shadow, nor does he expect to. "After 28 years at Ohio State, he had become a legend, and I don't think I'd ever want to change that," says Bruce, a member of a physical fitness task force making the rounds for the American Football Coaches Association and the Tea Council.
Despite back-to-back 11-1 and 9-3 seasons, Bruce feels they were "two years in contrast." In his first year at Ohio State, the Buckeyes came within a whisker of going undefeated and winning the mythical national championship.
"Everything just broke right for us," he explains. "We played very well in the big games, against Michigan and UCLA and even against a very good Southern California team, which beat us by one point in the Rose Bowl
Not surprisingly, big things were expected of Ohio State in 1980, particularly with Heisman Trophy candidate Art Schlichter returning at quarterback. Instead, the Buckeyes were upset by UCLA early in the season, later lost their traditional Battle of the Big Ten to Michigan, and finally let Penn State off the hook in the Fiesta Bowl.
"We lost three crucial games, including our last two," Bruce says, "and that leaves a bad taste in your mouth all winter. We played with enthusiasm, but we didn't have the experience or size we needed in the offensive and defensive lines. That sounds like an excuse, but it's not meant to be."
Ohio State outsized?! "Impossible," say those who remember all the great wide-body linemen the Buckeyes have produced -- Jim Parker, Chris Ward, and John Hicks, to name a few. On offense, they cleared the way for the power runners in Hayes's "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense. After consistently losing to pro-style teams in the Rose Bowl, however, Hayes gradually opened up the offense and this change was reflected in the personnel Bruce inherited.
"When I was an assistant at Ohio State [1966- 71]," Bruce remembers, "every fullback was clamoring to come to Columbus. What amazed me when I returned was all the fast, skill-position people we had. It's very unusual for Ohio State to be able to recruit a quarterback, but we had Art Schlichter, one of the best in the country, and not that many big linemen. Having Art apparently got other skill players excited about playing for us."
Typically, Earle prefers his on-field coaching responsibilities to recruiting , and sometimes worries about the amount of time spent on the latter. "I don't mind sitting down with young people and their parents and talking about Ohio State football," he says. "But when you run around the country, that becomes old hat.
"Getting good football players to come to your school is a very demanding part of the job. If you don't do it, you won't have the great talent to coach."
Bruce is the first to admit that Ohio State has certain built-in advantages when it comes to recruiting. Foremost among these may be the gold mine of high school talent in the state. Then there's the fact that OSU is the Mammoth Mart of Ohio's college system, really the only state school with a nationally prominent football program.
Though these factors give the Buckeyes something of an edge, they don't make recruiting any less time consuming. Bruce says that from the last regular season game in late November until the national signing date in mid-February, it's a seven-days-a-week job. "You're on the road from Sunday to Thursday night , then on Friday recruits arrive on campus for a 48-hour visit."
Some people are critical of the effort and money expended on big-time college football (Ohio State's program reportedly produces $5.5 million in annual revenue) but Bruce considers the sport a worthwhile educator. "Oh, sure, you'll always have people who question the value of playing football," he says. "To me , though, the football field is still the laboratory where you test human relations, how people react under pressure, and one's ability to handle competition."
Bruce is also aware that the methods used in his profession are not always above censure, as indicated by the recent suit against ex-Arizona State Coach Frank Kush, who was exonerated of a charge saying he struck a player.
On the sensitive topic of player-coach confrontations, Bruce says, "It's a little demeaning for the coach to take a physical role in front of the rest of the team. I don't know how much he should do that, but I think football is a very physical sport and there's emotion shown on the practice field and during the game."
The thought of ever running off a player, treating him in such a way that he relinquishes his scholarship, is one that Bruce finds repulsive. His feelings stem from his own experience. Though an injury ended his playing career at Ohio State, the school let him retain his scholarship.
After graduation he spent 13 years coaching high school football in Ohio before Hayes hired him as an assistant. From there he went on to head coaching jobs at Tampa and Iowa State, where his Cyclones moved from conference also-rans to a Big Eight contender.
"I was fortunate to be granted six years at Iowa State," he explains, "because a coach needs three years to get his program going. We were 4-7 my first three years there, then, thank goodness, we went 8-3 each season after that."
With only nine seniors returning from his 1980 squad, does Bruce expect Ohio State rooters to exhibit the same six-year patience Iowa State backers showed toward him?
"I don't know," he laughs heartily "I've only been there two years."