The Ohio State University hosted a celebration of life on Tuesday for former head football coach Earle Bruce, who passed away at 87 last Friday. The memorial, which was held at St. John Arena, was open to the public for all to pay their respects.
The event was hosted by 10TV’s Dom Tiberi and featured speakers Jim Tressel, Tony Alford, Matt McCoy, Zach Smith, and Urban Meyer. Each of the four shared memories of their time with Earle and the lessons they have learned from him.
Tressel, the former Ohio State head coach, opened his comments by talking about Earle Bruce’s love for his wife, family, players, coaches, and schools. Wherever he went, he would have a love affair with that campus, and it would always last well after he was gone.
“With Coach Bruce, love affairs never end,” Tressel said.
Bruce’s love affair with Ohio State began in his playing days, and lasted until his final days. His presence within the University was always felt.
When Tressel was the head coach at Ohio State, he also made sure former head coaches Earle Bruce and John Cooper had offices in the football facilities. They were always welcome, and Bruce made good use of his office.
Tressel told the story of somebody asking him recently how long he worked for Earle. His answer was 13 years.
“I was an assistant coach for 3 years, and head coach for 10 years, but he was in the building, so really I was an assistant coach for 10 more years. That’s just the reality of the situation,” he said.
Throughout Tressel’s words, the thread of Bruce’s love affair with his family and his football remained.
“Now he’s up with [Bruce’s wife] Jean, Woody, Paul Brown, my dad and our lord, who has given us a love affair that will never end.”
Up next to the stage was current Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford, who played for Bruce at Colorado State.
Alford told stories of Bruce’s gruff style of coaching, but it was always done with a purpose.
He also shared the story of the day — a Friday — when Bruce found out that Urban Meyer had offered Alford the running backs coach position at Ohio State. Alford was in the car with his wife, running the kids to school, and Bruce called Alford.
“What are you doing?” Bruce asked.
Alford replied that he was dropping his kids off at school. Bruce quickly shot back, “No, g** d*****, what are you doing about Ohio State?”
Alford said he was still thinking about it. Bruce then told him, essentially, that he was going to take the job and that he’d see him in Columbus on Monday. With that, Bruce hung up. Alford’s wife turned to her husband and said, “I guess we’re moving.”
Alford also said that he didn’t realize how much Columbus loved Coach Bruce until he got to Ohio State. They went out to eat at Bruce’s favorite place and throughout the entire meal Bruce was being approached by fans, almost like a king holding court.
It was also at that time when Alford came to another realization.
“I was 46 years old and I had never looked him in the eye and told him how much he meant to me,” he said.
Alford told Bruce he was ashamed that he hadn’t done it sooner.
Following Earle’s coaching days, he could be heard every week during the football season on Bucksline on WTVN. The show is a roundtable of former Buckeyes talking to Buckeye fans, and it was right in Earle’s wheelhouse.
Matt McCoy, who has hosted the show for years, shared some of his memories of Coach Bruce. He talked about Earle’s inability to follow the golden rule of life in the press box — thou shalt not cheer.
“Earle Bruce broke that rule every Saturday,” he said.
"You hate to see that." – Earle Bruce, after Illinois finally scores a touchdown to make it 48-7.
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) November 2, 2014
Then came a story of McCoy and Earle watching the 2016 Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame. The Buckeyes ran the ball at will on the Irish and weren’t having much trouble. Then on one series, they decided to come out and throw the ball on every day. Bruce was not having it. When the drive ended in an interception, that was it.
“I’m calling Urban!” Bruce said, as he got his phone out and started scrolling through his contacts.
McCoy tried to reason with him that Meyer wasn’t going to answer his phone in the middle of the game.
“He’ll answer if it’s from me,” was Bruce’s response.
That’s the type of emotion that Bruce carried with him for Ohio State every day. He didn’t just wear it on his sleeve, he wore it everywhere, including his fedora.
He loved the Buckeyes and he cherished talking to the fans, because they were as passionate about Ohio State as he was.
“Earle shook every hand,” McCoy said, addressing the Buckeye fans in attendance. “He always had time for you, and he loved it.”
Stories of Earle Bruce the coach were the order of the day, but Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith shared stories of Earle Bruce the grandfather.
“I knew a loyal husband, a loving father, and an unbelievable grandfather,” he said. “He loved his players. He loved his coaches that coached for him, just like he loved his daughters and grandchilden.”
Holding back tears throughout, Smith’s love for his grandfather cradled every word he spoke. He said there was nothing that Bruce wouldn’t do for any member of his family or any of his former players.
In fact, Smith said that everything Bruce did, from buying a car to getting insurance, he wanted to get it from a former Buckeye. He wanted to help out the former players. That’s why he had to come back to Columbus.
“He was born to impact people,” Smith said.
As a grandfather would, he gave Smith advice on many more things than just football. One such piece was about family.
“You make sure you give the people you love one entire day every month and treat them like the royalty they are,” Smith said. “You treat them like a top recruit or a top player, because they are.”
Of course, there was also plenty of coaching advice. Like when Smith took the Ohio State job and his grandfather offered up some poignant words of wisdom.
“Work hard,” he said. “Be loyal to Urban Meyer. Love your players hard. And hate no one…except Michigan.”
Alzheimer’s had taken a heavy toll on Earle Bruce, but Smith explained that it wasn’t enough to take away his love for his family or his love of Ohio State. Bruce would still ask about players and how they were doing. Smith said that Bruce couldn’t remember things like his favorite fruit, but he still wanted to know how No. 21 was doing.
“Alzheimer’s couldn’t take that,” Smith said. “His love for this place was too strong.”
As a child, Smith saw the impact that his grandfather had on his players. They told him all the time, and it became the reason why he wanted to be a football coach.
“‘Zach, let me tell you, this man is the reason I am where I am today,'” Smith said they’d tell him. “I didn’t know what a coach was, but I knew one day I wanted people to say that about me.”
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was the final speaker of the day. Meyer coached under Bruce as a graduate assistant at Ohio State and a receivers coach at Colorado State. Meyer has spoken many times of Earle Bruce as his football mentor.
“Well, Heaven just got a little bit more intense,” Meyer began.
Having coached for Bruce, Meyer shared some stories of his time as an assistant, and you could tell that Meyer didn’t have to dig too deep for the memories. It was all still on the surface.
“He’s a very intimidating coach because he was never wrong,” Meyer said. “And even if he was wrong, he still wasn’t wrong.”
Meyer has kept the lessons that he learned from Bruce at the forefront of every program he has been in charge of. One of those key tenets goes back to the love for the players that he always had.
“Never, ever give up on a player,” Meyer said Bruce told him. “Ever.”
Meyer then shared the story of a player at Colorado State that just wasn’t coachable. Wouldn’t listen. Wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do. Meyer eventually had enough. At a wedding reception with music blaring, Meyer asked for a minute with Earle Bruce. Meyer told his head coach that he couldn’t deal with this player anymore. The kid had to go. He couldn’t coach him.
Bruce then motioned for Meyer to lean in and listen carefully.
“Let me explain something to you,” Bruce said. “By Monday morning I’ll have somebody here who can coach him.”
One of the other lessons that Meyer took from Bruce is that when you are given an opportunity, you swing as hard as you can and you give it everything you’ve got.
Prior to the 2006 SEC Championship Game, Meyer talked to his team during a team meal and eventually dismissed them. He didn’t notice at the time, but Earle Bruce was right next to him. Eventually, Bruce began lighting into Meyer because he didn’t think his former assistant was swinging as hard as he could.
“They went and got security because they didn’t know who this guy was,” Meyer said.
The key piece of advice that Meyer received on that day from Bruce was, “Let the m***** f***** go!”
Meyer wrote it on his game notes.
“Let the ‘MFer’ go.”
In that SEC Championship Game, Florida jumped out to a 17-0 lead on Arkansas. The Razorbacks, however, eventually came back to take a 21-17 lead midway through the third quarter.
Faced with a fourth-and-10 at their own 15-yard line and the momentum solidly on the side of Arkansas, Meyer looked down at his notes and saw, “Let the m***** f***** go.” So he called a fake punt.
The fake worked and picked up 17 yards and a first down. The drive eventually fizzled at the Florida 41-yard line, but the Razorbacks muffed the punt, which Florida recovered in the end zone to take a 24-21 lead.
Stories just like that one are no doubt still going on right now, as former Bruce assistant coaches — including Mark Dantonio — and dozens of former players were in attendance to pay their respects and share their memories among each other.
It was a day to remember an Ohio State great, but more importantly, it was a day to remember a father and a grandfather.
It was a day of old memories and now new memories, and it was most definitely a day of celebration.