Football The Rivalry

Earle Bruce and Bo Schembechler on Their Most Memorable Games

[NOTE: This was part of a series written in 2005 by John Porentas and Tom Orr, based on one-on-one interviews conducted with both coaches. You can also read The Game That Made The Game and “The Buckeyes Send Earle Out a Winner”]

In the decades that they coached in the OSU-Michigan series, Bo Schembechler and Earle Bruce experienced almost every possible emotion, from utter devastation to sheer elation.

Earlier this week, the OZone profiled one of the biggest wins in each coach’s career, Michigan’s monumental upset in 1969 and Earle Bruce’s emotional final game as head coach of the Buckeyes in 1987.

But for both men, other games still stood out clearly in their minds, years or even decades after the final gun. And both understand just how significant each and every one of their wins was.

As Schembechler put it, “Any time you beat Ohio State, it’s big. Just like any time they beat us it’s big.”

But one game in the middle of the 10-Year War stood out to him; the day when his team snapped its four-game winless streak against their bitter rivals.

“I would say probably the one that I remember was at Columbus (in 1976). Rob Lytle was the tailback.

“We went in at halftime 0-0, like our old defensive battles. We came out in the second half and dominated the game; beat them 22-0. That was a very satisfying win.

“Rob Lytle ran wild, he was great that day. Of course he’s an Ohio kid, from Fremont.”

Bruce had trouble picking just one or two memorable wins, and instead rattled off several victories that meant a lot to him. And in every case, there was a different reason why the win over Michigan was extra sweet.

“The 1967 game meant a lot to me because our jobs were on the line up there and our kids played so far over their heads to win that game 24-14,” he said.

“It was unbelievable when you think about the 1979 game. We hadn’t beat Michigan for three years or scored a touchdown, and we beat them 18-15.

“In 1981 Football News said Bo could name his score in that game, and I knew better because I saw us practicing. We took a good Michigan football team that could pass the ball and shut down (Anthony) Carter, their best
receiver, in that football game like you couldn’t believe. (We) won the ball  game in the last minute of play 14-9. That had to be a great football game.

“Of course the 1968 championship team (which won), 50-14. I’m talking about wins now, I don’t want to remember the losses.”

But in a series as heated as this, the losses can stick in a coach’s mind every bit as long as the wins, whether they want to remember them or not.

Schembechler recalled several close calls against Woody Hayes’ teams.

“There were several games that came down to field goals that we missed. There were games when we got stopped, particularly one where we got stopped on the goal line (1972). I went for the touchdown on fourth down instead of
the field goal to tie, and I didn’t get it. And that was disappointing.

“But if you look back on the games, they were all very, very close. A field goal here, a touchdown there and the games would have been different.”

Even today, the game that bothers Schembechler the most wasn’t a loss at all—it was a tie.

“The other game that sticks in my mind was the 1973 game when we tied. We missed a field goal at the end there to win that game. Denny Franklin, my quarterback got hurt. He got hit on a blitz and broke his collarbone.

“So we were 10-0-1 and they were 10-0-1, and they had gone to the Rose Bowl the year before, so everybody assumed that we were going to the Rose Bowl.

“I don’t know exactly how it happened; I always accused (then-Big Ten commissioner) Wayne Duke of having something to say about it, but somehow they got six of the athletic directors to vote for Ohio State.

“Everybody said that it was because I had to go into the game (Rose Bowl) without my quarterback. I had a good backup quarterback who played (three) years of pro ball, by the name of Larry Cipa, who was a good quarterback.

“We would have been just fine in the Rose Bowl because that was the weakest Southern Cal team that ever played in the Rose Bowl. That was not a good Southern Cal team, so we could have beaten them. But they sent Ohio State.

“That was the lowest point in my coaching career because I thought that was totally, totally unjustified. Ohio State had gone the year before. We used to have the no-repeat rule; I didn’t believe in that, but certainly that
becomes a factor when we’re both tied. We should have gone then, and we didn’t.

“But that game I remember clearly because the aftermath of that was quite disappointing.”

More than 30 years later, Schembechler remains angry about what he still feels strongly was a slight against his players and his program.

“I’ve never forgiven those guys because they had to live with the fact that they know damn well that voting (for OSU) was unjustified. I can understand Ohio State voting for themselves, that’s understandable, but Michigan State?
And (then-Wisconsin athletic director) Elroy Hirsch? That wasn’t fair.

“(Then-Illinois coach) Bob Blackmon told me long after that he could not understand what happened, because his athletic director on Saturday night had a party and told him that he was voting for Michigan. And he turned
right around and voted for Ohio State. Now what happened there, you know what I mean?

“That was my worst experience playing Ohio State.”

For Bruce, the losses that still bother him are the ones he strongly feels his team should have won.

“When I look at film I think the ones that hurt me the most, there’s two games; the 1986 game when we lost 26-24.

“(We) jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first half and let Jamie Morris run the ball for over 200 yards against us, and beat us in the fourth quarter.”

“We missed a 40-yard field goal at the end that would have won the game. It was still a great effort out of Michigan. Harbaugh did a great job in the second half against us.

“That’s when we should be dominant, in the second half at home, but it was a hard loss.

“Then at home in 1980 when we lost 9-3 and with (Butch) Woolfolk running for a lot of yards against us.”

That loss hurt even more because it left the players and coaches asking ‘what if?’

“(We missed) an opportunity to tie the score in a drive going down the field when we had a couple very bad play calls by the coach.”

And that coach was?

“That would have been me, yeah,” Bruce said.