[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 “Earle Bruce and Bo Schembechler on Their Most Memorable Games“ and “The Game That Made The Game“]
Bo Schembechler’s first game as a head coach in the OSU-Michigan series ended with perhaps the biggest Wolverine win ever. But Earle Bruce’s last game as the head coach of OSU was a memorable part of this rivalry as well.
The 1987 Buckeyes entered with a record of just 5-4-1, while Michigan was 7-3. OSU’s difficult season came to a head earlier in the week, when university president Ed Jennings fired Bruce.
The decision was so controversial that athletic director Rick Bay resigned in protest. Bruce was, however, allowed to coach that weekend’s game in Ann Arbor. That made it a very difficult, very emotional week for the Buckeyes’ embattled coach and his players. But it also set up a very memorable game, one Bruce would remember for the rest of his life.
“When you talk about picking out one game (as the most memorable), that’s pretty tough, but I would have to pick out, just because it’s me, the 1987 game,” Bruce said.
“It was so significant as far as the emotion of the game for me. Obviously you get fired on Monday and you win on Saturday, that’s unheard of.” Before the game, Bruce’s players came out wearing matching headbands, all inscribed with “Earle” as a show of their support. That caught everyone, including the coach, off-guard.
“No, no, no, no. I had no idea about the headbands. If fact, I wondered what the hell that was. I kept saying ‘What is that? What is that?’ I walked over and I looked and I said ‘I can’t say much about that, because otherwise I was going to tell them to get them off, because we don’t wear headbands at Ohio State. Then I saw it was Earle, and what could I say?”
Former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler remembered a different piece of headgear that was sported on the OSU sideline that day, Bruce’s fedora.
“Well, he came up with that dumb hat on to start with,” Schembechler said, laughing.
Once the game started, it looked like the emotions of the day would be too much for the Buckeyes to handle. They fell behind by almost two touchdowns by the middle of the second quarter, and Michigan out-rushed OSU 184-6 in the first half. But Bruce said that just helped set up the incredible finish.
“I want to tell you something, that was a great game,” Bruce said. “After the score became 13-0, Ohio State took over for the rest of the game. That was about a quarter-and-a-half and we got the other part of that, two-and-a-half quarters.”
The Buckeyes finally took the lead for good when Matt Frantz drilled a 26-yard field goal with 5:18 to play. Then the OSU defense held on for the win. Bruce said the effort was a tribute to the fight and spirit of his team, especially at the end of a very trying week.
“A team doesn’t stick together like that. We got behind 13-0 and came from behind at Michigan. You know, how many teams do that when you think about it? That’s a tremendously emotional impact, and they did it.”
On the other sideline, Schembechler was left trying to figure out what went wrong for his favored Wolverines.
“We were a lot better team than they were,” he said. “We didn’t play well and they played emotionally. They legitimately beat us. They shouldn’t have.
“That was the one time I’ll say ‘that was my fault.’ I should never have let them win that game.”
Schembechler remembered some of the earlier OSU-Michigan games much more fondly. Even years later, it was easy to see how much every one meant to him.
“It’s the only series (record) I can give you exactly,” he said.
“I know in the 10 years I played Woody, I won five times, he won four and we tied one. (My) overall record was like 11-9-1. That tells you how close it is.”
With the prevalence of spread offenses and downfield passing, this Saturday’s game will look very different from most of those games; especially the ones that pitted Schembechler’s Wolverines against Woody Hayes.
“The one thing about the 10-Year War, if you get out the film of it, don’t look for wide-open, innovative stuff. It was football at its purest,” Schembechler said.
“The offensive lines were perfectly aligned, when the ball was snapped they came off and blocked aggressively and stayed after it.
“Tackles were not missed. There were no missed tackles. You know how they miss tackles today? There were no missed tackles. When they had a shot at a guy, they brought him down. From that standpoint, that was a great game to play.
“The kids knew this is a physical game, and we’re going to play it that way. And they were the same way. It was almost like a mirror image of the two teams. They looked very much alike.”