A legacy off the field
A look back at coach Earle Bruce and his advocacy for Alzheimer's research
Ask an 84-year-old Earle Bruce about football and he sits up a little straighter, his voice grows louder and his eyes burn with the same fire they had when he roamed the Ohio State sidelines as head coach from 1979 to 1987.
Not surprisingly, Bruce has the same response when he’s asked about Alzheimer’s, a cognitive disease that has hit his family hard. It’s why he has devoted the remainder of his life to helping find a cure through philanthropy.
Bruce, who still lives in Columbus, has always considered himself a member of Buckeye Nation. He believes in his alma mater’s research prowess, and if the money he raises can help ensure other families can avoid watching loved ones deteriorate, then it is effort well spent.
Alzheimer’s missed the four boys in the Bruce family, but both girls were affected. It struck Bruce’s younger sister, Bev, in her prime.
“She was a regular golfer — all the time. We went out on the golf course, and the first time I saw it, she lined up to putt and the hole was over there and she’s putting the other way,” Bruce said. Bev died in her 60s, and his older sister, Mary Lou, is showing symptoms at 86.
“It’s not memory so much, but it’s when you go out to your car and you go to go home, and you don’t make it. You don’t know where to go.”
That happened to Bruce’s father, Earle Sr., and Bruce had to go pick him up in town after his mother became frantic. His dad was the first in the family to experience Alzheimer’s, but for a long time, Bruce was oblivious to his condition.
“My mom knew he had it, and she used to say, when I walked in the door, to Dad, ‘This is your son, Earle.’ ‘He knows me, Mom,’ I would say. Well, he didn’t know me. She was helping him all the time.”
A team with Jean
To beat the disease, Bruce and his late wife, Jean, started two events to raise money for the Earle and Jean Bruce Alzheimer’s Research Fund in Neurology at Ohio State. Both draw great support from the folks in Bruce’s athletic history.
Every year, current coach Urban Meyer speaks at the always-sold-out Beat Michigan Tailgate. Buckeye greats such as Keith Byars come back for the Athletes against Alzheimer’s Radiothon. And Bruce and his daughter Lynn are starting a new fundraiser, Boots and Buckeyes, at the All American Quarter Horse Congress Oct. 16 at the Ohio Expo Center. To date, the events have raised more than $1 million for Alzheimer’s research.
“I wish it were a heck of a lot more,” Bruce said, noting that Alzheimer’s is the fifth-leading cause of death among Americans 65 and older. “And it’s growing. There’s only one way to stop it, and that’s to get the research going.”
That’s a coach’s mentality: Faced with a tough opponent, beat them any way you can. And Bruce learned that from one of the best, Woody Hayes.
The best luck
It was 1951, and Bruce packed up his belongings in the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house that he shared with other football players. He had torn the meniscus in his knee, and his playing career as a fullback was over before he ever made it on the field for the varsity team. He walked to U.S. 40 and hitchhiked home to Cumberland, Maryland.
“Knees were pretty destructible back then, and they didn’t have all the methods they have today to reconstruct them,” Bruce said.
Assistant coach Harry Strobel called the house days later. Hayes wanted Bruce to come back, finish school and help him coach.
Bruce ’53 spent his senior year as a student coach and got his first job as an assistant at Mansfield High School, where he met Jean. He had three successful stops as a head coach — at Salem, Sandusky and Massillon — for a combined 82–12–3 record. (His last two years, at Massillon, his teams went undefeated.)
At that point, 13 years after leaving Ohio State, Bruce figured he would always be a high school coach. But Hayes asked him to come back again in 1966.
“I had the greatest luck in coaching anyone could possibly have as far as advancement is concerned,” Bruce said. “I had great coaches, great teachers and great players.”
Bruce was Hayes’ assistant for six years and won a national title with the Buckeyes in ’68. By the time he made a leap to a head coach’s job at the University of Tampa in 1972, he got a supreme lesson in toughness.
“Woody was a taskmaster, and if there was anything you never wanted to be it was an assistant to Coach Hayes for six years, because you got every job in the world when you were there.”
But Bruce fools no one. He loved every minute of it. The stories he tells of his time with Hayes — most of them off-the-record — are rich in detail and smiles. He never believed he would be the coach to follow Hayes, but that’s because Bruce never thought Hayes would quit or be fired. Hayes remained Bruce’s mentor and friend until his death in 1987.
“He told me one time when I was going to leave and go to Tampa, ‘You know Earle, I might retire here,’” Bruce said. “I said, ‘Coach, don’t give me that story. You’ll either drop dead coaching or running down the field or something. You won’t quit.’ And he didn’t quit. No one gets the chance to quit here. But he made it something, 28 years, and now the legacy that Urban is building, who knows how long that can go?”
Never mind that
His own legacy is something Bruce never worries about. He leaves that for others to decide (although he thinks going 5–4 against “the best coach Michigan ever had,” Bo Schembechler, isn’t too shabby).
Meyer, who has a long history with Bruce as an assistant coach at Ohio State and Colorado State, is happy to comment on Bruce’s legacy. In fact, he likens Bruce to a second father.
“They’re very similar,” Meyer once told The New York Times of his dad and Bruce. “They both are about doing the right thing. There’s a lot of things that are important, but doing it the right way is probably the most important.”
Now, the Bruce coaching legacy also has some lineage. Bruce’s grandson, Zach Smith, who played under Meyer for a year at Bowling Green and was an assistant coach for him at Florida, is a solid recruiter and receivers coach at Ohio State.
Lynn Bruce, Smith’s mother, didn’t want Zach to follow in her dad’s footsteps and become a coach.
“But what did you tell him when he called you?” the daughter nudged the father.
“‘No, don’t do it. Stay home and be with your mother,’” Bruce said with a chuckle. “No I didn’t say that at all. ‘Good. Get in there and learn all you can, and be the best coach you can possibly be.’”
And as good as Bruce was — finishing his coaching career 81–26–1 at Ohio State and 154–90–2 overall — he’s still craving one more victory.
“We can help people fight Alzheimer’s and keep it so they can walk and talk and do things so they aren’t bed-ridden,” Bruce said. “Dr. (Douglas) Scharre is coming on like gangbusters at Ohio State, and they’re going to come up with something fairly soon to help people live a little longer with the disease and live a good life. I hope we soon find a cure for it.”
An update on Earle Bruce
As this issue went live, Earle Bruce was recovering from a mild stroke he experienced July 23. Lynn Bruce said her father was working hard on his physical therapy and expected to make a full recovery.