Loyal all his days
Remembering former Buckeyes coach Earle Bruce, who died in April
“Do you hear me?”
Those words were never really a question when spoken by Earle Bruce ’53. They were a point of emphasis as he leaned into you, eyes ablaze, his finger jabbing your chest.
If you listened — really heard him — you learned something.
You learned about love.
Love of family. Love of Ohio State. Love of Buckeye football.
Oh, the details of a Bruce message of yore might be lost, in the same way plays blurred together across years into the precise measurement of a career that landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame and Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame.
Numbers such as his 154–90–2 record in 21 seasons as a collegiate coach — including 81–26–1 in nine seasons with the Buckeyes from 1979 to ’87 — were invoked when Bruce died April 20 at age 87.
Yet his death spurred a more impassioned recounting of his values than the dutiful recitation of statistics.
“Loyalty was his greatest asset, at times to a fault,” says grandson Zach Smith, Ohio State receivers coach. “If he had your back, he had it forever.”
Bruce was married to his late wife, Jean, for 56 years, and their love shines through their four daughters and nine grandchildren, each of whom he treasured dearly, even in the grips of Alzheimer’s.
“He kissed a grandkid on his final day, recognizing the voice even when he couldn’t remember that an apple was his favorite fruit,” Smith says.
Bruce’s love for Ohio State was equally durable, even when his coaching path took him miles from campus to stints at the University of Tampa, Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Colorado State. “He was a Buckeye. That’s what Earle always said, ‘I’m a Buckeye,’” says Jim Lachey, a star offensive lineman for Bruce at Ohio State.
The coach professed that loyalty despite moments of pain, heartache and disappointment at Ohio State, dating to a knee injury that ended his playing career in 1951. “He did not have a path that was clear,” says Jim Tressel, the former head coach who served as an assistant for Bruce.
Sometimes Bruce was left muttering under his breath while toiling as an assistant for the relentless Woody Hayes, the beloved icon he eventually replaced. “Pushed beyond his limits at times only made his love stronger,” says Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes’ current coach and a former Bruce assistant.
Love is why acrimony didn’t linger after that ugly week in November 1987 when Ohio State fired Bruce, but allowed him to coach the season’s final game. The Buckeyes carried their mentor off Michigan turf following that 23–20 upset, a day after Bruce had quietly filed suit against then-President Edward Jennings and the university.
The man in the fedora didn’t fade away in bitterness.
Instead, Bruce evolved into a tough yet tender grandfather figure for Ohio State during 23 years as a Columbus sports radio analyst. He was a fixture around the football program, always finding time for coaches, players and fans.
“That’s what an alum is supposed to be, just what he turned out to be,” Tressel says. “He came here and ended here. That’s the definition of an alum.”
Bruce will live on in his work for the Earle and Jean Bruce Alzheimer’s Research Fund in Neurology at Ohio State, which in the past decade has raised $1.2 million to combat the cognitive disease that afflicted several members of his family.
Such a legacy is worth a fist pump, the type Bruce gave at midfield Oct. 1, 2016, while dotting the “i” for The Ohio State University Marching Band at halftime of the Buckeyes’ victory over Rutgers.
In the end, love triumphs.
“Do you hear me?”
All Buckeyes heard you, Coach Bruce.We’ll always hear you.
Make a gift
Donations to the Earle and Jean Bruce Alzheimer’s Research Fund in Neurology support research into the disease, which affects an estimated 5.7 million Americans. Bruce revealed he had Alzheimer’s in 2017.