COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the last week, Earle Bruce and Rick Bay, heretofore two regular guys, have gone from often criticized to sympathetic figures to legendary status to candidates for sainthood. All for saying, "Goodby, Columbus."
Bruce, the former Ohio State football coach, and Bay, OSU's former athletic director, are the main actors in a drama that began the day in 1979 when Bruce replaced the irreplaceable Woody Hayes and continued through his firing last week by university President Edward Jennings.
It involves a figure (Bruce) who was at times unappealing and unattractive to some fans, gruff with the media and short with alumni, a man who some felt spent too much time at the race track and not enough time on civic activities, a coach who didn't fit the bigger-than-life Hayes-like image of what a coach should be at an institution that considers itself among the best of the best.
It also involves Bay, who quit as athletic director in protest of Bruce's firing the day the dismissal became public.
"I'm a professional. I love football coaching and I'm going to stay in, somewhere, some way," Bruce said last Saturday after his Buckeyes beat Michigan, 23-20, in an emotional game. "The ultimate responsibility (for his ouster) goes to the president and the Board of Trustees, but I don't think they're the ones who fired me."
He wouldn't specify who did, but he holds Jennings responsible in a $7.5 million lawsuit against Jennings and the university. The suit, which was settled Friday with a lump sum payment of $471,000 going to Bruce, charged Jennings embarked in a smear campaign against Bruce a year ago.
"The lessons you learn on the football field come back," Bruce said. "When you get knocked down on the field, you don't stay down. You don't quit. If you hit me hard, I'll hit you back."
"He (Jennings) is appointed, among other things, to make difficult judgment calls," said John C. Elam, the attorney to whom Jennings has deferred all questions. "It was in no way, as some have recently suggested, a personal vendetta. Two, he did it after extensive consultation."
Jennings has not specified his reasons for the dismissal, calling it a "personnel matter," although he did acknowledge that Bruce's won-loss record was not the reason he was fired.
"Coach Bruce was terminated pursuant to his contract, after consultation with the Board of Trustees," Elam said.
As for how the matter was handled, Jennings blames Bay for not holding the annoucement of Bruce's firing until after the Michigan game, as originally planned. Bay said the firing sent "the wrong message about Ohio State" to the country when he announced the firing Nov. 16. Then he quit.
"Some crises are so severe that if you're going to take exception with the administration, you do that and you step aside," Bay said. "I've been able to stand on principle many times and not lose my job. In this case, it was a serious matter, one that has gotten a great deal of publicity."
Bay said Bruce may not have met "the physical image" people in Columbus expected of their coach. "Whether he was not glib, whether he was not charismatic, whether he liked to bet on the horses, I don't know," Bay said.
There were "mitigating factors to where the coach was not popular in some circles," Bay said. "(Jennings) said to me that the coach was just too damned unpopular and that he was pressured to make the change," Bay said.
"I told (Jennings) that aside from a few powerful businessmen in Columbus, nobody would understand what we were doing at Ohio State. It would be a public-relations nightmare," Bay said.
Bruce apparently rubbed several alumni and contributors to the university the wrong way with his lack of charisma and the way he dealt with the media. His television show was canceled in 1983; Bruce said it was over money, the president of the station said it was because of Bruce's "disregard for the company and the people who work here."
"I am not a political man," Bruce said Saturday. "I am a football coach."
Some alumni did not like Bruce's frequent trips to local racetracks, especially in the light of his former quarterback Art Schlichter's gambling problems. Schlichter was suspended for one year from the National Football League for illegal gambling on sports events.
"I have no apologies for going to the racetrack," said Bruce, pointing out that Jennings had attended the Kentucky Derby. "Other people go to the racetrack. I'm not a big gambler. I'm not a big bettor, but I like to see the horses run.
"I know they've attacked me for Art Schlichter. I've never come to the racetrack with Art Schlichter, ever. I've said so . . . whoever made the accusations better have a good life, too."
Bruce also angered locals with his handling of the Cris Carter situation. The Buckeyes' All-America wide receiver and a certain first-round draft pick in next season's NFL draft, Carter was ruled ineligible for his senior season at OSU by the NCAA after he accepted money from agents.