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The Mystery of Earle Bruce : He Had Best Record in Big Ten for Nine Years; Why Was He Fired? Don't Ask, He Doesn't Know

January 17, 1988|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Somewhere, sometime Earle Bruce did something to get himself fired as Ohio State's football coach. Which takes us to that all-important $471,000 question: What did Bruce do to lose the only job he ever wanted?

"If you find that out, then I want you to come back and tell me," said Bruce last week, sitting at home on a cold, blustery winter afternoon.

He's in for a considerable wait, since the person who knows best why Bruce was fired on Nov. 16--Ohio State President Edward H. Jennings--isn't saying. Legal reasons.

The school's Board of Trustees isn't saying, either. Nor is the influential Wolfe family, which owns the city's only newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, is principal owner of the CBS television and radio affiliates, and is a major contributor to OSU. Nor is the powerful Galbreath family, another strong financial supporter of the school. Mum's the word here.

This wasn't just any firing, mind you. This was war, full of petty jealousies, innuendoes and cheap shots galore. This was mighty Ohio State, where Woody Hayes once walked, where the band dots the I in the Script Ohio formation, where the naming of a new assistant coach leads the local evening sportscasts. This was lawsuits and resignations and settlements--Bruce's $471,000, for instance--like you wouldn't believe.

At controversy's center were Jennings, Athletic Director Rick Bay and, of course, Bruce.

Jennings is still here, though there seems to be some question of how long.

Bay resigned in protest, choosing a principle over a president's mandate.

Bruce, fired for the first time in his 32-year coaching career, was hoping for a call from Southern Methodist University, since it needed a football coach. But then came news Thursday that Forrest Gregg had accepted SMU's job offer. So much for that.

Bruce can hardly remember when he spent this much time inside his own house. December, January, those are the months he's in other families' homes, sampling a mother's home-baked pie, sipping a cup of coffee, telling any recruit who will listen why Ohio State is the greatest place in the world.

Bruce would maybe tell a story or two about the legendary Hayes, the man he succeeded in 1979, about Buckeye tradition, about impressive graduation rates, about Ohio State football being the only game in town.

Now look at him. The big decision of the day involved dinner: Cook vegetables and shrimp in a wok or dine out with his wife, Jean, and friend and family attorney, John Zonak? Next up for Bruce: Clean the basement or the garage?

"I'm seeing parts of this house that I've never seen before," said Bruce, laughing a sad little laugh.

Odd as it may be to think of Bruce with a dust mop and a can of Pledge, that is his fate at the moment. He is a 56-year-old football coach who won 81 games, lost 26 and tied 1 during his nine seasons at Ohio State. He had the best record in the conference in those nine years, including two outright Big Ten titles and two shared. And he is without a job. Worse yet, no one has told him why.

So here he sits in his home outside of Columbus, wearing blue and gray sweats, sneakers, fidgeting with an eyeglass case decorated in OSU script. On Bruce's right ring finger is a 1984 Big Ten championship ring, large enough to keep an Ohio State metallurgy class busy for days.

He is Ohio State-educated, once a scholarship player for Hayes, later an assistant coach and still later, Hayes' own choice as head coach. This was the job he cherished, and now, after a 1987 record of 6-4-1, it is someone else's.

"I don't know what to say," Bruce said. "I can't quite put it all together, why it should happen. That's what I can't understand. I thought that if you had a bad record and lost one season . . . you hang on for a year. Woody always said that if you had one bad year, you better have a good one the next. You couldn't have two bad seasons back to back at Ohio State, or probably anyplace. I agree. So I felt kind of safe. But you never feel too safe."

Bruce didn't get fired because of his coaching abilities. If there's one thing Bruce can do, it's win football games. As a high school coach, Bruce lost only 12 of 94 games. His teams at fabled Washington High in Massillon, Ohio, were 20-0.

At the University of Tampa, Bruce stayed one season and finished 10-2. He came close to dismissal at Iowa State, but then turned that struggling program around with three consecutive 8-3 records. "And the NCAA didn't even think about investigating him," said Gil Brandt, Dallas Cowboys vice president-personnel development, and a close friend of Bruce.

Said Lou McCullough, a former OSU assistant coach and later Bruce's athletic director at Iowa State: "Earle would have to be in the top five (coaches) in America. To go 8-3, 8-3, 8-3 at Iowa State, that's like Northwestern winning the Big Ten."

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