Earle Bruce, a Winning Ohio State Football Coach, Dies at 87

As head coach in 1986 and ’87, Bruce mentored a young graduate assistant on his staff named Urban Meyer, who is now Ohio State’s head coach, winner of a national championship in 2014.

“I’ve made it clear many times that, other than my father, Coach Bruce was the most influential man in my life,” Meyer said in a statement after the death. “Every significant decision I’ve made growing up in this profession was with him involved in it.”

Bruce was born on March 8, 1931, in Pittsburgh and raised in Cumberland, Md. He went to Ohio State in the fall of 1949 to play football but sustained a knee injury that effectively ended his playing days and got him to thinking about becoming a coach.


Bruce talked to quarterback Mike Tomczak during a game in Columbus in 1984.

Tim Revell/The Columbus Dispatch, via Associated Press

He made his first mark as one of the most successful high school coaches in Ohio’s history, leading dominant teams in Mansfield, Salem, Sandusky and Massillon.

Hayes soon beckoned, and Bruce joined him as an assistant in 1966, in charge of a bruising offensive line that paved the way for the Buckeyes’ winning three Big Ten titles, two Rose Bowls and the 1968 national championship, going 43-14 during that period.

As an assistant Bruce worked on staffs that included Lou Holtz and Bo Schembechler, both of whom would go on to stellar head-coaching careers in the college ranks.


Bruce in 1987 with his predecessor, Woody Hayes, a revered figure in Ohio who had been fired as head coach after punching a Clemson player in the Gator Bowl. Hayes died in 1987 at 74.

Fred Squillante/The Columbus Dispatch, via Associated Press

He also groomed future head coaches among his own assistants, including, besides Meyer, Nick Saban (Alabama), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) and Pete Carroll (now with the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League).

After six years on Hayes’s staff, Bruce became a college head coach for the first time when he spent a year at the University of Tampa, where he went 10-2 with a colorful cast that included the future N.F.L. star John Matuszak and Paul Orendorf, who would become a professional wrestling mainstay.

Bruce was hired to replace Hayes in 1979 after a stint at Iowa State. He tackled the job with energy and organization despite weathering criticism from fans, who constantly compared him to the sainted Hayes.


Bruce with his daughter Michelle Cenci in Columbus.

Doral Chenoweth Iii/The Columbus Dispatch, via Associated Press

“You don’t want to lose in Columbus, Ohio,” Bruce once told The Associated Press. “A football loss? That’s terrible. You want to win all your home games. You’re only as good as your last game here.”

After winning or sharing four Big Ten titles, he was fired in 1987 after falling into disfavor with Ohio State’s president, Edward H. Jennings.

He went on to accept head-coaching jobs at Northern Iowa and Colorado State before returning to Columbus in retirement and again becoming an integral part of Buckeyes football, working for 23 years as a radio analyst for WTVN in Columbus. He liked to say that he “bled scarlet and gray.”

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

Bruce’s wife of 56 years, the former Jean French, died in 2011. She had worked with him in raising money for Alzheimer’s research. He is survived by four daughters, nine grandchildren — including the Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith — and three great-grandchildren.

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