“I can tell you everything,” he said in 2012. “I can tell you walking into (head coach Earle) Bruce's office right here – this facility just opened – and Rick Bay was leaned up against the wall and looked at me and said, ‘Close the door. Are you the last one? I said, yes, yes, sir. And I sat down.
“I saw a bunch of coaches with their arms on the table, with their face in their arms and tears and the whole deal. I was like the last guy to walk in, and he said that Coach Bruce will no longer be the coach after this game, and I have resigned as athletic director. ... Just an incredible moment in Ohio State history.”
The meeting was the end of Bruce’s tenure, as the nine-year head coach of the Buckeyes had been fired with an 81-26-1 record. Known by some as "Old 9-3 Earle" considering OSU had that record in six consecutive seasons – then went 10-3 in 1986 – Bruce was swept out by president Ed Jennings despite a solid record vs. Michigan, eight top-15 poll finishes, five bowl wins and a track record of loyalty.
The outcry was swift and passionate even though Bruce’s team was just 5-4-1 on the campaign. Bay resigned as athletics director rather than be party to the firing. Players wore “EARLE” headbands for the ensuing win vs. Michigan, then gave tearful salutes to the head coach in postgame.
But more than an era of Ohio State football ended when the former Woody Hayes player and assistant was let go. The end of the Earle Bruce Ohio State coaching tree was ushered in as well when Jennings made his decision.
No fewer than 10 of Bruce’s Ohio State assistants went on to become professional or college head coaches, and just about all of them reached some level of success. They’ve won a combined eight college football national championships and a Super Bowl since 2002, and it is guaranteed one of them will be in the inaugural College Football Playoff title game this year because two – Meyer and Nick Saban – will match up in the Sugar Bowl semifinal between Ohio State and Alabama.
“There’s a lot of good ones,” Bruce told BSB recently. “I had a lot of good coaches. I’m proud of every one of them because they really contributed to the success that I had.”
The accomplishments of Meyer – a graduate assistant in charge of tight ends in 1986 and wideouts in 1987 under Bruce – and Saban, who coached the defensive backfield in 1980 and ’81 – have been well-chronicled. Saban has national titles in 2003 at LSU and 2009, ’11 and ’12 at Alabama, while Meyer ushered in the era of SEC dominance with his crowns in 2006 and ’08 at Florida.
Then there’s Jim Tressel, who coached the offensive skill positions for Bruce from 1983-85 before winning four Division I-AA titles at Youngstown State and the 2002 crown at Ohio State. And Pete Carroll, who captured last February’s Super Bowl with Seattle and also won the BCS title in 2004 at USC, was brought in as defensive backs coach when Bruce was hired in 1979 after serving a year in the same role under the coach at Iowa State.
But perhaps no coaches have helped determine the recent history of the sport as Sugar Bowl combatants Meyer and Saban, who by just about every measure are the two top coaches of the past decade.
Saban had the first chance to work under Bruce, but it wasn’t the easiest road. He came in to replace Carroll as defensive backs coach after the team’s defeated regular season of 1979, but the pass defense would have its issues during his two-year tenure. That included a record performance the wrong way in 1980 when Illinois quarterback Dave Wilson threw for 621 yards and six touchdowns, still records, against OSU in a 49-42 Buckeye win that year.
Things didn’t get much better the next year. With Ohio State starting four underclassmen in Doug Hill at rover, Kelvin Bell and Shaun Gayle at corner, and Garcia Lane at safety, the Buckeyes gave up 516 yards passing to Purdue’s Scott Campbell in an OSU win and 444 to Mike Hohensee along with five TDs in a loss at Minnesota.
Ohio State finished strong, allowing six points at Northwestern, nine in an upset win at No. 7 Michigan and then beating Navy in the Liberty Bowl, but the Buckeyes gave up a record 273.2 yards per game through the air that year. Bruce had to make changes, letting go of Saban, defensive coordinator Dennis Fryzel and DL coach Steve Szabo.
"I can hold my head high,” Saban told the Columbus Citizen-Journal at the time. “I did as good of a job as I can do. And the kids were great. They tried really hard. Everybody said this year the only way to beat Ohio State was to throw the ball. Well we had three sophomores and a freshman starting and I wouldn't trade those kids for anybody else in the world. They worked hard, they came to all the practices, they never got down on themselves, and they got better. ... I'm not ashamed."
The CJ reported at the time that Bruce was “crushed” to have to have made the moves, and years later, he still speaks fondly of Saban.
“Nick was a very good teacher and very well-organized,” Bruce wrote in his book “Buckeye Wisdom,” which was recently re-released. “He was very knowledgeable about pass defense and defense in general. That was his forte. I had him for two years, and he did an outstanding job. He was a great recruiter, too. … He had a different personality. He’s very close-lipped. He didn’t say much. But what he said, you better listen to.”
While Saban then went on to become an NFL assistant and then eventually a top college coach, Meyer came along five years later. Bruce instructed new coach Tom Lichtenberg to find two graduate assistants for the season and he came back with Tim Hinton and Meyer.
Much has been made about the relationship that has blossomed between Bruce and Meyer, who calls Bruce his “second father.” Meyer went on to coach with Bruce at Colorado State, and Bruce recommended Meyer for his first head coaching job at Bowling Green.
“I saw (at CSU) that he has a great football mind,” Bruce told BSB in 2011, “a great concept of football and offensive football in particular. He was a good teacher of his players, a good example and most certainly a good coach on the field and off the field, a very strong, strong person. I wasn’t able to hire him as a coordinator but if I had a position open I would have.”
The Rest Of The Limbs
The tree keeps going from there, starting in some ways when the defensive overhaul that swept out Saban happened. Bruce hired Dom Capers to replace Meyer and added Fred Pagac and Randy Hart to fill the other slots; all three are still coaching today and Capers has twice been an NFL head coach, leading the Carolina Panthers to the NFC title game in the franchise’s second year in 1996.
The defensive side of the ball was a strong proving ground throughout Bruce’s tenure. Capers’ replacement was Gary Blackney, who went on to a successful stint at Bowling Green before Meyer took over. His replacement at DBs coach was Chuck Heater, a longtime college defensive coach who was with Meyer all six of his years at Florida and is now defensive coordinator at Marshall. That doesn’t include Bob Tucker, a longtime OSU assistant who served as defensive coordinator under Bruce as well, and Mark Dantonio, who was a two-year graduate assistant (1983-84) under Bruce.
On the offensive side of the ball, longtime Minnesota coach Glen Mason served seven years under Bruce at OSU, mostly as offensive coordinator, before leaving after the ’85 campaign. Some of Bruce’s later hires were also elite, including Lichtenberg, who would go on to head programs at Maine and Ohio; Hayes assistant Bill Myles, who went on to work in the athletics department through Tressel’s tenure; Bill Conley, who now has built Ohio Dominican’s program after working as an elite recruiter on Tressel’s staff; and Bob Palcic, who has been among the best offensive line coaches in the nation for decades.
“They are exceptional guys that really made it and had a lot of success, too,” Bruce said.