Bruce made an immediate mark on Ohio State football, leading the Buckeyes to the Big Ten championship and earning the 1979 Big Ten Coach of the Year award after guiding the Buckeyes to an 11-0 regular season mark and a berth in the 1980 Rose Bowl. He was the national coach of the year as chosen by his peers at the American Football Coaches Association. A one-point loss to USC kept him from an undefeated, national championship season in his first year as Buckeye coach.
Bruce led Ohio State to eight bowl games in his nine seasons as coach from 1979 to 1987, including two Rose Bowls (1980 and 1985), and he had a 5-3 bowl game record with the Buckeyes. His bowl game wins included a 28-12 victory over Texas A&M in the 1987 Cotton Bowl, a game that marked the first time a Big Ten team had played in the Cotton Bowl. He was 7-5 all-time in bowl games and led all four Division I programs he coached — Tampa, Iowa State, Ohio State and Colorado State — to a bowl.
Coach Bruce was the patriarch of the Ohio State program after Hayes’ death in 1987 and he was revered by Urban Meyer, whose first collegiate coaching position was as a graduate assistant for Bruce during the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
“I’ve made it clear many times that, other than my father, Coach Bruce was the most influential man in my life,” Meyer said. “Every significant decision I’ve made growing up in this profession was with him involved in it. His wife [Jean] and he were the role models for Shelley and me. They did everything with class. He was not afraid to show how much he loved his family and cared for his family.”
Bruce had a welcomed and much-in-demand presence around the Ohio State campus, the football program and the Columbus community upon his retirement from coaching in 1995, after a Hall of Fame career that included 21 years as a collegiate head coach and 45 years in the coaching profession.
Bruce spoke many times at the Ohio State tradition of senior tackle, when senior Buckeyes hit the tackling sled or dummy one final time before the last regular season game of the season, vs. Michigan. He never failed to get a team fired up for the greatest rivalry in all of sports. Bruce’s teams were 5-4 against Michigan, including a 23-20 victory in Ann Arbor on Nov. 21, 1987 in the last game he coached as a Buckeye.
“He taught me the intensity [of the rivalry] and the incredible respect,” Meyer said the Monday before the 2017 Ohio State/Michigan game. “There’s no one that respected the rivalry more than he did, either. I learned that from him.”
In recognition of his service to the university and to the Ohio State University Marching Band, Bruce had the honor of dotting the “i” during the Ohio State vs. Rutgers game on Oct. 1, 2016, a feat reserved for royalty unless a senior sousaphone member of the band. Only Bruce, Bob Hope, Woody Hayes, Jack Nicklaus, John and Annie Glenn and longtime band director Jonathan Woods have been i-dotters outside of band members.
Bruce was a radio analyst at Columbus radio station WTVN for 23 years, right up until the 2017 season, when complications of a stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s settled in and kept the proud Buckeye and gentleman mostly at home, save for a family visit or a trek to campus to take in a football practice.
Bruce’s personal fight against Alzheimer’s was actually years in the making. The disease was the cause of his father’s death and that of his two sisters.
These events all led to Bruce, and his late wife of 56 years, Jean, to work diligently raising funds for Alzheimer’s research. And their work has resulted in more than $1 million being raised for The Earle and Jean Bruce Alzheimer’s Research Fund in Neurology at Ohio State, according to the Wexner Medical Center website.
The couple’s philanthropic efforts had centered around two primary events: the Beat Michigan Tailgate, which was held for the last time on the Friday before the 2017 Ohio State/Michigan game, and the Athletes Against Alzheimer’s Radiothon.
Outside of family, which included daughters Lynn Bruce, Michele (Pat) Cenci, Aimee Bell and Noel (Fred) Poulton, nine grandchildren, including Ohio State seventh-year wide receivers coach Zach Smith, and three great grandchildren, Ohio State football is what Earle and Jean Bruce cared about most.
While Jean hosted the team for Thursday dinners and rooted for teams that had coaches and players she knew, Earle was coaching the Buckeyes to four Big Ten championships in his nine seasons: two outright Big Ten titles (1979, 1984) and two co-championships (1981, 1986). He ranks 10th among Big Ten Conference coaches in number of league championships won.
A native of Cumberland, Md., Bruce began his coaching career while he was still a student at Ohio State. As a sophomore running back for the Buckeyes in 1951 under Hayes, Bruce suffered a torn meniscus in preseason drills and never played football again. Hayes, however, asked Bruce to join his coaching staff, where he remained until his graduation in 1953.
Bruce then coached high school football in Ohio for 13 seasons, including 10 as a head coach. One of the most successful high school coaches in Ohio history, Bruce was 82-12-3 as a head coach at Salem (28-9 from 1956-59), Sandusky (34-3-3 from 1960-63) and Massillon high schools. He guided Massillon to consecutive 10-0, undefeated seasons in 1964 and 1965 before rejoining Hayes’ staff at Ohio State in 1966. Bruce remained with the Buckeyes for six seasons, coaching the defensive backs his first year and the offensive line the next five seasons.
Ohio State would win a consensus national championship with Bruce on staff in 1968 and a second national title, by the National Football Foundation, following the 1970 season.
Bruce landed his first collegiate head coaching job at the University of Tampa in 1972, where he fashioned a 10-2 record, including a win in the Tangerine Bowl. He then took over at Iowa State University for six seasons, where he guided the Cyclones to eight wins in each of his last three seasons.
Following his tenure in Columbus, Bruce coached at the University of Northern Iowa in 1988 before taking over the Colorado State University program from 1989-92. He led the Rams to their best season in school history at the time, a 9-4 record in 1990 that included a win over Oregon in the Freedom Bowl which marked the school’s first postseason appearance in 42 years.
It was at Colorado State where Bruce hired Meyer, once again, as wide receivers coach.
Bruce’s coaching legacy features an impressive list of assistant coaches from his staffs who went on to become head coaches. The list of nearly 20 includes NFL head coaches Pete Carroll, Dom Capers and Joe Bugel, and collegiate coaches Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, Nick Saban, Mark Dantonio, Glen Mason, Gary Blackney, Bill Conley, Mike DeBord, Karl Dorell, Chuck Heater, Skip Holtz, Tom Lichtenberg, Steve Szabo and Bob Tucker.
Bruce, who was 154-90-2 in 21 seasons as a collegiate coach, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2000, he was inducted into the Iowa State Athletics Hall of Fame and he was inducted into Ohio State University’s Sports Hall of Fame in August of 2004.
Bruce’s all-time coaching career spanned six decades and 45 years at the high school, collegiate and professional levels.