100 Teams in 100 Days: Earle Bruce Begins his Ohio State Career With a Surprising Season in 1979

By Matt Gutridge on July 28, 2016 at 11:40 am
The 1979 Ohio State University football team.
Ohio State University Archives

Woody Hayes resigned from his position as Ohio State's head coach two days before the end of the 1978 calendar. The program began a search for its 20th head coach.

37 days and counting.

On Jan. 12, 1979 – two week's after Hayes' resignation – Ohio State hired Earle Bruce to replace him.

Bruce the Buckeye
As a teenager, Wes Fesler recruited Bruce to play for the Scarlet and Gray. A Pennsylvania native, Bruce had his playing days cut short due to two knee injuries. Hayes, in his first year as coach, put Bruce on his staff as a graduate assistant in 1951. A short time later he coached for high school teams in the state of Ohio and won coach of the year honors.

Ohio State came calling again in 1966, and Bruce returned to the school as an assistant. Six years later, the University of Tampa hired him as its head coach and his team finished 10–2. His first and only season culminated with a 21-18 victory over Kent State in the Tangerine Bowl.

In 1973, Bruce bounced to Iowa State and the Big Eight. In each of his final three seasons with the Cyclones, the team recorded an 8–3 regular season record and Bruce received Big Eight Coach of the Year honors twice.

When Bruce arrived in Columbus he knew the defense needed to improve. To help, he brought several assistants with him from Iowa State, including current Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.

The 1979 Buckeyes
Record 11–1
B1G Record 8–0, 1st
Coach Earle Bruce (1st year, 11–1)
CaptainS Ken Fritz, Mike Guess,
Jim Laughlin, Tom Waugh

Games of Note

September 8th • Syracuse • Ohio Stadium
Bruce's first game marked Ohio State's 800th outing in its storied history. The matchup with Syracuse served as the first meeting in 68 years between the two schools in football. That came on Ohio Field and Syracuse prevailed by a score of 6-0. 

Late in the first quarter, Ron Barwig caught an 11-yard pass from Art Schlichter for the first score of the Bruce era. Touchdown runs by Paul Campbell and Calvin Murray gave the Buckeyes a 21-0 lead at halftime.

In the second half, Vlade Janakievski extended the lead to 24-0 with a 22-yard field goal near the midpoint of the third quarter. Frank Maloney's team avoided a shutout when quarterback Bill Hurley ran in from the 3 with 23 seconds left in the third.

Jim Gayle finished the day's scoring with a 29-yard run and the Buckeyes won Bruce's first game 31-8. Schlichter finished the contest with a game-high 91 rushing yards and the team finished with 383 yards on the ground. The victory pushed Ohio State's all-time record to 534–218–48.

Even though Coach Hayes did not attend the game, the team still felt his presence on the sideline. After the game, Bruce shared this with reporters: "Woody Hayes talked to me Tuesday and Thursday. It was very nice of him to come over and eat with the team Thursday night. It means a lot to the team and it meant a lot to me. There is still a lot of Woody Hayes on this team."

Hayes spent the hours before the game at a coffee shop just north of the stadium. Many recognized him and he spoke freely with everyone. He even admitted he would not attend the game.

The next week, Ohio State played Minnesota in Minneapolis. The first road game of the season started a bit precariously. The Gophers scored touchdowns on their first two possessions and led 17-7 at the half.

Touchdowns by Murray and Art Schlichter in the second gave the Buckeyes a 21-17 come from behind victory. Minnesota's Garry White led all players with 221 rushing yards on 34 carries.  

1979 Schedule
SEP. 29  NO. 17 UCLA LA COLISEUM W, 17–13
JAN. 1 NO. 3 USC ROSE BOWL L, 16–17
      11–1, 390–126

September 29th • #17 UCLA • LA Coliseum
Before playing the Bruins, Ohio State played in a high scoring affair against Washington State.

Calvin Murray scored three times, but none more exciting than the short pass he took 86 yards for a touchdown. At that time, the catch served as the longest pass play in Ohio State history as it broke Bob Klein's 80-yard reception from Joe Sparma in 1961. Schlichter finished the game with 233 yards passing and three total touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 45-29 win. 

After the game, Washington State wide receiver Jim Whatley said, "I think UCLA will move on them. We had enough yards (408). We moved on them easily and a team like UCLA will be able to."

UCLA did move the ball well against the Buckeyes. On a 74-degree day in Los Angeles, the Bruins amassed 340 yards but did not score enough points to defeat Bruce's team.

UCLA scored 10 points in the first quarter. The Bruins blocked Tom Orosz' punt and took over at Ohio State's 12 to set up the initial touchdown. Three plays later Rick Bashore found Willie Curran over the middle on an 8-yard touchdown pass. UCLA kicked a 27-yard field goal on its next possession and led 10-0.

Late in the second, Murray put the Buckeyes on the board when he broke free for a 34-yard touchdown jaunt. The half ended with the Terry Donahue's Bruins up 10-7.

Ohio State scored on its first possession of the third quarter. Schlichter and the offense had three plays just inside UCLA's 10-yard line, but had to settle for a Janakievski field goal. The score did not remain tied for long as UCLA booted a field goal on its first drive the fourth quarter. The Bruins had a chance to add to its 13-10 lead, but Peter Boermeester's missed a 24-yard field goal wide left.

Down three and energized from the missed field goal, Schlichter completed all five of his pass attempts and led an 80-yard drive that ended in a game-winning touchdown. On 4th-and-goal from the 2, the sophomore slinger rolled out to his right and found Paul Campbell wide open in the end zone.

Although the offense scored late in the fourth to get the win, it was the Buckeyes' defense that surprised UCLA. The same defense that allowed more than 900 yards to Minnesota and Washington State held the Bruins' potent squad to 251 yards. 

After the game, Bruce said: "When you think of what the defense did out there it's something. In the fourth quarter, they forced a bad field goal. Then we have that roughing call and we hold them again and force another bad field goal. That's something."

Another something was that Ohio State's 4-0 start, its first such open to a season since 1975.

October 27th • Michigan State • Ohio Stadium
After its victory over UCLA, Ohio State won a sloppy game against Northwestern then demolished Indiana and Wisconsin by a combined score of 106-6.

Michigan State (3–4) started the season with wins over Illinois, Oregon and Miami (Ohio) but lost four straight ahead of its matchup against the undefeated Buckeyes. 

A total of 87,747 showed up for this late October Saturday tilt. Ohio State completely outclassed the Spartans on offense and defense. On MSU's opening drive the team mustered 7 yards and had to punt. On 2nd-and-3 from his own 47, Schlichter faked and hit Doug Donley deep down the left sideline for a 53-yard touchdown pass.

From there the Buckeyes scored in every quarter in the 42-0 rout. The Scarlet and Gray defense left the Spartans black and blue. Michigan State finished the game with 113 total yards and committed two turnovers. Darryl Rogers' team finished the season 5–6 in his last season as MSU's head coach.

Next, Ohio State easily dispatched Illinois and Iowa to remain undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country as it headed to Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines.

UCLA W1 3–2–1
INDIANA W16 43–10–4
WISCONSIN W20 38–7–4
ILLINOIS W12 45–19–4
IOWA W15 28–10–2
MICHIGAN W1 29–42–5
USC L2 9–8–1

November 25th • #13 Michigan • Ohio Stadium
Since the UCLA victory, the Buckeyes outscored their next six opponents 242-27. However, doubt crept in ahead of The Game because Michigan owned a three-game winning streak against Ohio State in the series.

No. 13 Michigan (8–2) entered off of a 3-point upset loss to Purdue. Still, 106,255 packed Michigan Stadium, then a record crowd to watch a college football game.

With a perfect season and chance for a national title on the line, would Bruce have his team prepared to win?

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Coach Earle Bruce, raspy-voiced and smiling broadly, summed up Ohio State's 18-15 victory over Michigan yesterday by saying the unbeaten Buckeyes are going to the Rose Bowl in the right way.

"It was a great effort by the Buckeyes," he said. "It's been a great season. Our young men have responded to everything we've demanded. Before the game, I told the players to go out and play like we have in the last 10."

Ohio State beat Michigan for the first time since 1975 and ended a 15-quarter touchdown drought against the Wolverines. The football game was played before an NCAA regular-season record crowd of 106,255 -- and the largest ever in Michigan Stadium.

With the victory goes the Big Ten championship, the Buckeyes' 22nd overall and ninth outright.

Jim Laughlin and Todd Bell teamed up for the key play of the game. With just over 10 minutes remaining in the game, Ohio State forced Michigan to punt from its own in its own 38-yard line. The Wolverines led 15-12 when Brian Virgil attempted to punt, but Jim Laughlin and Michael D'Andrea broke through the line and blocked it. Todd Bell recovered at the 15 and raced in for an 18-15 lead. 

The blocked punt:

Bruce won his first game against Michigan and Ohio State headed to the Rose Bowl to play USC for a chance at a national championship. Bruce believed the Buckeyes would finish undefeated and untied for the first time since 1968.

"Most certainly, I'm a positive guy," he said. 

Go here to watch the entire game.

January 1st • #3 USC • Rose Bowl
No. 1 Ohio State (11–0) faced a familiar foe in No. 3 USC (10–0–1) at the Rose Bowl. The schools played each other 17 times before this matchup and the Buckeyes led the series 9–7–1 overall. Ohio State was 3–2 against the Trojans at the Rose Bowl. 

Art Schlichter threw for 297 yards, one touchdown and an interception this time around. The 67-yard touchdown pass to Gary Williams tied the game at 10 ahead of halftime. 

Jankievski booted field goals in the third and fourth quarters to give the Buckeyes a 16-10 lead. Unfortunately, USC had Heisman Trophy winner Charlie White on its roster, who showed why he earned the award. 

From the 2015 Ohio State Media Guide:

White, the Heisman Trophy winner, shattered the Rose Bowl rushing record with 242 yards, including 71 yards on USC’s game-winning drive.

Trailing 16-10 with 5:21 to play, the top-ranked Trojans marched 83 yards in eight plays, with White diving over from the 1 for the score. The all-important point after knocked the No. 1 Buckeyes out of national championship contention.

White crossed the goal line with 1:32 left to play and the Buckeyes failed to respond. The remarkable and unexpected season ended with a heartbreaking one-point loss.

1979 Recap

  • Ohio State hired Earle Bruce as its 20th head coach.
  • The Buckeyes defeated Syracuse to give Bruce his first win as Ohio State's head coach in the program's 500th game.
  • Calvin Murray set the school record with an 86-yard TD reception in the win over Washington State.
  • Schlichter had an 80-yard game-winning touchdown drive against No. 17.UCLA.  
  • After the UCLA game Ohio State outscored its next six opponents 242-27.
  • Todd Bell returned a blocked punt in the fourth quarter to give the Buckeyes an 18-15 victory over No. 13 Michigan.
  • Charlie White scored a touchdown with 1:32 left in the Rose Bowl to defeat Ohio State 17-16 and dash the national championship hopes.
  • Ohio State started the season unranked but finished 1979 No. 4 in the AP Poll. 
  • Ken Fritz and Art Schlichter were named All-Americans.
  • Jim Laughlin, Mike Guess and Ken Fritz were selected in the NFL Draft.

Earle Bruce returned to the school he played for as the program's 20th head coach. His inaugural team came 1:32 away from winning the Rose Bowl and national championship.

Bruce earned Big Ten and national coach of the year honors after leading Ohio State to an 11–1 record. It was impossible to replace Woody Hayes, but Bruce did a heck of a job in his first season.

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