“He was a loving husband, a loving father to four beautiful daughters. He was a doting grandfather. He was also a football coach, and boy, could he coach the game of football.”
Those were the opening words from emcee Dom Tiberi at Wednesday’s celebration of Earle Bruce’s life at St. John Arena, where current and former Ohio State football coaches, friends and family members and Ohio State fans gathered to pay tribute to Bruce, Ohio State’s football coach from 1979-87, who died Friday at the age of 87.
Three current members of Ohio State’s football coaching staff who had close personal relationships with Bruce, as well as former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, were among those who shared their memories of the legendary former Buckeyes coach on Wednesday.
Following opening remarks from Tiberi and an invocation from William White – a captain and All-Big Ten cornerback for Bruce’s 1987 Buckeyes – Tressel was the first coach to step to the podium and share his memories of Bruce.
Tressel, who was an assistant coach for Bruce from 1983-85, remarked that he was really an assistant coach to Bruce for 10 more years, as Bruce was a constant presence around the Ohio State football program during Tressel’s tenure as head coach from 2001-10. And it was Bruce’s undying love for Ohio State that set the tone for Tressel’s entire eulogy to his former boss on Wednesday.
"The minute he got here, there was a love affair with Ohio State, and with Coach Bruce, love affairs never end," Tressel said. "His love affair for us was forever. He was always going to be there for us."
The next speaker at Wednesday’s memorial was Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford, who played for Bruce when Bruce was the head coach at Colorado State. Alford described Bruce as "a man who changed the culture of Colorado State football," and a man who continued to guide Alford for the rest of his life as Alford embarked upon his own coaching career.
"Aside from my dad, very few people have had the profound impact on my life as Coach Bruce did," Alford said.
“The minute he got here, there was a love affair with Ohio State, and with Coach Bruce, love affairs never end.”– Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel on Earle Bruce
Alford admitted he never looked Bruce in his eyes and told his former coach how much he admired him and cared about him until a few years ago, after he was hired as Ohio State’s running backs coach. But he encouraged the audience at Wednesday’s celebration not to make the same mistake with the people they care about in their own lives.
"If there’s anybody that’s in your lives that has influenced you, has helped you, has guided you, let them know," Alford said. "Thank them. Thank them as often as you can."
Following Alford, the next speaker at Wednesday’s celebration was WTVN sports director Matt McCoy, who worked alongside Bruce for 23 years after Bruce returned to Columbus to be a radio analyst. McCoy began his speech by describing how he felt Bruce epitomized the word "passion."
"The dictionary definition of the word is passion is 'a strong and barely controllable emotion.' My definition is Earle Bruce," McCoy said. "I was blessed to work alongside Earle at WTVN and 105.7 The Zone for more than 20 years, and it was his passion for The Ohio State University and Buckeye football that made him so popular, and resonated with all of Buckeye Nation."
McCoy acknowledged that Bruce’s passion got him into trouble on air sometimes, joking that the "seven-second delay in radio was invented for Earle Bruce." But McCoy also saw Bruce’s passion when he had the opportunity to watch Ohio State football games with the former coach, which he described as the "No. 1 perk" of his job, "without question."
"There is a rule at Ohio Stadium and at every stadium across the country: No cheering in the press box. Earle Bruce broke that rule every Saturday," McCoy said. "And especially when we made the trips up to Ann Arbor."
McCoy specifically recalled watching Ohio State’s 2015 Fiesta Bowl game against Notre Dame with Bruce, who was so emotionally invested in the Buckeyes that he actually tried to call Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer – his former graduate assistant at Ohio State and assistant coach at Colorado State – during the game after J.T. Barrett threw an interception, when Bruce believed the Buckeyes should have been running the ball to preserve their lead in the game.
"He stood up, shouted at the TV, 'What are you doing?'" McCoy said. "And by you, Coach Meyer, he didn’t mean J.T. Barrett."
The most emotional speech of the morning came from Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith, Bruce’s grandson, who said his grandfather loved his family the same way he loved his players as a coach. And Smith said it was the impact he saw his grandfather make on others that inspired him to pursue a career in coaching himself.
"I remember growing up as a kid, running into a lot of former players, and the reason why I got into coaching is they would always – it was countless, hundreds – would look at me and say, 'Zach, let me tell you something. This man right here is the reason why I am where I am today,'" Smith said. "I didn’t know what a football coach was, I didn’t really care. I just knew, 'Wow, I want to do that for people. I want someone to say that about me. I want to have that kind of impact.' And that’s why I decided to get into this."
Recalling his grandfather’s presence around the Buckeyes even in his later years in life, Smith said Bruce had a level of respect for Meyer as the head coach that he would not interrupt him while sitting in on coaches’ meetings. Bruce’s grandson, however, wasn’t afforded that same courtesy.
"There was no level of respect in my meeting room," Smith said. "He would walk in after a game and he would tell me what he thought. But it was honestly an unbelievable experience being back here with him, in the place that he so loved."
Smith said his grandfather’s love for his players was so strong that he would go out of his way to try to help them if they asked, and that he would find ways to support his former players however he could.
"If he was buying a car, he bought it from a former player. If he was getting insurance, he’d call a former player," Smith said. "Everything he did, that’s why he had to be in Columbus, because he wanted to support his players. And he was the same way with our family."
Bruce loved Ohio State football so much, Smith said, that a few months ago – when Bruce was in the hospital and his heart rate was alarmingly low – Bruce’s heart rate would actually rise when Smith talked to him about how the Buckeyes were doing in practice.
"His love for this place was so strong, it literally helped heal him and keep him alive," Smith said.
“If he was buying a car, he bought it from a former player. If he was getting insurance, he’d call a former player. Everything he did, that’s why he had to be in Columbus, because he wanted to support his players. And he was the same way with our family.”– Zach Smith on his grandfather, Earle Bruce
Smith concluded his speech by sharing the advice that his grandfather gave him when he was hired as Ohio State’s wide receivers coach in 2011.
"He got about six inches from my face and he said, 'Listen to me. You work hard, you be loyal to Urban Meyer, love your players and hate no one … except Michigan,'" Smith recalled.
The final speaker of Wednesday’s ceremony was Meyer, who began his eulogy to Bruce by saying, "Heaven just got a little more intense recently," describing his mentor and former boss as a man who demanded respect.
"He was a very intimidating coach, because he was never wrong, and when he was wrong, he was still never wrong, and he made that clear with you," Meyer said.
One of the biggest lessons Meyer learned from Bruce, he said, was that you "never, ever give up on a player, ever." And Meyer recalled an opportunity where he wanted to give up on a player before Bruce quickly set him straight.
"I said, 'Coach, I can’t take it anymore. This player doesn’t go to class, he’s being disrespectful, he does nothing I tell him to do, I think he’s a bad guy, I don’t want him in the program and I can’t coach him anymore,'" Meyer recalled. "And he said, ‘Well, let me explain something to you. That by Monday morning, I’ll have a coach here who can coach him. Is that clear?'"
Another lesson Meyer learned from Bruce, he said, was that "when given an opportunity, you swing as hard as you possibly can, and give it everything you’ve got." Meyer also said that whenever you mention the name Earle Bruce, "toughness is No. 1."
"His thoughts on toughness: There is no substitute," Meyer said. "In football, in living life, in raising a family, in being a coach. You get knocked down, you get back down."
Bruce’s love for his family was always on full display, Meyer said, and Bruce also believed in clarity and honesty – a trait that has made a crucial tenet of Meyer’s coaching philosophy to this day.
In closing, Meyer expressed his gratitude that he had the opportunity to have such a close relationship with Bruce during his life.
"I speak for many here today, and many who aren’t here today: I stand very humbled and appreciative that God chose Earle Bruce and my father to serve as my mentors and guide and teach me along this incredible journey," Meyer said. "There will never be a day that I’m not grateful and appreciative to the Bruce family for allowing me to be part of your family for the past 32 years."
Along with those who spoke at Wednesday’s ceremony, several other former coaches who worked for Bruce were also in attendance, including Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who was a graduate assistant for Bruce at Ohio State in 1983 and 1984. Michigan State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, who was formerly Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, and former Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel who also among those who attended Wednesday’s celebration.
“I stand very humbled and appreciative that God chose Earle Bruce and my father to serve as my mentors and guide and teach me along this incredible journey.”– Ohio State coach Urban Meyer
Attendees who wish to pay further tribute to Bruce were encouraged to contribute to the Earle and Jean Bruce Alzheimer’s Research Fund in Neurology at Ohio State, which raises funds for research to find a cure for the disease that claimed his life and previously afflicted several members of his family.