That fierce, competitive nature made the former Sandusky High School and Ohio State University football coach one of the most respected and popular figures in Ohio football history.
Bruce died in Columbus at 87, according to a statement released by his family through OSU on Friday. He had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
At Ohio State, Bruce’s teams went 81-26-1 from 1979-87 with four Big Ten championships, five bowl wins and, perhaps most importantly to him, five victories over arch rival Michigan. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
Bruce won 34 of his 40 games at Sandusky from 1960-63, sparking a decade-long run fondly recalled as the “Sensational Sixties” in the Blue Streak community. In his four seasons under Bruce, Sandusky went 34-3-3 and outscored teams 1,205-420 (30-10 average score).
“We had a hell of a run, didn't we? Bruce said to the Register in an October 2013 interview. “We had great football players at Sandusky. We had real speed, and most importantly, our kids had toughness. The little kids had the toughness, and the big guys had the speed. We just had some really, really good players on both lines, and we ran well and played hard.”
In the years after his tenure in Sandusky, Bruce frequently called back to a singular moment during his time coaching the Blue Streaks.
“Our victory against Lorain Admiral King when they were ahead of us for the league championship in the last game of the season in 1962,” he said. “We had a tie and they had a win, so we had to beat them to win the league.”
The game was never in doubt. The Blue Streaks rolled to a 38-8 win as one of the all-time SHS greats, Stew Williams, ran for more than 200 yards and five touchdowns. Bruce also played Williams at linebacker for the first time in the game, which assured Sandusky of an 8-0-2 regular season.
“We soundly beat them, and Stew had the game of his life,” Bruce said. “He made a lot of tackles and scored five times. He was a force. He was 6-2, 235 and I carried him off the field after that … all 235 pounds of him.”
Bruce left Sandusky for the prestigious Massillon Washington football job, which had first turned into a powerhouse under legendary Ohio State and Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown, a Norwalk native.
Upon his arrival to Massillon, a neighbor told Bruce the residents would dump their trash on his lawn after his first loss.
"I'm not going to lose a game!" Bruce shouted to the crowd.
He didn't. Bruce went 20-0 in two years at Massillon before another legendary figure he will always be linked to, former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, came calling in 1966.
He was an assistant under Hayes at OSU for six seasons (1966-71). He then spent a year at the University of Tampa and went 10-2 in 1972, followed by a 36-32 record at Iowa State before taking over for Hayes at OSU in 1979.
With Art Schlichter at quarterback, Ohio State went 11-1 and lost 17-16 in the Rose Bowl vs. USC at the end of the 1979 season, missing out on a national championship by a single point as Alabama (12-0) was awarded the No. 1 ranking and title.
But despite his success in Columbus, Bruce never escaped the large shadow casted before him by Hayes. He was unceremoniously fired in 1987 after falling into disfavor with then-Ohio State President Ed Jennings.
The decision shook the college football world, and led to Bruce’s most famous moment at OSU that had little to do with his championships. Informed he wasn’t being brought back prior to the regular season finale at Michigan, Ohio State players wore matching headbands that read 'Earle.’
Ohio State rallied from a 13-0 deficit in Ann Arbor, Mich, claiming a 23-20 win. Afterward, Bruce said Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, who was an assistant with Bruce under Hayes at one time, told him, "I hate to lose. Today, I didn't mind losing."
To this day, Bruce’s last win as OSU head coach while being carried off the field by his players is considered one of the most memorable moments in Buckeye football history.
Bruce went on to coach at Northern Iowa and Colorado State before returning to Columbus in retirement. He stayed involved with Buckeye football as an analyst for WTVN AM-610 in Columbus. He was also on current head coach Urban Meyer's weekly television show in Columbus with John Cooper, who followed Bruce at Ohio State and coached the Buckeyes for 13 seasons (1988-2000).
Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Cumberland, Md., Bruce had come to Ohio State in the fall of 1949 to play football. He suffered a knee injury that ended his playing days and got him to think about possibly coaching.
Bruce was preceded in death by his wife, Jean. Survivors include four daughters, nine grandchildren — including Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith — and three great grandchildren.