About 300 steps away from the stadium he coached nine seasons in, on the other side of a road named in honor of his mentor, in a historic arena he watched reels and reels of film in, Earle Bruce was back at Ohio State Wednesday.
It was an overcast day, drizzling on and off. But inside St. John Arena, Bruce’s light shined bright as family, friends and fans gathered to celebrate the life of the former Buckeye football coach who died Friday at 87.
Bruce had Alzheimer’s, the damned disease that took his father, took his two sisters, took his mind, took him. But it did not take his spirit, his light, his legacy of passion, loyalty and love. They live on in the hearts and minds of those who knew him, who loved him, who played for him, who coached under him, who were in that aging arena Wednesday.
Often those groups of people overlapped, said Zach Smith, Bruce’s oldest grandson and Ohio State’s wide receivers coach.
For Bruce, it didn’t matter which role he was in — family man or football coach — because he treated them identically — with love, passion and loyalty.
Whether you were his player, his fellow coach, one of his four daughters or nine grandchildren, “It was the same to him,” Smith said.
As Smith spoke on a small stage in the middle of the hardwood court, Bruce was there in front of him in a closed, gray casket with a scarlet Ohio State flag draped over top — which was only appropriate for a man who many say loved the Buckeyes more than any person.
Family sat in the three rows of scarlet chairs on the arena floor, as did those who would speak during the memorial ceremony. Speakers included head coach Urban Meyer; running backs coach Tony Alford, who played for Bruce at Colorado State; former head coach Jim Tressel, who was an assistant under Bruce for three seasons; and Matt McCoy, a radio announcer at WTVN 610 who broadcasted Buckeye games for 23 seasons with Bruce after his college coaching career ended.
Among the hundreds of people in the arena’s wooden seats was Mark Dantonio, Michigan State’s head coach who worked as a graduate assistant under Bruce at Ohio State in 1983 and 1984.
Those who spoke — which also included emcee Dom Tiberi, a longtime Columbus sports broadcaster and friend of Bruce — shared what Bruce meant to them, and shared their memories with him.
There was all the film Tressel said he watched with Bruce inside St. John Arena, dissecting play after play, game after game. Or there was Bruce’s patented finger point, which Alford said anyone who had been in an intense conversation with Bruce knew very well.
And there was that time McCoy was with Bruce while watching Ohio State play Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016. Early in the second half, despite the Buckeyes leading by two touchdowns, Bruce grew upset with Meyer’s decision to throw the football. When quarterback J.T. Barrett threw an interception, Bruce, known for his affinity of off-tackle runs, stood up in anger.
Bruce pulled out his cell phone, McCoy recalled, and began looking through his contacts. When McCoy asked what he was doing, Bruce responded, “I’m calling Urban.”
Meyer was a little busy, McCoy said, and probably didn’t have his phone with him — but even if he had it, McCoy said there was no way he was going to answer a phone call in the middle of a game.
“He’ll answer if it’s from me,” McCoy remembered Bruce saying.
St. John Arena was filled with laughs, including some from Meyer.
The story indicated Bruce’s passion for Ohio State, which is part of what endeared him to Buckeye fans even if his teams never achieved the success of his predecessor and mentor, Woody Hayes.
“You couldn’t take the Buckeye out of him,” said McCoy, who also noted how involved Bruce was in Alzheimer’s research before he was diagnosed with the disease. Bruce and his beloved late wife, Jean, collectively have raised more than $1.2 million, McCoy said.
If there’s any way to honor Bruce, besides treating people with love and loyalty, McCoy said it’s by supporting a cause that touches you.
Meyer spoke last, after about 30 members of the Ohio State Marching Band played “Hang On Sloopy,” during what Tiberi called “the fourth quarter” of the memorial.
“Heaven got a little more intense recently,” Meyer said to laughs, standing in the same building he met Bruce in for the first time. The year was 1986, and Meyer, who grew up watching Bruce’s Buckeye teams, came to interview for a graduate assistant role.
He got the position — the interview was short because it was interrupted by a top recruit calling, Meyer said, which was fortunate because he was so nervous he was sweating. Meyer stayed until 1987, when Bruce was fired. They reunited at Colorado State in 1990, when Bruce hired Meyer to coach wide receivers.
Bruce was fired in 1992 and Meyer stayed until 1995, but the two remained close. In his speech Wednesday, Meyer reiterated that outside of his father, no man had more of an impact on his life than Bruce.
Meyer said Bruce taught him the importance of knowing about and caring for his players, and that there is no gray area between right and wrong. One of the biggest lessons Bruce passed on to Meyer was about opportunity.
“When given an opportunity, you swing as hard as you can and give it everything you’ve got,” Meyer said Bruce taught him. “You never know when the next one is going to come.”
After Meyer spoke, Tiberi offered a few closing thoughts before asking everyone to stand while the marching band played “Carmen Ohio.”
That marked the end of the memorial service, and the pallbearers approached Bruce’s casket. They slowly wheeled it toward the ramp in the arena’s southwest corner, before lifting it up and walking toward the gray skies.
Then, for the final time, Earle Bruce — whose love, loyalty and passion for his family, his friends and his Buckeyes will shine eternally — left St. John Arena.