Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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OSU-UM past littered with stories

Everyone has their favorite Ohio State-Michigan moment. Or, here on the border, perhaps it should be a Michigan-Ohio State moment. Pick whichever version you like.

For Buckeyes fans, a lot of those moments revolve around Woody Hayes. For Wolverines fans, a lot of those moments revolve around John Cooper.

Between them came Earle Bruce, who was fired as Ohio State's head coach during the week leading up to the 1987 game in Ann Arbor.

All Bruce had done in nine seasons, to that point, was win 80 of 107 games, capture four Big Ten championships, and lead the Buckeyes to eight bowl games. But OSU had just lost three straight games - to Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa - by a total of 10 points, and Bruce's body of work was no longer of interest to Edward Jennings, the school's president, who ordered athletic director Rick Bay to pull the trigger.

Bay did his job and then resigned on the spot in protest, which certainly makes him my all-time favorite AD. And the Buckeyes responded by running onto the field at the Big House the following Saturday, removing their helmets, and displaying headbands on the front of which were written "EARLE."

Bruce was always a tad misunderstood, I thought. He came across as crusty and cranky and crotchety, sort of an intense, rambunctious little guy. Still does, for that matter, at age 76. But like most tough guys, his heart was/is mushy soft.

A year before he was fired, Bruce took his Buckeyes to Dallas for a first-ever Big Ten appearance in the Cotton Bowl. Ohio State upset No. 8 Texas A&M, 28-12, and you may remember that was the day Bruce reported to the sideline in black suit and fedora, doing a pretty good Blues Brothers impersonation.

After filing our stories, Rusty Miller of the Associated Press and I adjourned to dinner, and while scanning the menu realized that Bruce and his wife were sitting across the restaurant, all by themselves, having a very, very quiet celebration.

Rusty suggested we send over a drink or a bottle of wine (if so, a cheap one, I fear), and I reached for the trusty corporate credit card.

Bruce seemed taken aback by the gesture. He walked over, thanked us warmly and profusely, and, I swear, got a little wet in the eyes.

The latter was definitely the case a year later. But this time he was angry. Bruce didn't allow headbands. It might be his last game, but he was still in charge, dadgummit. So he walked up to one of his captains, prepared to read the riot act, then he saw the hand-lettered "EARLE" on the front. He looked from one to another and saw it on every one of them. Got so choked up he couldn't say a word. Still gets choked up to this day whenever the subject comes up.

The tears flowed freely a few hours later when OSU completed a 23-20 upset of the Wolverines and his players carried Bruce off the field on their shoulders. Later, UM coach Bo Schembechler walked across the tunnel to the OSU locker room and told Bruce that as much as he hated losing to Ohio State, "I didn't mind so much today."

Not often does a coach end his career, regardless of the circumstances of his departure, with arguably his greatest win. Earle Bruce, who finished with a 5-4 record against Michigan, did.

That was exactly 20 years ago, and I am reminded of it in large part because of the speculation that Michigan's Lloyd Carr will coach in his final UM-OSU game tomorrow.

Carr also is crusty and cranky, but if you spend a little time with him he has a dry sense of humor and a very likable, warm side. Like Bruce two decades ago, he's had a rough go of it lately. We all remember the season-opening home losses to Appalachian State and Oregon, one of which is still inexplicable and the other of which, in retrospect, was stunning only because of the margin of defeat. What Michigan fans really consider inappropriate is his 1-5 record against OSU coach Jim Tressel. And no Michigan coach has ever lost six of seven to the Buckeyes.

Carr isn't going to be fired, regardless of what happens tomorrow and in a subsequent bowl game. His body of work, including a national championship 10 years ago, still stands the test of time. But retirement is a definite possibility, although he has dodged that issue - and denied any rumored health problems - whenever the subject arises. Still, by not saying "no," the door is open to "yes," and many expect the 62-year-old Carr to walk through it.

There will be no "LLOYD" headbands tomorrow, but if this is his swansong, it would seem appropriate for him to exit with a much-needed victory over the Buckeyes while adding another of those favorite moments to everyone's book of OSU-Michigan memories.

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