The Day Earle Bruce Lit our Fire

The Columbus Dispatch

As if succeeding a legend on the sidelines wasn't daunting enough, buttoned-down Earle Bruce also inherited a media room accustomed to DEFCON 5 sound bytes from Woody Hayes as he spun into madness. On that count alone, he was doomed by comparison. So I consider myself vastly fortunate to have gotten a glimpse into a rarely revealed side of Ohio State's 20th football coach: Earle Bruce, agent provocateur.

After graduating from college in Illinois, I returned to my hometown of Columbus for a year while launching my journalism career. As a means of reuniting some friends I hadn't seen in a while, I organized a co-ed flag football game, the Blizzard Bowl, in February 1986. The plan was to meet at a bar, get braced for single-digit temperatures, then head out to Duranceaux Park on the banks of the ice-covered Scioto River, where four teams would compete on two fields in semifinal contests and, after another round of bracing, in a championship and consolation game.

After gathering at the bar, I quieted the three dozen or so weekend warriors and began to explain the day's schedule. As I delved into the details, I noticed three middle-aged men in the corner, the only other patrons on that wickedly cold morning. They were huddled over hot mugs in deep discussion, but they halted when I arose and, likely curious why their private enclave had been invaded by a horde of 20-somethings, turned their attention in my direction. At some point during my recitation, I came to recognize the man in the middle, whereupon I fumbled over a sentence or two before regaining my train of thought.

In concluding, I asked if anyone had any questions. About a dozen hands shot up, all with a similar query: Was it really necessary to venture out onto the frozen tundra when we had all the ingredients for a successful reunion within the walls of the cozy establishment we were occupying?

I spent the next few minutes pointing out that "Blizzard Bowl" and its February scheduling in central Ohio should have served as fair meteorological warning to one and all, but logic was no match for the Early Worm Bloody Mary Special. By and by, the two dozen or so who had not raised their hands began to align themselves with the let's-stay-put activists. Meanwhile, I sensed that the three men in the corner were becoming increasingly amused as the ground under me was being eroded by my hungover friends, who soon were lobbying en masse for a hair-of-the-dog agenda, sans the football. Partly out of frustration and partly because the guys in the corner were now openly laughing, I went rogue: "Screw it,"  I said. "If you won't listen to me, maybe you'll listen to ... Ohio State coach Earle Bruce!"

Until that point, I was the only one of our crew that had spotted the coach - the others had their backs turned to him as I addressed the agenda. Nearly as fast as the words came out of my mouth, I regretted them: We had invaded what I'm sure Coach Bruce figured would be a private gathering with friends, then I had turned the spotlight on a man who wasn't exactly known for fiery rhetoric as he relaxed during the off-season. I would be lucky, I figured, if he waved a hand in acknowledgment of the invasion.

But as the gathered turned to see what brand of nonsense I was plying, I saw their jaws go lax, one by one, as the middle member of the shadowy group in the corner rose to his feet. In an instant, the wholesale dissonance became pin-drop silence. Earle Bruce pushed back his chair and walked to the middle of the room, staring down anyone who dared meet his gaze. After coming to a stop, he let the drama build for a few more seconds. Then he morphed into Knute Rockne.

"You probably don't realize what a big moment this is," he shouted as he bit his lip in a Herculean attempt at composure, "but I'm here to tell you that you will remember this moment for the rest of your lives! I want every last one of you to get out there and I don't want any of you thinking about the temperature, or the wind, or condition of the field! I want you to think about winning! Because 30 years from now, nobody's going to remember how cold it was. They're only going to remember whether you won or lost. Now get out there ... and win!!"

In an instant, three dozen impassioned converts rose to their feet, shouting and pumping their fists in a standing ovation to Coach Bruce. Throwing money on the tables to settle their tabs, they charged for the door, stopping to shake hands, high-five or hug the source of their inspiration in those pre-selfie times while Coach Bruce's two compatriots futilely battled to pull out of a tailspin of convulsive laughter. I was fighting back tears of hilarity and gratitude when I approached him, last in line. Although I have kicked myself a million times for my failure to properly encapsulate the moment, I at last came to terms with the simplicity of the moment: Gripping Coach Bruce's hand, I met his gaze and uttered this: "Well, damn. Go Bucks." 

In return, I got a wink that ruined all winks until the end of days.

Thus was the first annual Blizzard Bowl (there would be three more, even after I relocated to Georgia) rescued from the brink of apathy. And thus was born the Blizzard Bowl's rallying cry: "Win One for Earle!"