The week the town went crazy
This story appeared in the January 1988 issue of Columbus Monthly.
It’s Nov. 14 in Ohio Stadium, with less than 30 seconds remaining in the Iowa-Ohio State football game. The Buckeyes are leading 27-22. The Hawkeyes, out of timeouts and with fourth down and 28 yards to the goal line, are left with one last, desperate play.
Rick Bay, OSU athletic director, feels relieved. Barring a miraculous play by Iowa, OSU will win, and Bay knows how much is riding on the game. He says he and Ed Jennings had run into each other at halftime, and the OSU president tapped him on the shoulder and said, “If we win, go ahead and accept.”
With those words, Jennings had given him the green light to take a bowl invitation if OSU beats Iowa, and going to a bowl game will surely stop Jennings from thinking about firing football coach Earle Bruce before his contract ends in June, 1989. Nobody, Bay figures, would fire a coach after New Year’s Day, when it would be too late for OSU to hire a new coach for 1988 or for Bruce and his staff to find new jobs. And if Bruce stays, Bay won’t have to follow through on his own vow to resign as athletic director, rather than be a party to ripping up the contract of the coach with the best won-lost record in the Big Ten.
But then Iowa quarterback Chuck Hartlieb takes the snap for what ought to be the last play of a thrilling Ohio State victory, drops back and throws to tight end Marv Cook at the 10-yard line. Cook catches the ball, slips past one OSU defender and crashes through two others—into the end zone. Iowa wins, 29-27. Ohio State suffers its third straight Big Ten loss and its record drops to 5-4-1.
Two days later Rick Bay’s phone rings. It’s Ed Jennings. . . .
Call it The Week the Town Went Crazy. OSU president Ed Jennings fires an unpopular football coach, Earle Bruce, triggering a backlash of nuclear proportions against Jennings and the university. The firing sends shock waves across the city, locking all conversation on one subject: Earle Bruce vs. Ed Jennings. The drama unfolds with a momentum of its own: the firing, the puzzling pro-Bruce backlash, the rumors of power plays and personal peccadilloes, the devastating lawsuit. Heroes, villains, victims . . . seven days of juicy speculation and character assassination; a governor who can’t keep his mouth shut and a university president who won’t open his; a public looking for the straight story and university trustees who can’t agree on what the straight story is.
It’s the story of the year in Columbus, and it brings the city the national attention it craves, but all the wrong kind. It’s bigger than the COTA strike, bigger than the drug scandal in the mayor’s office, bigger than the rejection of the convention center and arena plan.
By the end the week, careers are in tatters, Columbus is a joke to much of the rest of the country, and the entire community is shaken. All because a football coach got fired.
MONDAY: All hell breaks loose
Bay arrives in his offices at St. John Arena, hoping for a better week than the last. The previous Monday he says he and Jennings had talked seriously for the first time about firing Bruce. Jennings told him he was receiving a lot of pressure, that the coach was tremendously unpopular and a change might be necessary. Bay says he told Jennings he wouldn’t be a part of it—if Bruce got fired, he would resign. “Nobody in the nation would understand what we were doing,” he said. Jennings said the athletic director had made some good points; he would think them over.
Bay left, surprised. He knew, of course, that Bruce was not a much-loved figure. The coach had gained new popularity at the end of the 1986 season with a startling wardrobe change, a bowl victory and a decision to turn down a lucrative University of Arizona offer and stay at Ohio State. But Bruce couldn’t capitalize. His 1987 team, touted for a possible national championship, was shaken by the ineligibility of star receiver Cris Carter, who admitted to taking money from a sports agent. The team never recovered, struggling even to win more games than it lost. Bay was aware that some OSU trustees had been grumbling about Bruce, but, “No one had nerve to come up to me and say get rid of this guy.” Still Bay believed that the university would honor Bruce’s contract. He staked out his position publicly by supporting Bruce in the press.
But now it’s the Monday after Iowa, and Ed Jennings is on the phone to Bay. “You asked last week if it was a done deal,” Bay hears Jennings say. “Now, it’s a done deal.” Bruce is to be fired after the Michigan game. Bay cancels a luncheon date, walks to a small deli near St. John, orders lunch and returns to his office to eat and think. He will follow through on his stand and resign. But he believes there’s a remote chance he can change the president’s mind when they meet in two hours.
Even as Bay is marshaling his arguments, Earle Bruce is talking tough during his weekly press conference at the Jai Lai restaurant. Doggedly and emotionally, he says he’ll be back for the 1988 season and work even harder for a Big Ten championship. Sitting at his side in an unusual show of support is Bruce’s wife, Jean.
Meanwhile in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Coach Bo Schembechler has heard the rumors that Bruce may be in trouble. Jokingly, Schembechler says if OSU is stupid enough to fire Bruce, he’ll become Michigan’s athletic director and hire Bruce as his coach.
At 1 pm, Bay walks across the campus to the office of the man who had hired him from the University of Oregon three years earlier. His relationship with Jennings has been ambiguous. Jennings seems to respect his work, but Bay is difficult to manage. On a few occasions Bay has publicly disagreed with his boss.
In Jennings’s office, Bay soon realizes he has no chance to change the president’s mind. It’s a done deal: Earle Bruce is history. Jennings gives only vague reasons—pressure, unpopularity—and Bay doesn’t push for specifics. When Bay confirms his resignation, Jennings asks, softly, if he can talk Bay out of it. No, Bay replies.
Then Jennings tells Bay not to announce the firing until after the Michigan game. Bay says he can’t withhold the information—it would be deceitful to Bruce and the coaching staff. Besides, there are bound to be leaks from the OSU trustees or others who know what’s happening.
Jennings suggests that he and Bay release statements. Bay understands, perhaps better than his boss, the furor that will inevitably follow such an announcement. “I can’t do a hundred one-on-one interviews,” he tells Jennings. Instead, he’ll hold a press conference and deal with the media at once. The two men part with a handshake.
Bay then finds Bruce at OSU’s new indoor practice facility—the gleaming new building for which the athletic director has helped raise $10.6 million dollars, the first project of several he had planned. Bay asks Bruce to shut his office door and sit down. “What’s happened now?” the coach asks.
“Coach,” Bay says, “you’re fired. I’ve resigned.”
“Ohmigod,” says Bruce. “I can’t believe it. How could they do it? Rick, you didn’t have to do that [resign].”
“If the board of trustees can fire you,” Bay replies, “then I’m not the athletic director anyway.”
In the next hour, assistant coaches are told the grim news. They will be casualties of Bruce’s firing, because a new head coach will want to recruit his own staff. “It was like losing a part of your family,” one assistant will say later. Football players, Bay’s staff and the OSU basketball coaches also are informed. During Bay’s staff meeting, senior assistant athletic director Jim Jones, a 20-year OSU loyalist who had been passed over for the top job when Bay was hired, learns that he’ll be the new athletic director.
All day, since even before Bay’s meeting with Jennings, rumors about Bruce’s fate have been circulating. Now OSU announces a press conference. The rumors reach gale force. Reporters crowd into a room at the Fawcett Center for Tomorrow. The hallway outside is clogged with curious onlookers. One young man wears a red T-shirt with white letters that reads “SAVE EARLE.”
At 4:30 pm Rick Bay, who just 10 months earlier had persuaded Bruce to reject the Arizona job and remain at Ohio State, stands before 40 journalists and announces that the rumors are true: Both his and Bruce’s careers at Ohio State are finished.
“It’s a shame,” Bay says. “It’s a dark day for OSU.” Defending Bruce, Bay cites the coach’s integrity, the players’ graduation rate, the won-lost record. “I don’t know what more you can do,” Bay says. Somehow he musters a flash of humor. “Any of you guys looking for a weather man?” he says when someone asks about his future. When Bay walks away from the microphone, reporters break an unwritten journalistic rule and applaud. By resignation on principle, Rick Bay becomes a hero.
Television and radio stations interrupt their regular programming to cover the press conference. As the news beams into homes and offices, the backlash is immediate. Why now, a week before the Michigan game? And where is Ed Jennings? Why doesn’t he take the heat? At first the only word from Jennings is a terse, 17-line statement. Then, during an impromptu press conference in front of his home, Jennings says he’d gotten pressure from “all over” to make a change.
Evening newscasts are full of the firing. Channel 4’s unscientific phone poll fields an amazing 12,000 calls, with 90 percent saying Bruce shouldn’t have been axed in this manner. Early in the evening the Ohio State Marching Band serenades Bruce in front of his Worthington Hills home. About 150 of the more than 220 band members gather on short notice to play a drum cadence, “Carmen Ohio” and “Fight the Team.” Bruce, who has seldom shown emotion in the past nine years at Ohio State, cries openly. And during the Channel 4 newscast, sportscaster Jimmy Crum, who has counted himself as a Buckeye for more than 30 years, blasts Jennings; Crum says he’s lost respect for the university administration. Later Crum will call the firing “the cheapest shot by a big shot I’ve seen.”
The fans’ reaction is puzzling. Can these be the same fans who repeatedly called for Earle Bruce’s head, who bought “turkey” T-shirts featuring Bruce’s likeness, who laughed in agreement when the Dispatch’s Mike Harden called Bruce a fat slob? Even ardent Bruce haters, those wearing the “Noose Bruce” buttons at the Iowa game, now seem supportive. “Jettison Jennings” bumper stickers appear. “For my Michigan game party I was going to put a picture of Bruce on the dartboard,” says one fan, “but now I’ll have to find one of Jennings.” But there really wasn’t a true pro-Bruce sentiment behind the tidal wave of support. Many in the angry mob would have patted Jennings on the back if he’d waited to dump Bruce. What it boiled down to was a bum-rap issue: Bruce got screwed, getting axed in mid-contract and especially during Michigan week—and nobody likes to see anybody get a raw deal.
By the end of the evening, the irony is clear: Ed Jennings in 12 hours has accomplished what Earle Bruce hasn’t been able to do in nearly a decade. He’s made the coach a sympathetic figure. And Bruce, watching the band through teary eyes or insisting after the firing that “I’m still a loyal Buckeye,” is momentarily transformed into a tragic hero.
TUESDAY: Many questions, few answers
The backlash continues. The Dispatch arrives on doorsteps with a banner headline of the size usually reserved for the ending of world wars: “Bruce fired; Bay resigns.” WTVN Radio disc jockey Bob Conners devotes his entire four and one-half hours to listener phone calls. Most are anti-Jennings. WTVN general manager Perry Frey delivers a sledgehammer editorial, calling on the Ohio Board of Regents and the Ohio General Assembly to investigate “who’s pulling the strings” at Ohio State.
On the OSU campus, students and faculty criticize the firing; it makes the university look like a football factory, they say. A few students start a petition drive to rehire the coach and fire the president.
Speculation and rumors bubble all over Columbus. The Wolfe family, which is blamed by someone, somewhere, for almost everything that happens in Central Ohio, is accused of putting pressure on Jennings. The Chicago Tribune reports that Dispatch publisher John Wolfe was seen in Ohio Stadium the previous Saturday, openly rooting for Iowa (see “John W. changes his name”).
Reporters receive anonymous calls, filled with innuendo about Jennings and his personal life. The tipsters say the president—whose separation from his wife, Mary Eleanor, has already sparked campus gossip—has been drinking heavily and running around with women, known and not-so-well-known. Start turning over rocks, the reporters are told, and ugly things will crawl out.
When it’s obvious that the furor isn’t diminishing, Jennings opens his bomb shelter and holds a morning press conference. He backpedals somewhat from earlier statements to Bay and others that he’d been under pressure to fire Bruce. There was, he says, “no direct, particular pressure” placed on him by big-money contributors. “This was my judgment that it was best for the Ohio State University, and I made that choice.”
Questions come thick and fast. Why not honor the contract and possibly suffer for one more year, much as Notre Dame had done with its unpopular coach, Gerry Faust? Why hadn’t Jennings called Bruce into his office last January and strongly encouraged him to take the Arizona job? Why, indeed, had Jennings agreed to sign Bruce to a three-year contract in 1986, if he knew then that Bruce wasn’t the man he wanted as coach? And what was really so bad about Earle, anyway?
Jennings, citing a state law about disclosing personnel matters, refuses to say exactly why Bruce was dumped. He says Bruce has not broken any OSU rules or committed any serious misconduct. What qualities does OSU want in its new coach? “An individual who represents the institution well.” And Bruce did not? “I’m not going to say that.” But the implication is clear: In Ed Jennings’s mind, Earle Bruce had somehow become an embarrassment to the university. But how? If Jennings has some facts that would shift support to his side, he isn’t about to disclose them. An Ohio Attorney General official, however, says, “We know of no law that would prevent” Jennings from publicly discussing the decision. But Jennings will still refuse to be specific.
By now the story is receiving national attention from the major networks and newspapers. Ohio State and Columbus look more than a little foolish. What kind of university fires a football coach who has won 75 percent of his games and been to eight straight bowls? What kind of city supports such an action?
In Michigan, Schembechler does his part. Columbus, he says, is looking “damn bad.” To Jennings, the irony must seem vicious. For six years he’s worked hard and successfully to make Ohio State look like something more than a football factory. And now, in less than 24 hours, the university’s image is back to ground zero. Some far-north-side fans hang their OSU flags at half-mast.
Bruce, meanwhile, meets with his attorney and business partner, John Zonak. As tough and wily a legal streetfighter as there is in Columbus, Zonak also is the executive producer of the “Earle Bruce Show” on WSYX-TV, a show whose 1988 value had been wiped out the moment Jennings fired its star. Bruce may be momentarily befuddled, but Zonak moves swiftly to the offense. He spends letters to Jennings and Jones, demanding answers: Why was Bruce fired? How will his contract be handled? Please reply by noon Thursday. Or else.
WEDNESDAY: The titans strike back
The uproar continues. WTVN Radio broadcasts a tape of mimic doing a passable Woody Hayes imitation. “I despise people who fire football coaches during the season,” the imitator says. People wonder: Would Bruce, a former player and coach under Hayes, still have his job if Hayes hadn’t died last March? Would Jennings have dared to risk the wrath of a living legend?
As WTVN, other radio and television stations and the OSU Lantern continue to hammer the university and Jennings, the Dispatch mounts a heavy counterattack in support of Jennings. In an editorial headlined “Jennings’ Action Proper,” the paper says Bruce “failed to engender goodwill for the institution” and “failed to subjugate his personal interests to those of the university.”
The OSU trustees, mostly silent to this point, also strike back. They rally behind Jennings, blaming Bay for the public relations debacle. Bay wasn’t a good soldier, they say; he should have kept quiet until after the Michigan game, as Jennings had wished. Trustee Jack Kessler says he was “disappointed and surprised” by Bay’s actions. Len Immke calls Bay’s decision to go public “extremely brutal.”
Jennings’s allies toss a little dirt at Bruce. Trustee Joel Teaford says OSU’s poor season presented “a window of opportunity” to get rid of a coach who gave the university a bad image. Another, nameless source describes Bruce in The Plain Dealer as “whiny, greedy and grumpy.” He won’t go out of his way to give free speeches or visit crippled kids in the hospital, the way Woody did. He can’t talk foreign affairs with presidents the way Woody could, either. Earle lacks class, lacks charisma, lacks style. Sometimes he acts like a jerk. Let’s face it: This guy’s no Woody.
Even Dick Celeste joins the anti-Bruce caravan. On a political junket in Iowa, Ohio’s governor speculates to some Des Moines Register reporters and editors that the firing was linked to Bruce’s fondness for horse racing and former OSU quarterback Art Schlichter’s compulsive gambling. Celeste’s comments make headlines, but the gambling issue blows up like a trick cigar. If the Schlichter turmoil bothered the trustees so much, Bruce’s supporters counter, why didn’t they deal with the problem when it arose in 1983, instead of years later? And hadn’t Bruce always said he’d never taken Schlichter to the racetrack, though he might have bumped into him there?
The trustees compound the confusion by not getting their stories straight. Were there really informal meetings at which the trustees said Bruce had to go? The Dispatch reports that trustees Debbi Casto and Immke said the board agreed informally Nov. 5 that 1987 should be Bruce’s last season. Other trustees say no vote was taken. The Plain Dealer reports that Jennings visited some of the trustees in the press box during the Iowa game and discussed Bruce’s firing. Teaford says no such conversation took place.
The trustees’ assault on Bruce and Bay seems to stem the tide a bit. People look at Bruce a bit differently. Yes, he was gruff, and he had come off looking greedy in the past, particularly when he fought with WBNS-TV and wound up taking his television show to WSYX-TV. Some even soften their support for Bay—maybe he could have waited a week and spared the university such anguish.
But Jennings is still very much on the hook. The Plain Dealer, citing six sources, says Jennings “had been warned by community leaders and trustees that his job was also in jeopardy” because he “had caused a stir in university circles over his personal life.” Jennings denies that his job is on the line. But rumors still fly. Had Jennings been pressured into firing Bruce to save his own neck?
Jennings tries some one-on-one damage control with the football team, inviting the captains into his office to explain his decision. The players later say he hasn’t given them any more of an explanation than he’s given anyone else. “I feel it was a waste of my time,” says defensive back William White.
Speculation about the involvement of the Wolfe family also grows, fueled partly by the strong Dispatch editorial. The Plain Dealer reports that family patriarch John W. Wolfe pressured Jennings to fire Bruce because he was still angry at the coach for pulling his show from Wolfe-owned WBNS-TV.
Meanwhile, Earle Bruce is angry; no one should get away with questioning his integrity. Bruce talks with Zonak about going mano-a-mano with Jennings—in the courtroom. Already, the pro-Bruce partisans have switched the opponents to their advantage. It’s now Earle vs. Ed, not Earle vs. OSU. And the battle is about to enter a new stage.
THURSDAY: A smidgen of cheer
Zonak receives a brief response to his letter demanding answers about the firing. OSU, through its lawyers, still gives no specific reasons for Jennings’s decision. The university does promise to pay Bruce his salary ($87,120 a year) until his contract ends or he gets another job. But there’s no offer of additional cash to compensate Bruce for losing his TV show, his shoe endorsements, his football camps—all the lucrative side deals that have boosted his income to well over $300,000 a year. Bruce and Zonak don’t like what they read.
Even as the Dispatch decides the Bruce-Jennings fiasco is no longer front-page news, the Plain Dealer, more than 120 miles north of Columbus, continues to pursue the story. Throughout the week and afterward, the Cleveland paper will chase the story more aggressively, jumping on reports that Jennings’s lifestyle has gotten him in trouble with his trustees, that Bruce received highly positive job evaluations. Around Columbus, people who want to know what’s really happening are scrambling to find the Plain Dealer boxes.
The firing still is a major topic of conversation, but the outrage appears to be dying. A protest rally outside the indoor practice facility, organized by a student, attracts only about 200. Among the supporters is the fur-coated Morganna, a pop culture creature who’s made a career of kissing sports figures in public. She plants a big one on Bruce’s cheek.
Bruce then sees WCMH’s Jimmy Crum, puts his arm around the sportscaster and says, “God bless you. I love you.” While spirited, the protest rally is disappointingly small.
The official pep rally at the south parking lot near French Field House is even more dismal; 5,000 are expected, but fewer than 1,000 show up. Attorney and radio color man Greg Lashutka emcees, telling a story about his first OSU-Michigan game as a player, when President Kennedy was assassinated but the team went on to win. The logic of the comparison escapes many. Bruce arrives with about 40 players and makes a few remarks while the players look at their feet. If this is an indication of the team’s mood, then come Saturday the Buckeyes might be hard pressed to beat Otterbein, let alone Michigan. Bruce seems characteristically unable to capitalize on the first wave of sympathy and outrage his firing has produced.
But while the mood is blue, sentiment is still on Bruce’s side. As comedian Jay Leno, performing at the Ohio Theatre, quips, “What great timing. These are the kinds of people who would fire Santa Claus during the Macy’s Day parade.”
FRIDAY: Heading for Michigan
It has been a long, hard week, and feelings are gloomy. Bruce generates a bit of excitement at the traditional senior tackle ceremony by lowering a shoulder and plowing into the tackling dummy himself. As the team boards its airplane to fly to Michigan, Channel 4 shows footage of a lone fan who has come to cheer. And even he looks subdued.
The trustees and Jennings are counting the hours until the Michigan game is finally history. Reporters continue to phone trustees; Immke refuses to answer questions. “My last three days have been consumed by this thing,” he says. Kessler and Teaford say they’ve received obscene phone calls.
Jennings apparently has kept his sense of humor throughout the ordeal. When he sees Matt Frantz, the OSU place-kicker, on campus, the president tells Frantz, according to the Lantern, “to tell everybody on defense that it was his [Jennings’s] face on the other side of the field. . . .”
As for Bay, who has drifted out of the public spotlight, he already has flown to Ann Arbor to meet with a University of Michigan search committee interviewing candidates to succeed Don Canham as athletic director. Bay had been contacted about the job before, but said he was happy at OSU. Now he suddenly finds himself in the job market. Earlier in the week, he was approached by Northwestern University, but declined to be considered for its A.D. post. He has some time to pick and choose. OSU has announced that Bay and the assistant football coaches can remain on the payroll until their appointments end on June 30, 1988—unless they find new jobs in the meantime. Bay spends a lot of time answering letters, which cover his desk, and phone calls.
Also out of the spotlight, Zonak and Bruce have made a decision that will soon send Jennings and the university scrambling for shelter again. But the coach and his lawyer/partner don’t want their bombshell to detract from the Michigan game, so Zonak executes a slick move. At 4:55 pm, five minutes before closing, his messenger enters the clerk’s office at Franklin County Common Pleas Court—and quietly files what will turn out to be a devastatingly potent lawsuit.
SATURDAY: The game at last
While the players prepare to take the field, Jennings has his shot at major damage control during a live ABC interview before a national audience. It’s a perfect chance to reestablish OSU’s credibility. But Jennings refuses to disclose anything new, tap-dancing around the critical questions. Minutes before, ABC has aired a taped interview with an angry Bruce. If you get hit hard, Bruce says, you hit hard back. In the media battle for hearts and minds, the deposed coach wins again.
For the OSU football players, it has been a disastrous and demoralizing week. In addition to losing a coach, it is certain there will be no bowl game—regardless of whether they beat Michigan. And there was the announcement that the annual football appreciation banquet had been canceled. As defensive lineman Ray Holliman would later tell reporters, sadly, “Maybe in years to come the wounds will be healed, but I’ll always remember this and what they did to our senior year.”
The players, though, begin to show the first surprising signs of the spunk that will ultimately carry them to victory. As a sign of solidarity, they wear “EARLE” headbands before the game. When Michigan dominates the first half, however, hopes for an inspired and emotional win seem remote. But Ohio State regroups and charges back in the second half, holding on for a dramatic 23-20 win.
And suddenly there is Bruce, in front of 100,000 in Ann Arbor and millions more around the country, being carried off the field—pumping his fists and beaming. Take that, Ed Jennings. Take that, trustees. What better way to go out than beating the Wolverines? The rap on Bruce has always been that he can’t win the big games, and now he’s won the last big one, straight up.
On the plane ride to Columbus, Rick Bay, the ex-athletic director, leans over to Earle Bruce, the ex-coach, and says, “Do you realize that if I had done what they wanted me to do, I would be telling you right now you were fired?”
SUNDAY: The suit hits the fan
Pow! Socko! Bam! Just as Bruce had indicated on ABC and in the OSU locker room after the game, he hits back . . . hard. His lawsuit against the university and Ed Jennings, so carefully kept quiet before the big game, is now splashed across the front page of every Sunday paper in Ohio. The university and its president, Bruce says, have not only breached his contract, but libeled and slandered him. And they’ve done it all with malice. The suit says the firing is part of a premeditated scheme, begun by Jennings more than a year before, and that Jennings has tried to destroy Bruce’s reputation. Bruce wants not only his salary, but also his projected outside earnings. And damages. About $7.44 million ought to cover it.
Zonak’s master stroke is to turn the question of character inside-out and aim it directly back at Jennings: Let him who is without sin. . . . The suit contends that Jennings, prodded by two small pressure groups, fired Bruce because Bruce disapproved of Jennings’s personal life. If Jennings and Ohio State have any doubt about whether Bruce and Zonak will play hardball, Zonak removes it, swiftly and shockingly. To reporters, he calls Jennings “weak,” and speculates that the OSU president has been under fire from the board of trustees because of his “carousing and excessive drinking.”
And Zonak doesn’t stop there. Adding octane to the raging rumors, he attaches to the suit deposition notices to three women: Mary Eleanor Jennings, Jennings’s estranged wife; Barbara Real, director of OSU’s regional fund-raising campaign; and OSU trustee Debbi Casto.
The deposition notice ends a rotten week for Casto. In addition to being in the middle of the debate on whether trustees voted to remove Bruce, she has been in a serious auto accident. On Friday, she lost control of her 1986 Jaguar and crashed into a light pole. Her passenger, Donald Dick, whose family runs the popular German Village bar Victory’s and other businesses, is spending the weekend in the intensive care unit with broken ribs and pelvis. Casto, who broke her arm in the crash, has been charged with failure to control her car.
While Casto recuperates, speculation rages: How much will Earle Bruce settle for? Does the lawsuit prove he really is a money-grubber? Is he really loyal to OSU? Or is he absolutely right to go for the knockout in a bare-knuckles brawl with the man who took his job? “If you’re going to attack me and my family,” Bruce vows angrily, “then you’d better be perfect.” To many, it seems obvious that Ed Jennings isn’t perfect, and that Bruce and Zonak have landed a devastating blow that’s put the president and the university on their backs.
Jennings and trustee chairman Edmund Redman hold a brief conference. Redman supports Jennings. Jennings denies slandering Bruce and says he will ignore personal attacks. But it’s a futile exercise in damage control. The Jennings-Bruce battle has descended into the muck, and all the combatants are getting muddy.
As week two begins, just seven days after his phone call to Rick Bay, there will be no breather for Jennings. Yet another Plain Dealer story breaks the news that Jennings and Real have plane tickets to fly to London together for a vacation. First there are denials that Jennings has a reservation, then confirmations from airline ticket agents, and finally reports that his ticket has been canceled and Real is making the trip alone. The gossip mongers titter. Some OSU faculty members try to organize a show of support for Jennings, who has generally received high marks with the OSU teachers. But the action does nothing to stop the firestorm that’s threatening to engulf the president’s office and possibly the university.
Perhaps realizing that they have lost control, university officials bring in high-powered outside help. OSU hires John Elam, the heavyweight trial lawyer and senior partner of Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease, to handle the lawsuit and the media. Elam is as smooth as Zonak is rough, but both are case-hardened courtroom lawyers who know when to go for the jugular . . . and when to compromise. Elam says immediately that he’ll push for a settlement. A trial would be dirty and sensational, and clearly the university wants to avoid such a spectacle. But at what cost?
On the Monday before Thanskgiving, Zonak meets with “someone not directly related to the university,” someone who is trying to broker a settlement. This sparks a series of phone calls and negotiations. Early Wednesday morning, Zonak flies to Pompano Beach, Florida, to consult with the vacationing Bruce.
By now, Zonak says, the lawsuit has taken an undesirable direction for Bruce. Bruce intended to go after Jennings—the man who shattered his coaching career and threw his family into turmoil. But he didn’t intend to savage the university. Perhaps Bruce should have known that by filing the lawsuit, he’d hurt his alma mater grievously, but he tells Zonak that was the last thing he wanted.
Through Thanksgiving, negotiations continue behind the scenes. In the mammoth Thanksgiving Day Dispatch, readers find a highly unusual public declaration by the Wolfe family, which normally worked hard at keeping its name out of the paper. In the published statement, John F. Wolfe, the paper’s publisher, denies that the Wolfe family pressured Jennings to fire Bruce. The family, Wolfe says, had nothing to do with it.
On Friday, as thousands of Central Ohioans take advantage of a holiday to jam local shopping centers, negotiating continues until the afternoon. Then Elam calls a press conference. A settlement has been reached, he says; the lawsuit is dismissed. Bruce will receive within three business days $471,000 from the university—more than three times as much as his salary through the end of his contract. The lump-sum payoff includes a buyout of some of Bruce’s retirement benefits and cash to settle his claim for ancillary income. There also is a stipulation: If Bruce gets a new job before July 1, 1989, he’ll have to give back a portion of the settlement equal to his income. Jennings and Bruce express regret, and agree to end the bickering. “We at Ohio State thank Earle for his years of service to this institution and wish him success in his future endeavors,” Jennings says in a joint press release.
By signing, Zonak says, Bruce dashed any chances of returning to Ohio State, a hope he had clung to throughout the ordeal and even up until the settlement. And, Zonak says, Bruce still does not know why he was dumped.
Some people think the settlement is excessive. One man even files suit against the university, claiming it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. Others, including those who were close enough to know exactly how much Bruce was earning, speculate that he might have been able to extract more by fighting longer. Some wonder whether he made a bad financial decision by taking the money in one lump sum in 1987, when income taxes are considerably higher than they will be in 1988.
So finally the long ordeal is over. With the announcement of the settlement, the pressure on OSU and its president subsides; the nightmare concludes. Is there any lesson from what happened during the week the town went crazy? The Dispatch publishes a convoluted and confusing editorial that seems to call for de-emphasizing college athletics.
It’s time to assess the damage that’s been done, beginning with the loss of prestige to OSU, a diminished pride in the area’s most important institution. And to tally the price, in dollars and cents, that Bruce’s firing will inflict (see “What it cost”).
In personal terms, the pain caused by the decision is evident in many places. Len Willis, one of Bruce’s assistants, has three children, and a wife struggling to finish a dissertation. He may have to uproot his family. So, too, perhaps, will defensive coordinator Gary Blackney, who could face the difficulties of moving his invalid wife.
There is Barbara Real, a relatively obscure OSU employee one day and a public figure the next—the target of inquisitive reporters who chased her through Port Columbus as she boarded her plane for London.
There is Debbi Casto, the 34-year-old daughter of a wealthy Celeste contributor, who suddenly found herself caught up in the hardball controversy surrounding the OSU trustees, and then was named in the Bruce lawsuit. “You try to do something for free and look what happens,” a sobbing Casto told a Dispatch reporter.
There is Earle Bruce, who had one of the top five or six coaching jobs in the country. Now he’s $471,000 richer, but looking for the answer on what to do with the rest of his working life. Will another school hire a coach who’s sued his own university?
There is Ed Jennings, a once-popular president moving Ohio State forward with his call for Excellence, and with such programs as the super computer, the Wexner Center and the affirmative action project. Literally overnight, Jennings became the object of scorn and scandalous rumors—his reputation staggered by an ill-conceived personnel decision and John Zonak’s brutally effective legal maneuvers. Can Jennings rally? Can he even survive?
Finally, there is Rick Bay, who did what he thought was right and walked away from the best job he’s ever had. And as he prepared to clean out his office and to look for a job, Rick bay found he had caught a cold.
Ray Paprocki is a staff writer for Columbus Monthly.
John W. changes his name
The day after Ed Jennings fired Earle Bruce as football coach at Ohio State, the Chicago Tribune reported that Dispatch publisher John Wolfe had been seen during the Nov. 14 Ohio State/Iowa game openly cheering for the Hawkeyes. The report was picked up by WSYX-TV in Columbus and the Cleveland Plain Dealer; the significance was that it added strength to the rumors that the Wolfe family had pressured Jennings to fire Bruce.
Unfortunately, Channel 6 and the Plain Dealer were a bit confused as to which John Wolfe supposedly was doing the pressuring.
The John Wolfe who was at the Iowa game was Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe, as the Tribune reported. However, a later story by the Plain Dealer confused John F. Wolfe with his cousin, John Walton Wolfe, who is chairman of the board of the Dispatch Printing Company. Channel 6 said it was John F. Wolfe, but used John W. Wolfe’s picture. Later, even the Tribune appeared a little mixed up. A Dispatch insider says the Tribune called John W. for a follow-up on the Iowa game story. John W. told them they “had the wrong John Wolfe.”
The Dispatch source says John W. Wolfe was amused by the name mix-up—at first. It’s said he hasn’t been to an OSU game in 10 years. But those later stories by the Plain Dealer and WSYX reportedly made him “furious.”
The day after WSYX showed his picture, according to a Dispatch source, John W. Wolfe called Dispatch editor Luke Feck with an order: Henceforth, he would be referred to as J.W. Wolfe, not John W. Wolfe. Feck dutifully sent a memorandum to the newspaper’s department heads. It read:
“Since others in the media seem unable to differentiate between John F. Wolfe, publisher of the Columbus Dispatch, and John W. Wolfe, who is chairman of the board of the Dispatch Printing Company but prefers to be referred to as chairman of the Ohio Company, we will attempt to help them. In the future, if there is any reference to John W. Wolfe that appears anywhere in the Columbus Dispatch he will be referred to as J. W. Wolfe. . . .”
The name change first appeared in the newspaper on Saturday, Nov. 21, in a story about a meeting between Ed Jennings and OSU law students.
What it cost
It’s been argued—even by many people who wanted Earle Bruce gone as Ohio State’s football coach—that the university would have been better off simply letting him serve out the final year on his contract. Among other things, the university paid a hefty price in dollars for the right not to have Bruce on the field next season. How much did the decision cost? Try $1.18 million, as a conservative estimate.
OSU settled Bruce’s lawsuit for $471,000. Bruce will return a portion of the settlement if he gets a new job before his contract expires in June, 1989.
Bowl revenue loss:
If OSU had accepted the Sun Bowl invitation, it would have earned $750,000, minus an estimated $700,000 in expenses. Total: $50,000.
The university agreed to pay nine assistant coaches, who were fired, and athletic director Rick Bay, who resigned, through their appointments, which end by July. Ohio State had said it expected to hire a new coaching staff by January. The cost to fulfill the contracts of Bay and the fired assistant coaches is $243,540. The sum will be smaller if the fired assistant coaches or Bay get jobs before July.
Philip Moots, of Moots, Cope & Kizer, charged OSU an estimated $900 for consultations. John Elam, of Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease, also was hired by the university. A guesstimate of his billing: at least $5,000. Total: $5,900.
Worthington Industries withdrew a pledge to the athletic department worth $400,000. By early December, OSU’s fund-raising arm says, 56 additional pledges, totaling $8,000 were cancelled in response to the Bruce firing. Total: $408,000.
Ray Paprocki is a staff writer for Columbus Monthly.