It has been nearly five years since the University of Utah parted ways with Coach Chuck Stobart, he of the option offense and the bedrock-solid defense. But the WAC now has another son of the heartland: Colorado State Coach Earle Bruce.
The nation's 10th-winningest active coach is in Fort Collins, and for the first time in years, the Colorado State Rams are playing Monster Mash Football. They begin the first of three season-ending road games when they meet Utah on Saturday in Rice Stadium.Bruce, the former Ohio State coach who was fired for winning only 76 percent of his games in Columbus, is building a team from the ground up - and bringing his Midwestern roots with him. He's wearing a dark fedora and a suit on the sidelines. He's using an I-formation offense that passes 11 fewer times a game than last year's team. And, despite a so-so 3-4-1 record, he is reviving long-dead hopes in the highlands of Fort Collins, where the slogan has been, "Winning isn't everything . . . it's impossible"; where alumni cryptically refer to CSU as "CS-Lose."
"Without a doubt, people are optimistic," says sports information director Gary Ozzello. "It has been a long, long time since we had teams play this type of football."
CSU fired the likeable but unsuccessful Leon Fuller last fall after back-to-back years of 1-11 and 1-10. But the memories of such awful years may be fading already. Colorado State, though not a big winner, is developing a reputation of being solid, fundamental and hard-nosed.
It is no coincidence that the change came with the arrival of Bruce. He began by setting up a system of no-nonsense rules for attending meetings, meals and class. After four games he dismissed two players for disciplinary reasons. "As long as you abide by his rules, everything is fine," said one CSU staffer.
Bruce's coaching style has always reflected his background. Though he was raised in Pittsburgh, Bruce's ties to the Midwest are deep. Soon after earning his bachelor's degree from Ohio State in 1953, he began as an Ohio high school coach. When he landed his first head collegiate job, in 1972 at Tampa, Bruce began a tradition of rugged teams. After a year at Tampa he moved to Iowa State, where he spent six years. He took the Cyclones to bowl games the final two seasons.
Utah assistant coach Wayne McQuivey, who was at Utah in the mid-70s, remembers Bruce's ISU teams well. They beat Utah 31-3 in 1975 and 44-14 the following year. "They were the most physical football teams I had ever seen," says McQuivey. "They just beat us up physically. Talk about smash-mouth football . . ."
McQuivey and the Utes got another look at Bruce in 1986 when his Ohio State team humiliated Utah 64-6.
Bruce's arrival at Colorado State was more of a natural process than a shocking development. After nine seasons at Ohio State, he was fired amid nationwide publicity. Though detractors pointed out that the program was slipping - OSU committed the inexcusable crime of losing three games in a row in 1987 - many writers and administrators lamented that a person with an 81-26-1 record should have to worry about job security. Bruce's OSU teams went to bowl games eight of the nine years.
After leaving OSU, he spent one year at tiny Northern Iowa, a NCAA Division I-AA program. "Change?" he says, when asked about what it was like to coach in Cedar Falls, Iowa, instead of Columbus. "Yeah, it was a change. It's a seven-hour bus ride to Eastern Illinois."
But Bruce never complained about his lot in life. He waxes philosophical when considering the perils of his job. "Football is football," he says with a shrug. "I like the game. The day I don't is the day I get out of coaching. I'd probably have stayed (at Northern Iowa) the rest of my life, except that the budget was going down instead of up."
In CSU he found a program that, however depleted, had a forward-looking administration and plans to increase the football budget. He also found one of the country's more livable small cities and a community hungry to build a winning tradition. "I think I'm at the right place at the right time, that's what I think," he says.
Bruce shows little concern that, at age 58, he finds himself coaching in a fairly lightweight conference filled with gimmick plays and flying footballs. "I've been up and I've been down . . . What the heck? I've seen good things and I've seen bad things on that kind (Ohio State) of level. But there's one thing people better understand in life, as well as in football: You get knocked on your (expletive) and then you get back up and go. You become better, not bitter. You get going with life."
Considering the limited talent he had to draw from, Bruce got going in a hurry in Fort Collins. CSU stunned fans by nearly upsetting Tennessee in the season-opener, falling 17-14. The Rams then scared lofty Colorado before losing 45-20. The first win came in a 42-14 decision over Cal Fullerton. That was followed by a 35-35 tie against Eastern Michigan, only the second tie in Bruce's 18-year career.
"I'm not sure I like the outcome," he told CSU writers after the tie with Eastern Michigan. "I've only had one other tie and that was a disaster."
The other tie was a 1987 tie with LSU. "That was the year I got canned," he continued.
Air Force tromped the Rams 46-21, but CSU came back to beat New Mexico 34-20. To follow was a 45-16 loss to BYU. Last week came a breakthrough, as CSU upset Hawaii 31-16.
Although the returns have been marginal in terms of wins, enthusiasm is good among players and fans. With just three games left, all on the road, CSU has produced the second-largest average attendance in school history. "They don't have the great athletes like some of the teams we've played," says McQuivey, "but they've been playing hard and they don't make many mistakes."
The advent of Earle Bruce football has turned CSU into an evenly balanced act. The Rams are averaging just 155 yards passing a game - down 80 yards a game from last year - but are a surprising third in rushing in the WAC, with a 214-yard average. They aren't winning regularly, but they are meting out some damage.
McQuivey predicts that as years pass, CSU will become increasingly physical and conservative. "He'll (Bruce) continue to go right into that Midwest football," says McQuivey. "He's going to play ball control on offense and play smash-mouth football on defense. It's `cradle' football and I don't care if it's in the WAC or wherever, that's Earle Bruce's kind of football."
Tampa (1 year)10-2
Iowa State (6 years)36-32
Ohio State (9 years) 81-26-1
Northern Iowa (1 year5-6