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Area natives reflect on time with Earle Bruce

To say coaches have a huge impact on people’s lives is selling them short.

That’s especially true at the major college level where players spend far more time with their coaches than they do with their families.

To hear many tell it, Earle Bruce relished and welcomed the role of serving as a second father to many of his players during his coaching career, which spanned 21 seasons at the collegiate level, including nine at his alma mater, Ohio State University when he followed Woody Hayes.

Unfortunately, many of those players — and coaches — who Bruce mentored during his career are in mourning today. Bruce, 87, died last Friday in Columbus and Ohio State will hold a public memorial today.

While many realize that current Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer got his start in the coaching profession under Bruce, the fact that Bruce touched so many lives of Ohio Valley natives is often overlooked.

But, certainly not by people like Mike Kuri (Martins Ferry), Tim Moxley (Barnesville), Doug Donley (Cambridge) and Charlie Keenan (Steubenville) just to name a few, all of whom played for Bruce with the Buckeyes.

The funny part about Kuri, who is now a middle school principal in Worthington, is that he nearly cancelled his official visit to Ohio State because he felt so good about an earlier recruiting trip to Maryland.

“When I told my parents I was going to cancel the Ohio State visit, my dad said, ‘no you’re going to go on the visit. You gave Ohio State your word and your word means something,” Kuri recalled.

So, Kuri and his family made the trip to Columbus and as he stood on the snow-covered field inside the Horseshoe just before departing back to Belmont County, Kuri received some additional advice, but this time it came from Bruce.

“I remember Coach Bruce saying, ‘when you were a kid growing up in Martins Ferry, who did you dream about playing for?’ I quickly said, “Ohio State … for sure.’ Coach Bruce kind of looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know how often, but it’s usually very few times — if ever — that a person has an opportunity to make a dream come true.'”

That was basically all it took to convince Kuri that he wanted to be a Buckeye.

“I was sold,” Kuri said. “My parents and I went home and I made the decision (to commit) the next day,” Kuri said.

Bruce and head coaches from Maryland, Pitt, West Virginia and Purdue all showed up at Martins Ferry High School the following Monday to hear Kuri’s announcement. This was before prep athletes made their declarations on Twitter or Instagram. It’s also a safe bet that Kuri didn’t have a table set up on ‘The Stage’ at the old Martins Ferry High School with five hats sitting in front of him.

He simply made a decision, committed to the Buckeyes and stuck with it.

In the summer of 1985, shortly after turning 18, Kuri moved to Columbus.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I knew it was different than where I had come from,” Kuri said. “Coach Bruce was old-school. He was tough. A former offensive line coach, who was no nonsense. Having played for Coach Bruney, who was also tough, hard-nosed and an old-school guy, it definitely helped.”

Kuri got an up-close look at Bruce’s toughness because he — like Moxley — was an offensive lineman, so Bruce held that group to an even higher standard.

Kuri, who spent two years as an offensive tackle and shifted to guard as a junior and eventually saw time at center as a senior, continually found himself amazed at how Bruce was able to know exactly what was going on on each of the practice fields that were being utilized.

“He just had an uncanny ability,” Kuri said. “We would be outside on the practice field and doing full-team drills. So, we’d have the second offense against the first defense on one field and the second defense against the first offense on the other. He would catch the fullback doing something wrong on one and then catch a defensive back doing something wrong on the other. I always wondered, ‘how does he see two fields at once?'”

Having been recruited by Fred Pagac primarily and playing for Bruce, when Bruce was let go at Ohio State and John Cooper was hired, Kuri admitted that there “was a different feel” around the program.

“After my career at Ohio State ended, I truly realized how much I learned and appreciated Coach Bruce,” Kuri said. “I look back on my career there and it was some of the greatest times of my life. The friendships I made, the places it enabled me to go were incredible. Not many kids from the Ohio Valley get that opportunity. I owe a lot of that to Coach Bruce.”

Bruce used a very similar approach when dealing with his coaches. On top of Meyer, Bruce’s coaching tree includes names like Pete Carroll, Nick Saban, Jim Tressel, Mark Dantonio and Meadowbrook graduate Dom Capers — just to name a few.

Bellaire High graduate Todd Fitch, who is currently the offensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech University, worked for one season (1992) under Bruce at Colorado State.

That actually was Bruce’s final season as a head coach.

Though it wasn’t a long tenure, it was long enough to have a massive impact on Fitch.

“I was young in my career and I think the biggest thing about Coach Bruce was how he held everyone to a high standard,” Fitch said. “It was a great learning experience. One thing I’ll always remember about Coach Bruce is that he cared about you and your family on a personal level.”

Fitch and many other members of the Rams’ coaching staff were left looking for work the next offseason when Bruce was let go because of allegations about player mistreatment and such against the head coach.

Bruce called it a career from there — other than a couple of seasons coaching in the arena leagues — and returned to Columbus. He and Fitch have remained in touch over the years.

“I knew his health had been failing,” Fitch said. “Coach Bruce obviously had a great life and, in my mind, the best thing about it was that he got to spend the last 20 or so years in Columbus around Ohio State football. His grandson (Zach Smith) is on the staff and obviously he and Urban are really close.”

Fitch has been well traveled in his coaching career. He’s made stops at West Virginia, Bowling Green, Connecticut, East Carolina, South Florida and Boston College.

Prior to arriving at Colorado State, Fitch worked as a volunteer coach under Don Nehlen with the Mountaineers.

“I was very lucky,” Fitch said. “To be able to coach with Coach Nehlen and then a couple of years later get to coach with Coach Bruce was an opportunity a lot of young coaches didn’t get,” Fitch continued.

Fitch couldn’t elaborate on specific things he took from Bruce because he took way too much to even attempt to try to narrow it down to just a few. But, after a few minutes of thinking about it, he spoke about how he learned so much about dealing with players and other coaches from Bruce.

“Anytime you work for a guy like Coach Bruce you take so much away from it, but dealing with the players and coaches and even people in every day life was something I reflect on a good bit,” Fitch said. “The things that Coach Bruce taught were things he believed in so much that it’s those things that stick with you forever.”

Staskey can be reached via email at sstaskey@timesleaderonline.com or at twitter.com/TLSportsSeth

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