COLUMBUS — Only a few Ohio State-Michigan games are so special they get a name. In fact, there might be only one.
The 1987 game is known as the Earle game. At least in Ohio it is. This year marks the 30th anniversary of that emotionally charged afternoon in Michigan Stadium.
Ohio State played the game wearing headbands with “Earle” scrawled on them in honor of its coach, Earle Bruce, who had been abruptly fired on Monday by OSU president Edward Jennings, and beat Michigan 23-20.
Lima Senior graduate William White was one of four captains on the 1987 Buckeyes who rallied an angry team to send their coach out with a win and to end their own careers with a victory since there would be no bowl game for them.
Thirty years later, White says that was the biggest game of his career at any level.
Earlier this year, I asked him if he could play one game over from his four years at Ohio State, which one would it be?
His answer? The Earle game.
“1987 against Michigan, my last game, Earle’s last game. That’s the best,” he said. “Someone was asking me about the Super Bowl a while ago and said, ‘That’s got to be your best game.’ I said, ‘Not even close.’ 1987 Ohio State and Michigan up in Ann Arbor, that would clearly be the best.”
Twenty years ago on the tenth anniversary of the Earle game I talked with White about that week and how at that point Ohio State had not won a game in Ann Arbor since then.
Bruce had an 81-26-1 record in nine seasons at Ohio State and his team never won fewer than nine games until his final team was 6-4-1. He was permitted to coach the last game of the 1987 season but the players were told no matter what happened they would not be going to a bowl game.
“It wasn’t just that Coach Bruce shouldn’t have been fired but that they said we couldn’t go to a bowl game. We were the first senior class in 15 years that didn’t get a chance to go to a bowl game,” White said in 1997.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who was a graduate assistant on Bruce’s staff in 1987, remembered that week and the emotions running through it on Monday at his weekly press conference.
“Rick Bay (OSU’s athletic director) called us in about 2 o’clock, maybe 1:30 Monday and said, ‘This will be coach’s last game. And Coach had his face down on his arm. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, is this really happening?’
“Then we went out and had a practice. It was a circus, planes flying overhead, people showing up and the band went out to his house that night. It was very emotional to see him win that game. If I remember right, Bo Schembechler went over and congratulated him as well,” Meyer said.
White and the other three captains – Chris Spielman, Tom Tupa and Eric Kumerow – met with Jennings but knew going into the meeting that they weren’t going to change his mind.
The players weren’t going to go out quietly, though. Lineman Joe Staysniak is given credit for suggesting the “Earle” headbands and his teammates embraced the idea.
What they did do quietly, though, was play the first half. Michigan led 13-0 at halftime.
“We probably came out with too much emotion. We couldn’t play in the first half,” White said in 1997. “The seniors said we were not going to go out like that. That was our last stand.”
This fall, he said Spielman was the most vocal of the seniors.
“Chris Spielman gave us a little motivational conversation at halftime and we came back out and got it done for Coach Bruce,” White said.
Getting it done has become a habit for Ohio State against Michigan after winning 14 of its last 16 games against its rival. But 30 years later there still hasn’t been anything quite like the Earle game.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.