Little, rumpled, 48-year-old Earle Bruce stood in glorious, grinning, dumpy disarray today after undefeated Ohio State beat Michigan, 18-15, for the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
The rookie Ohio State coach's thinning hair was tangled and soaking, his clothes a mess. In his hand was the world's most hideously garish necktie.
"I can't wait to get this ugly thing on," Bruce said. "It's a Rose Bowl tie."
That tie was the symbol of Bruce's vindication.
Just a few months ago, Bruce replaced Woody Hayes, inheriting the glamorous but brutal OSU job amid predictions that he would preside over the crumbling of Ohio State's great football tradition.
Instead, this unheralded Ohio State squad completed an 11-0 regular season today before a 106,255 fans, the decisive touchdown an 18-yard run with a blocked punt by OSU's Todd Bell with 11:21 to play.
The Bucks had not beaten the hated Wolverines, or even scored a touchdown against them, since their last 11-0 campaign in 1975. Now, they may be one victory away from a national championship.
"We're going to Pasadena, and we're going the right way," Bruce said. "You know, it makes it for real when you do it by beating Michigan here in Ann Arbor.
"I never anticipated that this would come, with me taking an undefeated team to the Rose Bowl," said the 5-foot-8 Bruce, who was a scrub in his OSU playing days and has labored his way up the coaching ladder from high schools to college jobs at Tampa and Iowa State.
Every conceivable jinx or hurdle that Bruce could have imagined was eradicated with this one game. Above all, this game was a coaching triumph of Bruce over Michigan's Bo Schembechler, who had a nightmare with his eyes open on this gorgeous, 55-degree afternoon.
"Maybe it's all the emotion," Bruce said, "but I thought that sometimes I was confused out there today."
He could afford to be generous. It was the Woverines, especially Schembechler, who seemed perplexed.
The single crucial and decisive play came with 11:21 remaining. That was when OSU's Jim Laughlin blocked the punt and Bell scooped up the loose ball and raced for the touchdown.
That crushing rush, with six Buckeyes inundating helpless Wolverine punter Bryan Virgil, transformed a 15-12 Michigan lead into the final score. Michigan touched the ball on only three more plays, as OSU, which had a 432-298 edge in yards gained, ran out the clock.
Nevertheless, that one thought -- blocked punt -- had been in the minds of both teams all week.
For a week, OSU studied films of the Wolverines' punting and drooled.
"Their kicking game is so lousy, no matter what part of it you look at, that we just couldn't believe it could be that bad," Laughlin said."We knew we'd block at least one."
"We're punting so bad it's pathetic," said Schembechler, who studied the same films and had bad dreams all week. "Our kicking game's killed us all year. If we had a decent one, we'd be undefeated."
And instead of being 8-3 and headed to the Gator Bowl to play North Carolina, Michigan might be heading for Pasadena.
"I don't know if it's bad selection of players, bad techniques or bad coaching," Schembechler said. "I haven't had a miserable kicking game in 20 years. To have this happen again (the fourth block in 1979) is ridiculous.
"If anybody wants someone to blame, it's me, it's me. I coach the whole damn team. It's my job not to have a glaring weakness like that."
He is, of course, correct. Schembechler never has given a scholarship to a punter or kicker. He takes whoever happens to come out for the team. Like many an old-school coach, he simply doesn't think of puny ball-booters in clean uniforms as real, honest Big Ten footballers.
That was just one Schembechler headache today. He decided last Sunday to start freshman quarterback Rich Hewlett instead of brilliant senior John Wangler, who had completed more than 60 percent of his passes with an average of almost 10 yards per pass.
"We wanted to run the option, not pass," Schembechler said. "I never lied. I just laughed when people asked who'd quarterback. I never outright said who it would or wouldn't be."
Ohio State should have thanked him. In 26 minutes, Hewlett produced no points, little movement and OSU led, 3-0, on a 23-yard field goal by Vlade Janakievski.
Wangler needed just two minutes in the game to hook up with 155-pound sprinter Anthony Carter for a 59-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
Ohio State answered the challenge as sophomore quarterback Art Schlicher worked a marvelous drill in the last 90 seconds of the half, driving 72 yards for a chip-shot field goal with eight before intermission, cutting the Michigan lead to 7-6.
No sooner had Schlichter, who completed 12 of 22 passes for 196 yards, hooked up with Chuck Hunter for an 18-yard deflected, finger-tip scoring pass for a 12-7 OSU lead, than Wangler and Carter were back at work.
This time, it was a 66-yard up-the-sideline fling that set up a one-yard Michigan scoring plunge by Roosevelt Smith. A two-point conversion run gave the Wolverines a 15-12 advantage with 3:58 left in the third quarter.
When Wangler ended up with 133 yards on just nine passes, Schembechler had egg on his face for not starting the man who probably is a better pure passer than the famous Schlichter. But Schembechler had other miseries.
Because he fears that his field goal kickers, who are three for 18, can miss from anywhere, Schembechler gambled on fourth and goal from the one-yard line in the first quarter.
Fierce Buckeye frosh Marcus Marek, who had a team-leading 11 tackles, blasted Hewlett for a three-yard loss on a weird-looking naked sprint-out to the left.
Michigan lived in such terror of its own kicking that it put in one trick play -- a pass by the punter that was supposed to be an instant "automatic" anytime OSU came with a 10-man rush.
Naturally, Michigan misread Ohio State's intentions when it tried the goofy play. Virgil, sensing a big rush, cocked his arm on a fourth down from his 36-yard line in the second quarter. Unforunately for him, OSU was bluffing. Virgil, with no receivers and no prospects, lobbed an incomplete pass to no one in particular. The throw would have been worthy of Garo Yepremian.
So, when Ohio State really had its smother-rush called on the punt block with the game in the balance in the fourth quarter, Michigan already had showed its hole card. OSU hadn't.
"We usually rush from the right," Bell said. "For Michigan, we used a new rush from the left side. No one touched at least two of us."
Laughlin, with Ben Lee on his heels, almost picked off the ball in midair before Virgil could kick it.
"The poor guy had no chance, no way," Laughline said.
By contrast, Ohio State's kicking was marvelous. Janakievski nailed two field goals, and Tom Orosz punted four boomers.
For OSU, essentially the same team that was 7-4-1 under the erratic Hayes last year, the dream of an improbable No. 1 ranking is still alive.
Frumpy Earle Bruce, the gentle man with the resourceful team, will look out of place in fashionable Southern California on New Year's Day. But, as Michigan can attest, his team will not.