COLUMBUS, OHIO -- In the last week, Earle Bruce and Rick Bay, heretofore two regular guys, have gone from often criticized to sympathetic figures to legendary status to candidates for sainthood. All for saying, "Goodbye, Columbus."

Bruce, the recent Ohio State University football coach, and Bay, OSU's recent athletic director, are the main actors in a drama that began the day in 1979 when Bruce replaced the irreplaceable Woody Hayes and continued through his firing last week by university president Edward Jennings.

It involves a figure, Bruce, who was at times unappealing and unattractive to some fans; gruff with the media and short with alumni; a man who some felt spent too much time at the race track and not enough time on civic activities; a coach who didn't fit the bigger-than-life, Hayes-style image of what a coach should be at a giant institution that considers itself among the best of the best.

It also involves Bay, who quit as athletic director in protest of Bruce's firing the day the dismissal became public.

"I'm a professional. I love football coaching and I'm going to stay in, somewhere, some way," Bruce said Saturday after his Buckeyes beat Michigan, 23-20, in an emotional game in Ann Arbor. "The ultimate responsibility {for his ouster} goes to the president and the Board of Trustees, but I don't think they're the ones who fired me."

He wouldn't specify who did, but he holds Jennings responsible in his $7.5 million lawsuit against Jennings and the university, filed Friday in Columbus' Franklin County Court of Claims. The suit charges that Jennings embarked in a smear campaign against Bruce a year ago.

"The lessons you learn on the football field come back," Bruce said. "When you get knocked down on the field, you don't stay down. You don't quit. If you hit me hard, I'll hit you back."

"He {Jennings} is appointed, among other things, to make difficult judgment calls," said John C. Elam, the attorney to whom Jennings has deferred all questions. "It was in no way, as some have recently suggested, a personal vendetta. Two, he did it after extensive consultation."

Jennings has not specified his reasons for the dismissal, calling it a "personnel matter," although he did acknowledge that Bruce's won-lost record (81-26-1, four Big Ten championships outright or shared) was not the reason he was fired.

"Coach Bruce was terminated pursuant to his contract, after consultation with the Board if Trustees," Elam said.

As for how the matter was handled, Jennings blames Bay for not holding the announcement of Bruce's firing until after the Michigan game, as originally planned. Bay said "the wrong message about Ohio State" was sent to the country when he announced the firing Nov. 16. Then he quit.

"Some crises are so severe that if you're going to take exception with the administration, you do that and you step aside," Bay said in a telephone interview this week. "I've been able to stand on principle many times and not lose my job. In this case, it was a serious matter, one that has gotten a great deal of publicity."Bruce: 'I Am Not a Political Man'

Bay said Bruce may not have met "the physical image" people in Columbus expected of their coach. "Whether he was not glib, whether he was not charismatic, whether he liked to bet on the horses, I don't know," Bay said.

There were "mitigating factors to where the coach was not popular in some circles," Bay said. "{Jennings} said to me that the coach was just too damned unpopular and that he was pressured to make the change," Bay said.

"I told {Jennings} that aside from a few powerful businessmen in Columbus, nobody would understand what we were doing at Ohio State. It would be a public relations nightmare."

Bruce apparently rubbed several alumni and contributors to the university the wrong way with his lack of charisma and the way he dealt with the media. His television show was canceled in 1983; Bruce said it was over money, the president of the station said it was because of Bruce's "disregard for the company and the people who work here."

"I am not a political man," Bruce said Saturday, "I am a football coach."

Some alumni did not like Bruce's frequent trips to local race tracks, especially in the light of his former quarterback Art Schlichter's gambling problems. Schlichter was suspended for one year from the National Football League for expensive gambling on sports events.

"I have no apologies for going to the race track," said Bruce, pointing out that Jennings had attended the Kentucky Derby. "Other people go to the race track. I'm not a big gambler. I'm not a big bettor, but I like to see the horses run.

"I know they've attacked me for Art Schlichter. I've never come to the race track with Art Schlichter, ever. I've said so . . . whoever made the accusations better have a good life, too."

Bruce also angered locals with his handling of the Cris Carter situation. The Buckeyes' all-America wide receiver and a certain first-round draft pick in next season's NFL draft, Carter was ruled ineligible for his senior season by the NCAA after he accepted money from agents.

Bruce originally backed the suspension, then changed his mind and tried to persuade Bay to appeal to the NCAA for Carter's reinstatement. Bay refused, and Carter was drafted in the fourth round of a special supplemental draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. The switch angered many who felt the university, on principle, should never have asked for Carter back.

"I wanted to hit {Bay} when the Cris Carter incident happened," Bruce said, "but he was right."

Yet none of these incidents pushed Bruce out until he dropped three consecutive Big Ten games by a combined 10 points and the Buckeyes fell to fifth place. "They were never enough until he lost four games," Bay said. "What we seem to be saying is, all your faults are not glaring enough until you lose."

Most of the publicity has been bad, which has hurt this extremely proud university. The criticism has made Bruce appear a victim of all that is wrong in collegiate athletics. His coaching brethren have ripped the university for its handling of the situation.

And Bay? "Bay comes out as Lancelot in this whole thing," said Bob Trumpy, the former Cincinnati Bengals tight end now a network football broadcaster and host of a nightly call-in show in Cincinnati.

"My mail is really to the point where it's a little scary. I can't live up to these letters," Bay said. "It's a little easier to be noble when you're 45 years old and have a wife and no kids, and are somewhat mobile. I don't know if I were 55 years old, and cruising toward retirement, whether I would have done this." Bruce is past 55.

Bay is uncertain about his future; he has been mentioned as a leading contender to succeed Don Canham as athletic director at Michigan, Bay's alma mater. Bruce, whose lawsuit does not seek his reinstatement at OSU, is in contention for the coaching job at Kansas if he wants it. Ohio State wants a new coach by Jan. 1, and James Jones, the veteran OSU athletic department staffer who succeeded Bay, is preparing a list of names.

Despite Saturday's rally to victory, a 6-4-1 season provided what one trustee called a "window of opportunity" to let Bruce go. Various members of the nine-person OSU Board of Trustees, who have backed Jennings' decision to fire Bruce, have said they were under constant pressure from fans and alumni.

"Friend upon friend, or call upon call, it was, 'When are you going to do something about this?,' " trustee John J. Barone told the Columbus Dispatch. "Of course, losing those ball games, it's understandable."

Richard J. Denman Sr., a member of the exclusive OSU President's Cabinet -- each member pledges $1 million to the university -- told the Dispatch Sunday that he was disappointed in Bruce's performance.

"I saw the tradition built by Woody Hayes, and I see that lacking in Bruce," he said. Hayes, finally terminated as coach after hitting a Clemson player during a Gator Bowl game, never lost his stature, or his campus office, until his death this March.

"I'd rather have fans who want us to win. I want them interested," said Jones, the new athletic director. "Do you have to beat Michigan every year? No, but you can't lose to them every year."

Elam said the decision was not arrived at quickly. "While Rick Bay did not agree with the final contention," he said, "it was my understanding that over a significant period of time, certainly months, the president had discussed the matter with the athletic director and had informal discussions with the Board of Trustees."

To Bruce's players, loyal to him to a man, the decision was confusing. "Life is very unfair," said junior split end Everett Ross. "I feel what happened to Coach Bruce doesn't make any sense. He had a contract. It's really hard to respect somebody who breaks a contract."The Critical Fifth Paragraph

But the university acted within the contract in firing Bruce. Paragraph four of Bruce's contract provides the university with four conditions under which it could dismiss him and not pay the balance of his contract: violation of the law by Bruce, knowledge of such by a member of his coaching staff, refusal to work or inavailability to work. None of these conditions applied, Elam said.

The fifth paragraph was operative. It stated that if Bruce should be terminated for another reason or no reason, he would be paid for the balance of his contract. Bruce was in the second year of a three-year pact.

Jennings had said he offered to see Bruce and explain; Bruce claimed he was never given a chance to hear the specifics. "{Jennings} told athletic director Bay, who had wanted to inform Bruce, that he, Jennings, would be pleased to meet with Coach Bruce to discuss the entire situation," Elam said. "And Coach Bruce declined to. That is as explicit in detail as I can go."

After Bruce was fired, the Dispatch, the powerful Columbus newspaper, said Bruce "failed to appreciate the university's goals or to realize what the university expected of him . . . failed to engender good will for the institution . . . failed to subjugate his personal interests to those of the university."

Some people responded in Bruce's favor.

Calls on Trumpy's program have run nine to one against the dismissal. "Which is strange," Trumpy said, "because if you're up around Columbus, you can't find anybody who said anything nice about Earle Bruce."

The school newspaper, the Lantern, deemed the firing "pathetic." Members of OSU's fraternity community, led by Kappa Sigma president Gary Price, staged a "No Earle, No Class" rally on the Kappa Sigma lawn.

"You're certainly not going to get {criticism of Bruce} from me," said Richard Smith, president of the 3,000-member Boosters. "I certainly can't concur with this feeling. I felt he was a fine gentleman, a credit to the community. I know of a lot of civic work he was involved in."

A fan wrote Jennings, "You have besmirched the name of this great institution by engaging in an act of cowardice and contempt. You, sir, and the Board of Trustees are a rotting cadaver in the fields of education and sport."

They were too late to protect Bruce when he needed protecting. "The litany was, '9-3 was too repetitious,' " Trumpy said. "The fact that he lost two Rose Bowl games. I said that was the rule rather than the exception for Big Ten teams. And the fact that he didn't look as good as {Illinois coach} Mike White on the sideline."