I was getting ready to write the latest installment in the
epic battle between the Ann Arbor News and the Columbus Dispatch when I saw the
news that Bo Schembechler had passed away late this morning.
There will be obituaries in every media outlet, so I'll dispense with that, and just share a few thoughts about Schembechler as a Michigan fan.
For reasons I still don't quite understand, I started rooting for Michigan when I was ten years old in the mid-1970s. No family member before me ever went there, there was no connection to the state, and I grew up in New York City. But, as a kid, I remember Rick Leach, I remember Michigan running the ball down opponents' throats, I remember losing the Rose Bowl to Warren Moon and an underdog Washington Huskies team and I remember Bo's perpetual scowl. And I loved the Maize and Blue.
I was in college in the mid 1980s, and my first year at Michigan, 1984, was a disaster for the team, the worst year of Bo's coaching career. That season began with an upset victory at home against Bernie Kosar and defending national champion Miami (if memory serves, the Wolverines coralled seven interceptions that day). We all expected great things, and then the season fell apart. By mid-season, sophomore quarterback Jim Harbaugh was gone with a separated shoulder and guys with names like Zurbrugg were quarterbacking the team. We staggered into the Holiday Bowl at 6-5 to play BYU and Michigan fans watched as BYU QB Robbie Bosco limped around on one leg while leading the Cougars on a late game-winning touchdown drive, ending our season at 6-6. (As an aside, whatever complaints I have about the BCS, and I have plenty, I have no nostalgia for the pre-BCS system. That the 6-5 Wolverines, essentially playing without a functioning quarterback, were the opponent BYU had to beat to win the national championship that season was an embarrassment for the sport).
That was a depressing initiation to life on campus as a Michigan football fan. We all thought Bo was too conservative, too set in his ways, too unwilling to air the ball out during an era when college teams were beginning, en masse, to rely heavily on that novel invention - the forward pass. (and that was a great era for Big Ten quarterbacks, including Jim Everett at Purdue, Chuck Long at Iowa and Harbaugh at Michigan).
Expectations for the 1985 season, not unlike 2006, were relatively low. But, a funny thing happened in 1985. Not only was the defense impenetrable, but with a healthy Harbaugh back under center, Bo began to air it out. I'll never forget the absolute shock of watching an early season game that year when Harbaugh, already protecting a lead, play actioned on third and short into a deep pass to his 6' 8" target Paul Jokisch. Michigan still relied heavily on the run (that's mandated by the school's founding charter back in 1817), but with Jokisch and future Bengals tight end Eric Kattus to throw to, Harbaugh had a great season, leading the nation in passing efficiency. Only a brutal last second loss to then No. 1 ranked Iowa in Iowa, and a freakish tie against Illinois blemished Michigan's season. And, in another pattern-breaking event, Michigan met Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl (the first year that game featured two prominent teams) and did what Bo teams seemed never to do - outplay a top opponent in a bowl game. Michigan finished the season ranked No. 2 in the country but, more than that, cemented Bo's legend in my and my friends' minds. His ability to change, to adjust to the new realities of the game (to a point) was as memorable as anything about that great season.
Bo actually won three of his last five bowl games, including the 1989 Rose Bowl following the 1988 season. But, it's one of the great ironies of Bo's career that he played a pivotal role in bringing a national championship to the University in basketball, something he never accomplished in football. Bo, of course, had become the athletic director at that time, and just prior to the 1989 NCAA tournament, head coach Bill Frieder announced that he had accepted a job to coach Arizona State. Frieder’s Michigan teams in the mid to late 1980s were loaded with talent, and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed in 1985 and 1986. But, despite having a slew of future first round picks on the squad, only the 1988 team managed to get out of the second round (losing to UNC in the sweet sixteen). Partly because of the criticism about their underachievement, the eccentric Frieder decided he’d had enough. Frieder announced that he would coach the team through the tournament that year, but Bo had had enough, too. When I think about all the glorious moments of the 1989 run to the national championship – the endless rain of Glenn Rice three-pointers, the championship clinching free throws by Rumeal Robinson, the relentless rebounding of Loy Vaught – I can still hear most vividly the founding event of that run. The day before the tournament, with the team on its way to Atlanta for its first round game, Bo growled that Bill Frieder would not be coaching the team during the tournament because only “a Michigan man” would coach the team. That meant Frieder’s long-time assistant, Steve Fisher. And the rest…
Bo’s autobiography, appropriately named Bo, is not a literary classic. But, I read it faithfully during my first year in graduate school, shortly after Bo stepped down as head football coach. It contained a few gems, including a moving account of Bo’s relationship with his mentor Woody Hayes and his horror at watching the punch that ended Hayes’ career. It also contained a brutally honest discussion of how much Bo hated recruiting, the thing he said he’d miss the least. And, it included one hilarious story of an ill-fated effort at bringing a top player to Ann Arbor.
Many of you will recall that Rick Mirer was to be, at one time, the next great Notre Dame quarterback (remember Ron Powlus). Bo tells the story of having visited Mirer’s home to try to recruit him. It was a Monday night, in the Fall of 1988 and Mirer wanted to watch Monday Night Football. This was exactly the kind of crap that Bo hated – sitting around watching football with a kid because he’s trying to suck up to him. The Bears were playing that night, and Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback. At that time, Dan Dierdorf was doing color commentary and Dierdorf was, of course, one of the great lineman to play for Bo when Bo first took over the team in the late 1960s. At one point during the game, ABC flashed on the screen text noting that no Michigan quarterback had ever thrown a touchdown pass in the NFL. (Needless to say, Michigan quarterbacks have done a WHOLE lot better in the NFL since then). Dierdorf started mocking Bo mercilessly for that fact and Bo describes Mirer turning to Bo and saying, “is that true?” And, Bo, already knowing he’s lost any shot at bringing Mirer to Ann Arbor, says “kid, you’re gonna change all that.” Bo’s next thought: “I’m gonna kill Dierdorf.”
It’s always strange to feel like you have a relationship with people you don’t actually know. But, in some sense, I grew up with Bo and I have memories of him that have personal meaning. I didn’t like his politics, I am not sure that he was a nice guy, and his coaching often drove me up the wall. But, I’ll remember him fondly.