This is the third of five excerpts from “Bo,” by Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler and Free Press columnist Mitch Albom. Today’s excerpt deals with Bo’s favorite players.
I knew he was special the first time I saw him. We were working on deep fly routes.
“Are you watching this kid?” I whispered to Gary Moeller.
“Yeah,” he said, “he’s so fast, he’s coming back for the ball!”
The kid, of course, was Anthony Carter. And while it’s not really fair for a coach to pick his best-ever players, Carter is the one exception I make. He was the best receiver I ever had and the most exciting player I ever coached. There were times when I stood there on the sidelines, watching him dart past two or three defenders, and I tell you, all I could do was smile. That wasn’t coaching, folks. That was pure talent.
Anthony played for Michigan from 1979 to 1982, and he would help us win some big games before he left — including my first successful Rose Bowl. But when he first arrived, a shy, skinny kid, my biggest problem was keeping him on the team. Most people don’t know this, but Anthony quit Michigan for a few days during his freshman season. He wasn’t happy — I think he was a little homesick — and he decided to go back to Florida. And he was leaving his room with a suitcase, his roommate, Nate Davis, saw him.
“Where are you going?” Davis asked.
“Oh, ah, I’m switching rooms,” Anthony said.
We had practice that afternoon and, of course, Anthony didn’t show.
“Where is he?” I asked my assistants. By this point, word had begun to spread.
“Coach,” they said, “we think he’s headed home.”
I grabbed Bob Thornbladh, the receivers coach, and Mike Gittleson, the strength coach. “Now you listen to me! You two get down to that airport and you check every flight that’s going to Miami! You find Anthony and you bring him back here immediately, you got it?”
They took off. We went into meetings. Around 7 p.m. I got a phone call. It was Thornbladh. “Bo,” he said, “I’ve checked every flight. He wasn’t on any of them. There’s one flight left tonight and I’m standing right across from the gate so there’s no way he can get on without me — “
“What? What’s going on?” I yelled.
“Oh my god, Bo, here he comes!”
“Now you get him! You do not let him get on that plane, you understand me? You tell him I want to talk to him immediately!”
There was a long silence. I heard rustling sounds and distant conversation. Then I heard Anthony, in that high, squeaky voice.
“Anthony,” I said. “What’s going on? You weren’t going to go home without talking to me, were you?”
“Oh, no, Coach. I was gonna talk to you.”
“Well, you get back here and we’ll sit down and talk.”
“I’ll talk to you. I promise that.”
“All right. We’ll get this straightened out, whatever’s bothering you.”
“Yeah, Coach. I won’t do anything before talking to you.”
“OK, then. I’ll see you soon.”
Two hours passed. Finally, the door opened and in came Thornbladh with his shirt hanging out. No Anthony.
“What the hell happened?” I said.
“Bo,” he said, “he hung up that phone and ran right onto that airplane.”
Why, that little devil. He said he would talk to me.
He just didn’t say when.
Needless to say, we got Anthony back, I talked with his mother every day during his “hiatus” — which lasted only a few days, once he saw his old friends still doing the same old things on the streets — and pretty soon he returned to our lineup and was catching everything in sight. Man, I loved to watch him do that.
I’m not surprised that Anthony has become such a big star in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings. I had no doubt he would be a great professional player. I felt the same way about Dan Dierdorf back in 1970 — long before he went on to star with the St. Louis Cardinals and became famous as analyst on ABC’s
“Monday Night Football.”
Dierdorf was a beauty. Hell of a lineman. I told him even before he was drafted, “Dan, you are the best run blocker in the NFL right now.”
“But Coach, I’m still in college.”
“I know. Doesn’t matter. You’re already the best.” And I was right. He was
smart, had great technique, and when he got jacked up, look out. The holes would be big enough for a moving van.
Dan had one of those baby faces atop a mammoth body. In his senior season, 1970, I assigned target weights to everyone. I liked smallish, linebacker types. And, of course, Dan was built like a truck.
“I want you at 245 pounds,” I told him.
He looked at me and swallowed. “Did you say . . . 245?”
You’ve got to understand, Dan weighed 250 as a sophomore in high school. He had to kill himself to make that weight. Starvation. Exercise. Finally, the weigh-in came. He tipped the scales, nearly dehydrated, at 243.
“Nice going, Dan,” I said to him. “Now, would you do me a favor? Would you go down to 239 so I won’t have a player who weighs over 240 on my team?”
Well. I might as well have whacked him with a sledgehammer. He looked like he was about to faint. Of course, I knew as soon as practice was over, Dierdorf would be out eating six hamburgers and drinking a beer.
I was just thinking ahead.
While he was still reeling from the request, I decided to make all my players run the mile. Midway through, Dierdorf started to wobble. He looked like a building about to topple over. Finally, he flat-out stopped in the middle of the track.
“WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU!” I hollered.
He just stood there.
“HOW CAN YOU QUIT?”
He just stood there.
“YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE A LEADER OF THIS TEAM!”
He just stood there. Little did I know that he stopped because he thought he was going to pass out.
“FROM NOW ON, DIERDORF, YOU RUN A MILE EVERY MORNING AT 6 A.M.!”
And I left him there, woozy and weak.
Dan ran that mile. Every morning at 6. Actually, I think he just jogged a few laps, waited for the coaches to leave, then quit. He was always pretty clever. But you know what? As soon as that first practice was over, he went straight downtown and ate enough hamburgers for an entire fraternity — and by the next day, he weighed 257.
Still, the guy who wins the prize for ultimate Michigan character was a running back named Preston Henry. He was a classic. I did not recruit him. He was there when I arrived. A decent player, extremely bright, good-looking, charismatic — and one of the biggest con artists on campus.
He played for me in the 1969 season. The following summer, I got a report saying that Preston was ineligible. Rather than going through the ordeal of trying to explain it to him — because I knew he’s try to con me — I wrote him a letter: “Preston, as you know, you are 32 honor points below a ‘C’ average, and since this is already the summer months, it’s impossible for you to make up this work. I want you to know you will not be invited back for football in the fall.”
Two days later, guess who’s in my office? Preston Henry. Looking sharp. Dressed nicely. He said, “Coach, I know exactly how you feel and I can understand it. But these grades are wrong. Give me until 5 o’clock today. I promise you, I can get notes from every one of the professors. I can get this done. Please. Just give me until 5 o’clock.”
Well. I figured this is impossible. But he raced around campus all day, and at 5 o’clock, this man came in and slapped down signed statements from professors that made up 32 honor points. If that ain’t some kind of collegiate record, I don’t know what is.
So Preston was eligible. He played the next year. Had one great game against Washington, where he almost single-handedly beat them, ran for well over 100 yards. And eventually, he finished up — which was none too soon for me.
But here’s the kicker. A year or two later, when he was done with football, he was brought before an Ann Arbor judge for writing bad checks. The judge gave him the proper lecture. Then he said, “Mr. Henry, you must pay a
Preston said, “Sir, can I write a check? Believe me, I have the money.”
The judge said, “No, they will not accept a check, Mr. Henry. Cash only.”
“Well, could I write them a check and have them cash it?”
“No, Mr. Henry. You must have cash or you go to jail.”
“Sir,” Preston said. “Could I write you a check and you give me the money so that I can get out of here? Believe me, sir, you know I would never do anything bad to a judge.”
The judge stared at him. Only Preston would have the gall to try something like that — and the charisma to make it work.
“Well, this is highly unusual,” the judge finally said. “I’ve never done this before as long as I’ve been on the bench. But, all right. I will consent.”
So Preston wrote him a check and he gave him the money, and Preston went free.
And the judge proceeded to cash the check.
And it bounced.
The judge called Don Canham, our athletic director, and he couldn’t help but laugh: “Preston Henry,” he said, “has done it again!” CUTLINE Bo Schembechler embraces Anthony Carter after the Wolverines won the 1981 Rose Bowl: “He was the best reciever I ever had and the most exciting player I ever coached.”