It began two years ago, after his second open heart surgery, when Bo Schembechler finally realized that coaching football could not go on forever.
“What would you do if you had to give it up?” he was asked one day by his friend, Tigers President Jim Campbell.
“Well, Jim,” Schembechler said, grinning, “to tell the truth, I want your job.”
Campbell looked at him. “You are?”
He is. And today, it comes to pass. Schembechler, until his retirement last week the winningest active major college football coach in the country, will take leave of the university he has called home for the last 21 years, and step in as Campbell’s successor, the new president of the Tigers.
Let me predict the first of a million headlines: “Does Bo Know Baseball?”
He will. Although he would confirm but not officially comment Sunday, Schembechler told me last week at the Rose Bowl that he thought he could do the job. “It’s exciting, it’s sports. I want a challenge after coaching. . .
“It’s true, I’m not used to paying players $3 million a year. But I’ve been dealing with budgets, administrations, tickets, all that stuff for a long time at Michigan. That’s what a president does. . . .
“As for working for somebody else, well, I’ve had to answer to a ton of people at Michigan — the president, the faculty board, the administration. Hell, answering to just one guy (Tom Monaghan, the Tigers owner) would be easy after that.”
At the time, Schembechler spoke only under strict confidentiality, because he still had not made up his mind. He did not want to abruptly sever his ties with the university. And although the move was speculated on in this newspaper more than once, he refused to be quoted because it might distract from his team and the Rose Bowl.
But the morning after returning from California, he met with Michigan President James Duderstadt, and by Sunday, according to sources, the two had cemented this plan: Schembechler will take a “leave of absence” as athletic director of Michigan. Jack Weidenbach — who shared the job with Schembechler the past year and a half — will take over as “interim” AD.
If true, it’s a rather clever arrangement. Michigan can still call on Bo in certain situations. And — although I doubt anyone will admit it — the university gets to avoid a lot of red tape with search committees and interviews for a new AD. Sure, the fairer thing would be to open both the AD job and the Tigers presidency to all candidates. But that is not how the real world works. Michigan wants Weidenbach. Monaghan wants Schembechler. They get their men.
And the feisty, frumpy football coach who was once a talented high school pitcher, returns to the diamond.
Forty-three years later. Bo is adored, but . . . Now, it’s no secret that Bo is adored by thousands in this state. But is this a good move for him? I’m not sure. I have never been that crazy about Monaghan, his ways are a little bit odd, if you ask me, and while Bo insists “Tom is a good guy,” the thought of Schembechler having to answer to him for anything is a bit unsettling.
Nonetheless, you can’t begrudge a man’s wanting to work. Obviously, his background is in football, not baseball. But this much I have witnessed: When Bo sets his mind to do something, he gets it done. And he seems genuinely excited about the Tigers’ possibilities.
“I’ve been close with Jim, Sparky and Tom for a long time,” Schembechler said last week while mulling the position. “I wouldn’t even think about taking the job if I didn’t know I could work with them and be effective.”
Bo would love nothing better than to help turn the Tigers around, boost the sagging farm system, and restore a winning team to Detroit baseball. He believes — and so does Campbell — that he can learn the ropes of the presidency in a year, which is how much longer Campbell will stay on to advise him. Then, if all goes according to plan, Campbell, now 65, will retire or move upstairs in some capacity, leaving Schembechler in the office.
Question: What happens when a player goes into a slump?
Answer: That’s not Bo’s problem, it’s Sparky’s.
Question: What happens when another team wants to make a trade?
Answer: That’s not Bo’s problem, it’s Bill Lajoie’s.
Don’t be confused: Bo is not taking over the Tigers on the field. He won’t be pitching batting practice. He will handle the overall direction and finances of the team — as the chief representative of the owner. That’s the role of president.
Is he qualified for such a job? Sure. Good management is good management. Good people skills are good people skills. Bo has plenty of both. What do you think, the athletic program at Michigan ran by pushing a button?
And before people start screaming about Bo’s lack of a professional baseball background, let’s look around the country. While a few American League clubs, such as Cleveland and Kansas City, have former baseball men as presidents, most do not.
The president of the Yankees, when last season began, was someone named Michael Luczkovich. The president of the Texas Rangers is Michael Stone, a former business executive and right-hand man of the owner. The president of the Toronto Blue Jays is Paul Besston, a former accountant. The president of the Chicago White Sox is Eddie Einhorn, a cable TV mogul.
Some clubs don’t even have presidents. The owners handle all business affairs; the general managers handle all the baseball.
The biggest prerequisite for the job of president is a solid working relationship with the owner. And on that, Schembechler is secure. Monaghan is crazy about him. He has lent him his private plane for use in Michigan business. He gave Schembechler a Domino’s franchise back in 1982.
“I wouldn’t take the job if if didn’t get along with him, obviously,” Bo said. A marquee name for Tigers So, really now, what does all this mean? It means the Tigers have a marquee name in their front office, a positive image, which can only help, considering the sinking reputation of the current regime.
It means a few good Bo quotes during the summer, instead of the fall.
It means, perhaps, a greater intensity in the front office, once Bo learns the ropes.
And it means — and I wonder how much people are considering this — that a man this state has adored, admired and celebrated for three decades gets to continue his life in a productive fashion, instead of retiring to a shuffleboard court.
As for Michigan? It means the athletic program will be in the hands of Weidenbach alone, instead of his and Bo’s. While the latter would be better, anyone who knows Bo knows he couldn’t stay at U-M and not coach. “I’d be like a caged lion,” he admitted before leaving Pasadena.
Yes, the Tigers job is an office job, much like the athletic director position. But 1) There are no university presidents to answer to in baseball
(remember the Penn State deal?) and 2) Bo won’t be a hindrance to Sparky Anderson the way he might be to Gary Moeller.
So a new era begins, both in Ann Arbor and Tiger Stadium.
“You know,” Bo said last week, “I might be different than a lot of other baseball presidents.”
Why not? He was different than most coaches, too.