by | Nov 18, 2006 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The biggest game doesn’t seem so big anymore, because the biggest man in the history of Michigan football won’t be watching it.

Bo Schembechler is dead. I never wanted to write that sentence. They’ve asked me to construct his obituary and I don’t want the job, because I don’t want to fashion a world that doesn’t have Bo in it. He used to joke with me that he was an accident, because he was born in 1929, the year of the Great Depression, and “anyone who wants a baby in 1929 is crazy.”

But he wasn’t an accident. If ever a man seemed destined to be in a certain place at a certain time, it was Bo Schembechler prowling the sidelines of a Michigan football game on Saturday afternoons. He seems permanently painted into that picture – and while the players are bigger and stronger, he is always the largest thing in the frame. Bo could cast a shadow in rainstorm. His voice could be heard on the moon. It is being heard today, in the heads and hearts of the thousands of men who are balding, overweight, nursing sore backs and knees, but who still can hear their old coach’s shrill but powerful urgings, telling them to block harder, to tackle harder, to do things “the Michigan way” and good things will happen.

“We are heartbroken,” said Dan Dierdorf, one of the more famous of those former players, talking Friday night on a cell phone in a parking lot a short distance from Bo’s home, where he was going to do something he never wanted to do: pay a condolence call.

Dierdorf, like anyone who ever played for Bo, knows the old man’s voice will never be silenced. And yet the man himself is gone, done in by the very organ that truly defined him: his heart.

It was tragic and sudden and awful and shocking, and it was exactly the way we knew it would happen. Bo told me once, “I will die one day from a bad heart.”

As usual, the old man was right. We should have seen it coming. Thirty-seven years ago, he was walking up a hill in Pasadena, Calif., alone, in the dark, and he felt a stabbing pain and he grabbed a tree to hold himself up. He was only 40 then, but that incident – the night before his first Rose Bowl – was his first heart attack. Friday’s incident, when he was 77 – the day before the biggest Michigan-Ohio State game ever – was his last.

In between there were too many surgeries, procedures, EKGs, a pacemaker, too many scary rushes to the hospital with everyone thinking “Is this it?” But Bo came back from them all. Sooner or later, there he was, Michigan’s Lazarus, in a natty sports coat with a maize-and-blue tie, and he’d be barking his same old bark and telling people he was a medical miracle, and, well, after awhile, you just figured he could straight-arm anything, even mortality.

But if death doesn’t get you at the shoulders it will get you at the knees, if not by the front, then from behind. And so, during a taping Friday morning of his weekly television show on Channel 7, doing the thing he liked second-best, talking about football – coaching it always would be No. 1 – death tried blindsiding Bo once more.

And this time, the only time, it took him down.

His first glimpse of Michigan

I likely will fail at this assignment, because I cannot focus on what posterity should know about this man. You start with facts about Bo Schembechler but you quickly drift to anecdotes. It can’t be helped. Bo made memories even better than he made history.

I can tell you that he was born in the small town of Barberton, Ohio, the son of a fireman, and that long after he’d left he still could name you every factory in that town. I can tell you that he had two older sisters who teased him constantly and a mother he adored and who could match him stubborn for stubborn. I can tell you that his father once had a chance to get a cheater’s advance copy of a civil service exam but he refused, and he finished one point behind a guy who cheated, and he didn’t get the job he wanted. Bo said that night taught him more about integrity than anything ever would.

I can tell you that Bo, growing up, was an excellent athlete. I can tell you that the first time he set eyes on a Michigan football field was as a senior in high school, on his way home from a family vacation. They drove through Ann Arbor and the Wolverines, by luck, were practicing. Bo and his father approached to take a peek. Not wanting to be noticed, they watched from near a field that was then open space.

Today there is a building on that field.

It’s called Schembechler Hall.

You realize, by that geography, that while Bo played for Miami (Ohio) and coached several other places (including Ohio State) he was, and will always be, all over Michigan football. Everything you see now has ties to him. The head coach, Lloyd Carr, worked under Bo, and the coach before Carr, Gary Moeller, worked under Bo. The radio announcer, Jim Brandstatter, played under Bo, and as he gets older he sounds more and more like Bo.

Brandstatter was one of those guys from Bo’s first U-M team, the 1969 team that put him on the map – guys such as Dierdorf, Jim Mandich, Garvie Craw, Don Moorhead, Billy Taylor – his first team, his most beloved team, the one that shocked the nation in upsetting Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes, then ranked No. 1.

It has been 37 years since that game, and yet those players still can tell you every moment of it, every play, every exuberant shout, how in the locker room at halftime they knew they were living through a historic moment. Bo was their drill sergeant, their tormentor, their teacher and their father figure. He has been the glue that has held them together all these years, the catalyst for their conversations -“Hey, remember when the old man whacked that yardstick through Brandstatter’s legs?”- and they always spoke about him with love, laughs and reverence.

Today they will be speaking through tears. Many will no doubt see each other again the way too many of us see our old friends again: at a funeral. And they likely will be saying what the voice in my head, maybe your head, too, is saying now: Bo cannot be dead. I refuse to believe it.

He was there for too many of them. He came to their golf tournaments, he stood up in their weddings, he spoke to their sons, he visited them in hospitals. Once, he even walked a former player who ran afoul of the law virtually to the prison door, urging him to stay strong and remember who he was. If you played for Bo, you were granted permission to a special club; you were always one of his boys. Bo had a sign above the locker room door his first grueling season at Michigan: “Those who stay will be champions.”

He could have written underneath it, “… and will always be welcome here.”

A visit with royalty

What else can I write? Did you know Bo met Elvis once? It’s true. He was in Las Vegas and somehow, after the show, he ended up backstage with the King. Bo didn’t really know what to say, so he paid the singer a compliment on his jumpsuits and next thing he knew, he was back in a private closet with Elvis showing him his collection of rhinestone-covered costumes. He told Bo how much they cost, and that he never wore them more than once and then they were shipped to some museum. There was, Bo recalled, an awkward pause, just the two of them, alone with those jumpsuits, and then they came back and joined the crowd.

Years later, I asked Bo what he thought of that encounter

“I thought, ‘I don’t want to be him,’ ” Bo said.

He wasn’t. Bo was the King around here, but not in private counsel with secret dressing rooms. He was out among the people, everywhere, at banquets, at charity functions, slapping backs, punching arms, bounding through the press box. Bo genuinely liked people, interesting people – in later years he even mellowed with sportswriters – and he could just as easily strike up a conversation with a janitor as he could with a president of the United States. And he did. Bo knew Gerald Ford, George Bush, Bo Derek and the guy next door. He embodied that Rudyard Kipling poem that celebrates a man who “can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch.”

He was a great storyteller, you hung on his words, and he was one of the funniest men you would ever meet. He loved to laugh at himself, and he used his hands to communicate, pounding on tabletops, poking fingers in chests. I once sat next to him at a basketball game and my arm was black and blue from all the times he slapped me when he got worked up. He used phrases like “dad gum” and “by god” and “now you listen to me …” It is the mark of his combustive personality that he is remembered today by a sentence he bellowed at a news conference: “A Michigan man will coach Michigan.”

You had no doubt that a Michigan man was saying it.

A decade versus Woody

He won more football games than any coach in his school’s history and his teams won or shared the Big Ten title 13 times in his 21 seasons. He held a small edge in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry – 11-9-1 – and a one-game edge over Woody Hayes in their 10-year war – 5-4-1. His relationship with that irascible coach was as deep and as complex as any in sports. Bo played for Woody, he worked for Woody and he was ultimately burdened with trying to defeat Woody. It was the son battling the father. The student battling the teacher. Yet for all their fierce battles, their traded tantrums, the most emotional moment came years later, in 1987, when Hayes was long retired.

There was banquet for Bo in Dayton, Ohio. Hayes, despite failing health, insisted on coming to introduce Bo. He was using a wheelchair at this point, but he spoke for 15 or 20 minutes, fond memories, compliments, the kind of thing a friend does for a friend.

The next night he died.

And just as Bo was forever shaped by Woody, so have all the coaches and players who labored for Bo been shaped by him. They have spread out over the land, become pro athletes, lawyers, doctors, some have taken head coaching jobs and come back to combat Michigan. But they remain a unique fraternity, ribbons around the maypole of Bo Schembechler.

Bo was passionate about what he did. “Some of the finest people I know are football coaches,” he once told me. “They’re smart. They’re tough. Good thinkers. Hard workers. When I say I’m a football coach, I’m damn proud of the fact that I’m a football coach.”

His later careers – athletic director, Tigers team president, TV analyst – were all well and good, he made some nice contributions, but you always knew they were things that he did because he couldn’t do what he really loved to do anymore. He told me several times that had he had it to do over again, he would not have retired when he did in 1989.

Then again, Bo never really retired. He kept an office at U-M, close enough to chitchat with any coach or player if he wanted. He served as the elder statesman, the grandfather at the table, Don Corleone sitting in a side chair after he’d turned the business over to his son Michael.

“A guy from Michigan State once told me Bo’s still coaching there,” Dierdorf recalled. “They just use a different name: ‘Bo-Mo-Carr.’ “

There is some truth in that. Bo is the cloak from which the cloth is spun. And it is impossible to imagine what today in Columbus, Ohio, will be like for Carr, who has to guide his young players through one of the biggest games in Big Ten history, while everywhere he looks he hears and sees his old boss and friend.

“Michigan-Ohio State tomorrow,” Dierdorf correctly said Friday, “will just be the football game that was played the day after Bo died.”

I can tell you he loved his wives. Millie was his partner on the way up, gave him a home, a family, three adopted sons and one more they conceived together. After she died, Bo might never have married again, had he not found Cathy, a perfect partner for his later years, a loving, supportive woman whose strong will probably kept Bo alive years longer than he would have done on his own.

He is survived by Cathy and his sons, the ones who share his name and the thousands more who do not, the ones who wore Michigan helmets and have no blood ties, unless you count bleeding maize and blue a family trait. They all remember him, and if you live on through memories, then Bo is far from dead, he will not be dead for generations.

Maybe I can best end this rambling remembrance with a personal account. Bo and I spent more than a year together writing his autobiography. During that time, by his admission, I spent more time with him “than my wife!” (He usually added a few expletives after that.)

It was a whale of a time. We talked, we argued, we reminisced, we argued, we talked and talked some more. We took planes and cars, we sat in offices and in locker rooms. We ate. He loved to eat. One time, en route to a banquet at the Naval Academy in Maryland, he spotted a Fuddruckers hamburger joint. He loved those places and he gave a forlorn look. I told him he couldn’t eat a hamburger because he had a big steak banquet coming up.

But I, on the other hand, was going.

“You dawg!” he exclaimed.

And, of course, he went with me. And he ate a hamburger – no pun intended – with more relish than I have ever seen a man eat one. He was like a kid getting away with playing hookey. He told me that was the “most outstanding idea” that I had ever had.

Why can I still remember that moment almost 20 years later? Because Bo filled the most normal moments with a sky’s worth of wonderful, boisterous air.

Today they are saying “it was his time.” But I disagree. Friday morning in a hospital was not his time. His time was Saturday afternoons from September to November, his time was on the field, making memories, his time was chomping on a hamburger, his time was looking up from his desk and seeing an old player pop his head in, accomplished, proud, a man.

His time was the time he lived, not the moment he died. When we finished our book together, the publisher asked if there were any dedications or thank-yous we wanted to insert. I listed dozens of Bo’s relatives, friends and former players. Bo only wanted to put in one sentence. He wrote “I want to personally thank Mitch Albom. The poor son of a bitch had no idea what he was getting into.”

He was right, but not because it was worse than I thought, because it was better. A million times better. My days with Bo, like so many others days with Bo, were a carpet ride with a sultan, a balcony address to a cheering crowd, a sidecar on a speeding bike through glorious, chilly football afternoons.

There was a time around here when they chanted, “Bo is God! Bo is God!” He wasn’t of course, but now that he’s gone, everywhere you turn you hear their names in the same sentence. He will be missed. God, how Bo will be missed.

“A guy from Michigan State once told me Bo’s still coaching there.

They just use a different name: ‘Bo-Mo-Carr.’ “Dan DIERDORF, former Michigan offensive lineman and Pro Football Hall of Famer

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.


Michigan athletic director Bill Martin said Friday night that a public memorial service for Bo Schembechler would be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Michigan Stadium. Private services had not been announced. Schembechler is survived by his wife, Cathy, and sons Geoffrey, Matthew and Glenn E. III (Shemy). His former wife, Millie, died in 1992; another son, Donald (Chip) Schembechler, died in 2003.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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