ATLANTA — The Michigan game was just minutes away. He was psyched, he was pumped, he was ready to go charging out of the tunnel. Except there was no tunnel. There was no field. For pete’s sake, the whole thing was . . . indoors!
Bo Schembechler, the nation’s most explosive football coach, was trapped inside basketball land.
“Ready to go, men?” he asked, grabbing the wrist of Glen Rice as if he were a fullback. Rice nodded.
“Go get ’em, big fella!” he said, squeezing the elbow of Terry Mills. Mills nodded.
“Here we go, Mark!”
“Rumeal, go at ’em!”
“OK, big Sean!”
He might have preferred some helmet-banging. He might have preferred the drill where one guy slams the other guy’s shoulder pads. Basketball? Was he really here in Atlanta for basketball? Bo? Isn’t this spring football season?
It is. And he was. In the past few days, Michigan sports have been turned upside down. The old basketball coach, Bill Frieder, is suddenly the new basketball coach somewhere else. The old assistant, Steve Fisher, is now the interim head coach. And Schembechler, the football coach who is also the athletic director, is commuting back and forth between basketball and football, via private jet, because both are his responsibility, both are Michigan, and he is, as you can plainly see, a Michigan Man.
“OK, Loy, big game now! . . . “
I figured this would be a good story. I figured this would be an interesting story. Sit next to Schembechler, the football guy, as he rooted on the basketball guys in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Here is what you get when you sit next to Bo. Ouch. As in “DID YOU SEE THAT LOUSY CALL?” he screamed, slapping me in the arm. Ouch. “CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT STUPID PLAY!” he yelled, slapping me in the shoulder. Ouch.
I don’t want to say that Bo is animated during a game. I don’t want to say it, because he might hear me. I will say that some reporter is still looking for his Coke. It was last seen flying off the table, after Bo slammed down his fist.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First off, you should know it is tough for any good coach simply to watch a sporting event. They want to be involved. Especially a football coach. Especially when he is sitting behind the bench, at the press table. Bo was in the seat reserved for USA Today. Its reporter never showed. Must have been an Oprah Winfrey story breaking.
“I hate this,” Bo admitted, “I hate sitting and not being able to do anything about the . . . about the . . . HEY REF, COME ON! LOUSY CALL!”
About the game.
Here came Terry Mills on a breakaway. He had Rumeal Robinson open on his left.
“PASS THE BALL YOU BIG . . . nice play.” Here came Xavier’s Mike Davenport, gliding down the lane for a lay-up. “WHY DON’T THEY PLUG THAT HOLE! TAKE THE FOUL!”
Here came Glen Rice, popping for a three-pointer. Swish.
“HOW’S THAT FOR SHOOTING?”
“Great,” I said. Ouch.
Did you know that Bo once played basketball? Yes. In the army. He was the 12th man on a 12-man team.
“Were you a guard or a forward?” I asked. He laughed. But he never answered. I guess, in the army, it didn’t matter all that much.
Now you may criticize Bo for not passing the football. You may criticize Bo for his conservative, tough style of coaching. But you cannot criticize his spirit. Not Friday. The Wolverines needed support. They needed to know they were not abandoned. They needed to know they lost a coach, not a program. Bo was here. Let us pick up the game in the closing minutes, with Xavier ahead, 82-81. Rice sets up deep. Hits a three-pointer.
“ATTA BABY!” yells Bo.
The ball is loose, two players chase, and it goes out of bounds.
“WHITE BALL, REF! WHITE BALL! AWWWW!”
He pounds the table. Pencils fly. A security guy looks over at him. “Uh, I’m not really with USA Today,” Bo says.
Finally, with Michigan ahead, 90-85, Rumeal Robinson is fouled. There are 18 seconds left. Bo can control himself no longer. The coach inside bursts out.
“NOW, RUMEAL,” he bellows, as if he were on the 50-yard line, “I WANT THESE FREE THROWS!”
I don’t know whether Rumeal hears him. Maybe he does. Maybe he hears the Coke landing somewhere in the third row. Anyhow, he makes both shots, and all Michigan has to do is run out the clock with a 92-85 lead. Bo leans back in his chair.
“Hey,” he says, “They can’t score seven points in 18 seconds, can they?”
I say I don’t think so.
And so it ends. Michigan wins, 92-87, and the first person to come running over, all smiles, is Jack Weidenbach, the co- athletic director.
“HEY, HEY, THEY DID IT,” says Bo.
“How about that!” says Weidenbach.
Here they are, the upper management of the Michigan sports department, celebrating a victory like kids at Christmas. And they pat the Wolverines on the shoulders as they come off the court. And they congratulate the new coach. Nice.
I guess that’s the way it should be. And I guess you could even talk me into sitting next to Bo for Sunday’s game against Southern Alabama.
Just let me put on these pads. . . .