Let me give you a date,” I say to Bo Schembechler, who is sitting in the big chair behind his desk.
He nods OK.
“Oct. 5, 1963,” I say.
“Miami of Ohio beats Western Michigan, 27-19,” I say.
“Well? Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
He looks confused.
“Bo, that was your first win as a head coach.”
“Was it?” he says.
“Your first win, Bo.”
“Oh, yeah,” he says.
Oh, yeah? Well, what did you expect? He would jump out of the chair and start singing the Miami fight song? This is Bo Schembechler, remember, a guy who harps less on victories than losses, less on what he just did right than what has to be improved by next week. And besides, that first win was 23 years ago, when, as he points out, “I had more hair.”
Today, it is true, there is less on top. But a lot more under the belt. Schembechler is one win away from 200 career victories, a milestone to most, a tombstone to some. But all he will say for public consumption is, “If we’re lucky enough to win against Wisconsin Saturday, I’ll be glad.”
Yeah. And if Christie Brinkley phones, I’ll take the call. Come on. He’ll be more than glad — he’ll be tickled blue. Because deep down, Bo revels in the wins, in the applause, the plaques on his wall, even the echoes of his own screaming. But what he lets show and what he doesn’t let show . . .
Well. For example; a few years ago, in practice, the Wolverines ran a pass play and a lineman came running by and Schembechler couldn’t get out of his way and — boom! — down went the coach. “It hurt so damn much,” he recalls, “I didn’t want to get up. It was killing me. But I couldn’t just lie there. They were all watching.”
So he got up quickly, and he turned to his players, who were collectively
holding their breath, and he made a face, a good mean face, and said, “Well, that probably would have killed an ordinary man.”
Oh, yeah? Oh, yeah.
So what you see and what you get are not always the same in Glenn (Bo) Schembechler, 57, the only son of an Ohio fire chief, who has managed, in his long coaching career, to set a few blazes of his own. What’s the record now, 199-55-7? Not too shabby, no?
What happens when the man a magazine once called “the most overrated coach in America” goes for his 200th win? Well, first understand that 200 college wins, even if you did them all in a row — even if you never lost — would take you nearly 19 years. Overrated?
So 23 years to get the big 200 is pretty damn impressive, and this from a man who, as soon as he arrived as head coach at Miami of Ohio — after working 10 years as an assistant at Ohio State, Northwestern, Bowling Green and Presbyterian — met his starting quarterback in the student union, a skinny fellow named Ernie Kellermann, and greeted him by barking, “THIS IS MY QUARTERBACK? THIS SCRAWNY GUY?” He then began to feel Kellermann’s arms and shoulders, checking for muscle tone, and the kid just stood there being probed, as students passed by wondering what kind of place they had walked into.
“I had heard he was that kind of coach,” recalls Kellermann, now a manufacturer’s rep in Ohio. “I was kind of in awe of him. Finally, I said something in my defense and he laughed and stopped squeezing me. From then on we got along OK.”
It was Kellermann who helped get Schembechler his first college win
(after a loss and a tie). He remembers no special celebrations. Just the normal, “Let’s go onto next week” attitude that is the linchpin of every good coach. But there were plenty of explosive moments, even back then. There was screaming. There was head slapping. There was a rainy-day loss to Dayton, when, on the last play of the game, half the players splashed into the sidelines, knocking Schembechler into a mud hole.
Bo delivered his post-game chew-out covered from head to toe in brown goop. Another date,” I say.,
“OK,” he says.
“Oct. 4, 1975,” I say.
“Michigan beats Missouri, 31-7.”
“Oh, yeah, that was a big payback game for us. Missouri had kicked our tails in 1969. Worst loss we ever had.”
“I know. But that was your 100th victory.”
“Oh, yeah?” he says.
“Do you remember any celebration?”
“I don’t think so. No.”
“According to the newspapers from back then, the players dragged you into the showers with them.”
“Really? You know, by God, I believe that’s right. They did drag me into the showers.”
He leans back, grinning.
“I’ll be damned,” he says. There are now a few hundred anecdotes that follow Schembechler around like so many cans tied to the back of a newlywed’s car. Some, like the one about his heart attack — suffered the night before the 1970 Rose Bowl — have to do with his tenacity. Others have to do with his poor bowl record. But most have to do with his temper.
Yes, he once angrily kicked a garbage can in the locker room that turned out to be made of concrete. Yes, he once threw chairs at Woody Hayes, his boss at Ohio State. But Woody threw them first. Yes, he screams, he throws tantrums, his eyes can be liquid fire. Rough. Tough. Gruff. Had enough?
Well. Remember this: College coaching is at least 50 percent inspiration, and you’re not going to get too many linemen psyched to risk life and limb by coming on like Truman Capote.
“Are you as rough as people think?” I ask.
“Look,” he says, “my image has been molded by the press from the time I came in, just from my background with Woody. They said I was volatile, I had a temper. And I do.”
He allows a mischievous grin. “But sometimes I just do things to fuel that. Like this stuff about me not wanting to pass the ball. You know that’s not as true as everyone thinks. But I figure, what the hell? Even if I throw 40 times, the one time I run it, they’ll say you should have passed it. So I scream now and then just to have fun with it.
“It’s at the point now where, when something happens that should cause me to get upset, particularly with the coaches, they all look at me to see what I’m gonna do.”
But don’t be fooled. The anger is part of the package. Like the brushfires started by forest rangers, it is a wildness with a purpose.
In the mid-70s, Michigan and Ohio State, bitter rivals, were trying to recruit Art Schlichter as quarterback. Schembechler and an assistant, Jack Harbaugh — now head coach at Western Michigan and father of Bo’s current quarterback, Jim Harbaugh — went down to the Schlichter home in Ohio. Schlichter’s father sat in an easy chair across from Schembechler, who was sitting in the couch. Between them was a glass coffee table with several flower vases on it.
“Look, Bo,” the senior Schlichter said, “let’s get right down to business. Woody Hayes has assured Art that he will start next year as a freshman in their very first game.”
Bo’s eyes turned red. “Wait a minute. He has a junior quarterback, just like I do.”
“He’s going to make him a wide receiver,” Mr. Schlichter said.
“Furthermore, Woody promises they’ll throw at least 25 times a game. And he’s going to let Art play basketball.”
At this point, Bo leaned over and began banging the coffee table with his fist, so hard the vases began to shake. Harbaugh scrambled to try to keep them from falling.
“MR. SCHLICHTER, LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING,” Bo bellowed. “WHEN MY SEASON OPENS RICK LEACH IS GOING TO BE MY STARTING QUARTERBACK. IF YOU WANT YOUR SON TO COMPETE FOR THE POSITION, YOU SEND HIM TO MICHIGAN. IF NOT, YOU SEND HIM TO OHIO STATE.”
He turned to Harbaugh, who was still trying to catch the vases. “JACK, GET MY COAT!”
They marched out the door. Harbaugh was shaking. He anticipated the worst ride of his life back to Ann Arbor. As they reached the car, Schembechler turned to him, and dug a soft elbow in his gut.
“Well,” Bo said, “What do you think?”
He knew that tantrum was the only chance he had to get Schlichter. He didn’t. “But at least,” he says now, “I put on a good show.” Have you ever apologized to a player?” I ask him.
“Oh, sure,” he says, erupting into a laugh. (Bo’s laugh, like most of his emotions, is best described as an eruption.)
“Well, lots of them.”
“Well, I apologized to (Jim) Brandstatter for kicking him in the butt
(laugh) for messing up a punt in practice (harder laugh) when he wasn’t the guy (explosive laugh) who did it.
“Aah ha haaa. . . .”
He collects himself. “Actually,” he says, “I don’t think I ever did apologize to him.”
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t remember any specifics?”
“I don’t know. There were hundreds.” Well, there was, after all, the day in 1973 when Schembechler had to call his team in and tell them they had been passed over by a Big Ten selection committee. They were not going to the Rose Bowl, despite their 10-0-1 record. Ohio State, which had the same record, was going instead.
“That’s the most upset I’ve ever seen him,” recalls Jack Harbaugh. “He was trying to tell the team that’s life, that’s the way it goes, but there were tears streaming down his face. He was really crying.
“Heck, he had gone to Rose Bowls before. It was the team — that team, those guys who had done so much for him. It killed him that they weren’t getting to go.”
The times he chews out players, the times he makes them feel like waterbugs, the times he makes them shake, those are the times when anger seethes inside his young men. Moments like that and the occasional compliment, the occasional joke, the occasional glimpse at the coach’s underside — which is actually rather sensitive — are enough to cause countless players, from Kellermann, the scrawny first quarterback, to Jim Harbaugh, the current version, to volunteer the corniest of tributes.
“I love the guy like a father,” they say. So, on Saturday, Schembechler, who has been Michigan coach since 1969, goes for career win No. 200. Only eight other Division I coaches have done that. It is from this point on that numbers can become seductive, a siren call to immortality, to stay forever.
Schembechler, as usual, has a story for that.
“It was after Bear Bryant broke the record for most college wins by a football coach. We were coaching at the East-West shrine game. At the time I was being pursued by Texas A&M. I told Bear I wanted to talk to him about it. He came by my hotel room that night.
“Well, he walks in, sits down and says, ‘Aren’t you gonna offer me a drink?’ I get him a drink. He says, ‘Now, tell me about this job.’ So I tell him.
“We talk about it for an hour, an hour and a half. Then he stops everything and says, ‘Well, we talked enough about you. Now, —damn it, let’s talk about my problems.’
“I said, ‘What problems could you have? You’re on top of the world, the winningest coach of all time.’
“He said, ‘Bo, I don’t want to go back to the office. I don’t wanta call the office. I don’t want to recruit one more son of a bitch. I wanna quit.’
“I said, ‘Go ahead and quit then. What better time than now?’
“He says, ‘Oh, no you don’t. Let me tell you something. I got 47 people down there at Alabama. I hired them all, and when I quit, I promise you they’ll all be out of a job. Some of them are pretty old. I can’t do that.’
“Sure enough he went on and coached another year, but he really didn’t want to. I don’t think he really enjoyed himself the last 10 years. He was just going after that record. And when he got the record he still couldn’t quit.”
“What does that mean to you?” I ask.
“It means simply this. If you’re gonna go for records, you better make damn sure you enjoy what you’re doing. Or else you’re making a colossal mistake.” I want to ask him something. I want to catch him off-guard. I wait for the moment, then I fire away.
“Bo, answer me honestly. Are you the best college football coach in America right now?”
“No,” he says, without missing a beat.
“Lots of guys.”
“I don’t know. You pick ‘e