NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Maybe your mother once gave you this line: “I only yell because I love you.” And maybe you believed her. Mothers can get away with that kind of thing. They have credentials.
Football coaches are another thing. Except Bo Schembechler. On Schembechler’s teams, you are yelled at if you are loved and yelled at if you are unloved — unless you are a stud, an excellent player, someone with real superstar potential.
In which case, he really lets you have it.
I began to notice this pattern with Jim Harbaugh, the former Wolverines quarterback now with the Chicago Bears. Everyone knows how good Harbaugh was at Michigan. A leader. A gifted passer. A contender for the Heisman Trophy. So it took me by surprise when he admitted that Bo had told him, in his very first freshman meeting — and I quote — “You will never play a down at Michigan!”
And he told him again. During freshman practices. “You will never play a down at Michigan!” And again, during sophomore practices, switching to the ever-popular, “You are the worst quarterback in the history of Big Ten football!”
“You got used to it,” Harbaugh said with a shrug. “Although the first time he said it I went, “Geez. The worst in the history of Big Ten football? Did he really mean that?”
He couldn’t possibly mean it. He says it too often. Schembechler once told Jamie Morris — who shattered Michigan rushing records while he was a Wolverine — that “I must have been out of my mind to recruit you. You will never play here! Never!”
Still, this is nothing compared to Jim Brandstatter, who might have set a record for abuse during his time at Michigan. Not only did Schembechler once scream at, belittle and kick Brandstatter in the rear end for a mistake that someone else made — but he also told him: “YOU ARE THE WORST TACKLE IN THE HISTORY OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL!”
It’s hard to top that. Bo’s barbs sting at first, but . . . Now. OK. Schembechler, one of the most caring coaches in college football, doesn’t intend to make his players feel three inches tall. It just comes out that way. When a tackle misses a block, when a running back goes the wrong way, well, the coach is going to explode. Players know this. And as explosions go, Schembechler could go head to head with Chernobyl.
But, in time, when they get over the sting of his words, most players adjust. They improve and grow harder, stronger.
And by the end of their four years, they look back on the verbal abuse the way a baseball player looks back on his favorite glove.
“What will I miss most?” Harbaugh said his senior year. “I’ll miss him yelling at me.”
Which brings us to our current crop of Wolverines, here for Monday’s Rose Bowl against Southern Cal. You will be happy to know that most of these stars carry the pedigree that makes Michigan players great: At some point, Schembechler gave them the once-over.
Mark Messner, the All-America tackle, was chewed up and down by the coach during his freshman and sophomore years. Brent White, his counterpart, says he is regularly told, “I am the worst defensive tackle in America. But I’m on defense, and Bo coaches the offense. He always sticks up for the offensive guy.”
Yeah? Tell that to Leroy Hoard. The star running back was suspended after his finest game of the season for missing class: “Bo let me have it. I knew it was coming, too.” Demetrius Brown, the incumbent starter at quarterback, was demoted in pre-season for a lackadaisical attitude. Mike Gillette, the senior kicker (punts, field goals, kickoffs) was benched as a freshman for the Ohio State game.
And then there’s the John Kolesar story. Step lightly around Bo Kolesar, as most people know, is a senior wide receiver who has helped win more than his share of U-M games. Bo loves the guy. He didn’t always.
“I was a sophomore in high school,” Kolesar said. “I came to Michigan Stadium to see a game. A couple of my friends were being recruited and they got to go in the locker room afterwards. So I stuck on a name tag and snuck in there with them.
“So I’m in there, and I step backwards, right onto somebody’s foot. I turn around, and it’s Bo. And he stares at me, he doesn’t even know who I am, but he sees my name tag and he says, ‘Well, you’ll never play a down for Michigan!’ “
Declared hopeless before he was ever recruited.
Such is life in the Maize and Blue. Today they are standout players, and they carry the insults like combat medals, proof that they came through the legendary Camp Schembechler and lived to tell the tale. Besides, they all admit, as a football player, it is better to be yelled at than to be ignored.
As for the cantankerous coach? What does he say when you remind him that he predicted Harbaugh and Morris would never play a down, that Messner and White might be the worst in America, and that Brandstatter would go down in history, literally.
He squints his eyes and crinkles his nose.
“Did I say that?” he asks.
Mitch Albom’s sports-talk show “The Sunday Sports Albom” will broadcast live from Pasadena Sunday from 9-11 p.m. on WLLZ (98.7-FM.)