NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — He is walking past the hotel patio and the crowd is swelling — first two reporters, then four, then the TV stations. Is it Stallone? Is it Elvis?
“Bo,” says the PR man, “these gentlemen are from ESPN. They want to follow you around today.”
“Um-hmm,” says the husky, balding coach, without breaking stride. “Well, all right, men. But I’m late for a team meeting.”
“That’s OK,” blurts the cameraman, “we’ll just follow you and shoot. We don’t need to interrupt.”
He keeps walking. They fall in like soldiers, two steps behind.
“Is there anything we should know?” they ask.
“Oh, hell, I don’t think so,” he says, ducking into the lobby. “Just don’t hit me with that camera, OK?”
They have come to praise Bo Schembechler, not bury him. Which is a switch. For years, the coach Sports Illustrated once called “Michigan’s Meanest Man” was little more than a cartoon character out in California. He arrived at Christmas snorting like a buffalo — and went home on New Year’s sniffing like a lamb. Clap hands, here comes Bo, watch him blow another bowl. They spanked him and thanked him and wrote him off.
You’d think Mahatma Gandhi was walking in their midst.
“Bo, what can we expect from college football after you’re gone?”
“Bo, what was the greatest moment in 21 years at Michigan?”
“Bo, is there hope for the student-athlete?”
What a difference a little retirement makes. Ever since Schembechler, 60, the winningest active coach in college football, announced he was hanging it up Jan. 2, the day after the Rose Bowl, people have been coming from near and far to touch the hem of his garment. All right. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. They’ll settle for a good old fashioned lecture on the great off-tackle play. Or maybe a temper tantrum.
“Classic Bo,” they say fondly. Suddenly, all those things that used to make him a curmudgeon are being galvanized as if headed for the archives. A videotape of one of his early Michigan seasons is selling like mad. Everybody has a Bo story, even people who never met him. There are T-shirts. “Bo Knows Football.” “Bo is God.” The making of a legend is in full swing.
“Uhm hmm,” he says, and keeps on walking.
He comes clumping towards the pool now, in a white Michigan sweater and MacArthur sunglasses. The woman from “CBS This Morning” leaps to shake his hand. “Can I get you coffee?” she asks, as a technician sticks a flesh-colored ear piece behind his glasses, “Juice? Water? Anything?”
It is the second morning news show he has done in two weeks. “Good Morning America” was first. Usually, when one network bites in the morning, the others shy away, for fear of looking like sheep. Retirement, it seems, cuts through all that.
“Hello? . . .” Schembechler says, looking at the camera, listening for the voice from 3,000 miles away. “What? . . . Yeah . . . Hello, Harry . . .”
The first question is about . . . General Noriega, and does Bo know where he is? No. Just kidding. The first question is what all the first questions are about: The Good-bye Decision.
“It was time to go, Harry,” Bo answers, the way he has answered umpteen times before. “I’d been pushing my luck health-wise. I’ve had 21 great years at Michigan . . .”
He talks about the players. He talks about the staff. The words are warm, sincere. One thing you have to hand the man: He keeps the old material fresh. If this week were “Family Feud,” and the category was “Questions Asked At Least 1,000 Times” the list would read as follows:
1. When did you know it was time?
2. Are you savoring every moment of this week?
3. Does a national championship stand out as the one sore spot on your otherwise brilliant career?
4. What do you think of Penn State getting in the Big Ten?
The answers, by the way, are: 1. “The Ohio State game.” 2. “Nah.” 3.
“Heh-heh. Nah.” 4. “The most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Want some ham?” he asks.
“No thanks.” I say.
“It’s good. Whatsa matter? Already ate lunch? OK. Let’s sit out back. It’s quiet.”
We are in his hotel suite. It is dotted with flowers and fruit baskets and a honey baked ham. Good-bye gifts. The countdown continues.
Already he has done three networks, the ESPN documentary, a poolside TV interview with his wife, Millie, and three daily press conferences with whoever felt like showing up. He has visited Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, taken a helicopter to the Tournament House, conducted three tough practices, and has been interviewed at length — and this is a loose count — by the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, New York Post, LA Daily News, and an army of other journals. Each has prepared the long feature piece that tries to sum up his 37 years in the coaching business, 13 Big Ten titles, 16 bowl appearances, and not a hint of scandal.
To which his reaction is: what’s the fuss?
“You know,” he says, munching on ham and crackers, “why does everyone think I’m memorizing every minute, thinking, ‘This is my last game.’? I’m not dying. I’m just moving onto something else.”
“Well, some people do think that way,” I say. “Don’t you ever look at your trophies and reflect on what a career it’s been?”
He looks puzzled. “No, I . . . geez . . . I don’t even know where half that stuff is. I’ll tell you what. I will never have one of those big trophy rooms in my house. To me it’s the games that count. Once they’re over, I’m over.”
“Well. Don’t you ever go back and watch your old games?”
“You know what I do? ” He swallows a bite of ham. “Sometimes I get out the old pictures, because I can’t remember a guy’s name and that bothers me. I look at the picture when he played for me, and I remember.”
He shrugs. That is as much of a bow to age as Glenn Edward Schembechler is likely to give you.
He has three days left of this life, three days in the “legendary” spotlight. Along with the Colorado football team, he has provided an emotional angle for this final college football weekend. For that, the media is grateful.
Personally, he could care less. Oh, it’ll choke him up come Monday. He’ll break down in the locker room. But he has done that before. Rest assured. It’ll be the kids that make him cry, not the history.
“You know why I don’t buy this legend stuff?” he says. “As soon as that Rose Bowl is over” — he holds his arm out and motions like a plane coming in for a landing — “I begin my loonnng slide into oblivion. Couple weeks. Couple months. Pretty soon, people pass me on the street and say, ‘Who was that guy? Didn’t he used to do something in sports?’ “
He explodes in laughter. He loves it.
And miles away, TV crews are editing their tributes. Funny. In all the interviews, no one has asked him where he got his nickname. For posterity, let it be known that his sister, when he was an infant, could not pronounce the word “brother.” Instead, she said “Bobo . . . Bobo.” That was before he ever dreamed of football, before his crying had anything to do with referees or football immortality.
“Hey man, I gotta go to this meeting,” he says. He dumps the plate in the sink, grabs his briefcase, locks the door behind him, and waddles off past the green lawn and stucco villas. Football. Always football. Maybe part of what makes a legend is his never believing he is one. There are TV cameras, and autograph hounds, and this one producer who wants to mike him on the sidelines Monday to record his final tantrums for posterity.
But mostly there is one more game to play. Football. The reason he is on this stage in the first place. “I want to win this,” he says as he leaves. Write that down. For if history has a heart, he will. Make it one for old Bobo.
And one for the road.