PASADENA, Calif. — In the end there was no Santa Claus. No Happy New Year. Bo Schembechler could only stand there, the headphones dangling, as the final seconds of his career ticked away. The wrong way. Michael Taylor, his quarterback, threw wide, the ball hit the ground. He threw deep. The ball sailed past the intended receiver. He took the final snap — fourth down and miracle to go — and he was stuffed in an army of USC defenders, they dragged him, they swirled him, they threw him to the ground the way many of Schembechler’s Rose Bowl dreams have been thrown to the ground in years past.
Three, two, one . . .
Wait a minute. Is that any way to say good-bye? Is that any way to bring down the curtain — with a 17-10 loss to USC that stung perhaps more than any bowl loss before it? Well. That’s the trouble with sports. You can’t orchestrate your farewell party. If you could, you wouldn’t have your punts blocked. You wouldn’t surrender big third-down plays. And you certainly wouldn’t allow a yellow flag on the most critical play of the game.
Skip the small stuff. Roll the tape ahead. You want the climax scene of the 1990 Rose Bowl, a.k.a. “Bo Says Good-bye”? Here it is: Fourth quarter. Score tied. Less than six minutes left. The crowd is on its feet. The night air is electric. The whole country, it seems, is watching this game now. The Wolverines line up to punt on their own 46. Here comes the snap — and there goes the punter! A fake. A fake?
“Beautiful call!” scream the Michigan fans. Chris Stapleton, the punter, runs for 10 yards, 20 yards, 24 yards, he’s got the first down and more. He’s deep in USC territory. “I was sure we would score after that,” Greg McMurtry, the U-M wide receiver would later say. “I was sure of it.” Of course! What a call by Bo! What a brilliant good-bye strategy! What a . . .
What the . . . ?
Yep. A little yellow flag. Holding. The referees marched the ball backward, and it was like telling Cinderella the shoe didn’t fit. Like turning Pinocchio back into a puppet. Let it be noted that Schembechler, 60, a good man who coached 21 years at one school, never had a losing record, and thought he had seen it all, took one last shot to the gut from the game he loved Monday evening — fittingly, here, in the Rose Bowl.
“The worst call I have ever seen,” Bo would later say of the holding penalty on Bobby Abrams, which effectively sucked the life out of the Wolverines, forced them to punt for real, and led to USC’s winning touchdown.
“Absolutely ridiculous. To call a penalty like that . . .”
Well. True. The timing was awful. You wanted to run up to that referee and say, “What’s the matter with you? Have you no emotion?” Schembechler launched into a classic tantrum that saw him throw his play sheets to the ground and trip over a wire. He was livid. He was furious. He was also wrong. The replays showed Abrams holding. The call was legit.
‘We had such big dreams’ Ah, well. What’s so good about good-bye? Nothing on this cool California evening. This was hardly the game the Wolverines had wanted for their coach’s farewell — even before that fake punt. The offense was sputtering. The defense could not contain. The special teams made critical mistakes.
“We had such big dreams for this game,” said Tripp Welborne, the All-American safety, in the tunnel after the loss. “But I guess the only way for dreams to come true is to keep on dreaming.”
Right. It’s got to be better than reality. Got to be better than the 78 plays USC ran, compared with Michigan’s 52. Or the play by Dan Owens, the USC lineman, who came in untouched and blocked a U-M punt in the second quarter. Or the performance of the Trojans backfield, which outmuscled Michigan and racked up 181 yards.
It’s got to be better than USC’s freshman quarterback Todd Marinovich
(whose first six letters, in case you hadn’t noticed, spell Marino). How dare a freckle-faced kid, who wasn’t even born when Schembechler took over the Wolverines, ruin Bo’s final act?
Well. He did it. Completed 22 of 31 passes. Ran for a touchdown. And what composure! On that final scoring drive, he ran an option on third and long. Got a first down. A few plays later, third down again, he dropped back, waited until a defender was in his face, then completed a pass over the middle to John Jackson. Another first down. Marinovich was the glue that kept USC together, right down to its final touchdown, a burst by tailback Ricky Ervins for 14 yards and an MVP award.
“I had a chance to tackle Ervins on the 10,” Welborne said. “I missed him. I hadn’t missed a tackle in like the last 20 or 25 times. Why did it have to happen now?”
He sighed. Around him, other Michigan players were walking to the bus, their heads down. It was a depressing sight, not the way a bowl game should end. Some players, like Taylor, refused to talk. Others, like Abrams — the holding-call culprit — could only shake their heads. “I didn’t hold that guy. I didn’t even think the call was on me. I don’t know what they were calling . . . ” Bo takes a parting shot That’s the way it goes. Words are never satisfying after a loss. Sometimes they do more harm than good. Surely that was the case with Schembechler, who lambasted the referees in what should have been a classier farewell address. “The game has passed amateur referees by,” he scolded. “They can’t keep up. It’s too fast for them. . . .”
He said lots of other things. He even laughed a little. But he did three minutes on the referees — a farewell jab — and I ask you: What clips do you think TV stations around the country will run tomorrow? They’ll say Bo left as a grouch. He left losing the Rose Bowl. Nothing changes. Ha, ha. See ya, Bo.
And that’s not fair. Anyone who has lived in Michigan the last 21 years knows that, in truth, everything has changed. What that final gun really signified Monday night, besides a disappointing loss, was the end of a remarkable era, in which a stumpy, grumpy hot-tempered coach pulled a team out of mediocrity and made it great. For years.
And more than that. He made us feel great, too. There were plenty of reasons to dislike Schembechler — if you didn’t live in Michigan. But those who rooted maize and blue fell in love with this fiery fellow would not let them down. That was the best part. You could bank on Bo. For honesty, integrity. Mostly for victory. Oh, he might lose a game, but he’d win the next. He might miss a championship, but another would be coming. Sure, the Wolverines lost Monday. But they got there. And if Bo weren’t leaving, he’d already be talking about next year’s team, and we would believe him.
You know what we were with Schembechler? We were confident. That was the most contagious part of him.
And maybe that is what walked off the field Monday. We lost a piece of our confidence. What’s so good about good-bye?
“I coached at a great school, I had a lot of fun, had a lot of great teams, made a lot of friends,” said Schembechler in his final time before the microphones after a game. “That’s all there is to it. I’m just the coach. The old whistle-tooter. It’s time for me to go and I’m going.”
He got up from the table, forced a chuckle, a waved good- bye. The nasty taste of defeat, which he has never, not once, gotten used to, followed him out. You know what?
The old whistle-tooter deserved better.