It can’t be 10 years since Bo Schembechler died. No way. It was just yesterday when I was sitting across from him, green, 29 years old, and he was laughing at me.
“Why the hell would you want to do this?”
“This” was an autobiography of the longtime Michigan football coach, which a publisher had suggested. “This” meant following him around for nearly a year. “This” meant researching his life, his family, his former players.
“This” meant more of, this:
“Albom, you’re out of your bleep-bleep mind!”
It would be the first and only time I’d write a sports figure’s life story. It was an exhausting, often maddening experience, especially when Bo wouldn’t answer his phone, couldn’t remember details or actually remembered things that never happened.
He once told me his mother got stranded in Nevada after her car broke down. She and Bo got into an argument over the phone and she hung up before he knew where she was and he had to call the state troopers. It was a funny and feisty tale, good material for a book.
Except when we were editing, I called Bo’s mother to confirm the details, and she told me, bluntly, that she’d never even been to Nevada.
I was so angry I jumped in my car, raced out to Bo’s house, banged on his door and confronted him.
“Your mother said that story never happened!”
He scrunched his face. “Maybe it didn’t,” he said.
A man like few others
And yet … so many other things did happen. Bo’s life, which ended a decade ago last week, by heart failure, featured his first heart attack on the eve on his first Rose Bowl, standing alone, grabbing a tree for balance. It featured a 10-year war with his mentor, Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, and 13 Big Ten titles, and a sign in the locker room that read “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions,” and practices in which Bo would take a yardstick and whack it between his linemen’s legs, and encounters with thousands of Michigan players who he might not remember, but they would never forget.
“Hello, Coach, I’m Dan Dierdorf,” the future Hall-of-Famer said to his new coach in 1969.
“You’re fat!” Schembechler barked.
That was Bo. During our book year, I went to the home games and road games, desperate for a few minutes of his time. Once, in Wisconsin, after a week of not returning my calls, he and I got into a shouting match just outside the showers.
“This goddamn book is gonna kill me!” he screamed.
“I need time with you!” I yelled.
He was wearing only a towel, his squat, stocky body barefoot and dripping. I almost started laughing.
“You know,” he said, his voice suddenly dropping, “we won the damn game.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Congratulations.”
We were fine after that.
He was fiery, opinionated, old-fashioned, a lover of John Wayne and Frank Sinatra and “My Way,” his favorite song. He wasn’t perfect, but he was principled. Deeply principled. I don’t just mean banging a lectern after Bill Frieder left the basketball team and declaring, “A Michigan Man will coach Michigan.” I mean principled in that he wouldn’t cheat in recruiting. That he wouldn’t lie to parents. That he worked for years without a contract. That he was once your coach, always your coach, especially if you needed help.
He made memories
I still remember the news of his death. It was a Friday, he was taping his weekly TV show on WXYZ, the day before Michigan, No. 2 in the nation, was to play Ohio State, No. 1. Football was rabid that day, in the air, on the airwaves, everyone talking about the game, and suddenly, with news of Bo’s heart failure at age 77, nobody was talking about the game.
“Bo’s dead,” someone told me.
“Oh, no,” was all I could reply.
After that, I wrote an obituary that I can’t recall. I did a small TV piece that I can’t recall. I was in that stumbling haze you go through when a pillar of the world you knew is suddenly missing.
I once wrote that Bo made memories better than he made history. That’s accurate. He lost a lot of bowl games. He never won a national championship. In today’s world, that might mark him as lacking.
But Bo wasn’t in it for national. He was in it for Michigan. For the Big Ten. For the Rose Bowl. For, “The team, the team, the team.”
It can’t be 10 years since the day he died. Only the lying calendar says that. And only the lying calendar says I am twice as old as the day he asked me, “Why the hell would you want to do this?”
My answer then was, “I think it’s worth it.” My answer now is I know it was.
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