by | Jan 3, 1989 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PASADENA, Calif. — He was running for all of them, for this Michigan team, and for every Michigan team that has ever come out here and had its face smeared with California egg. Someone grabbed his feet. He broke free. Someone wrapped around his thigh. He yanked loose. He ran through the linemen and through the linebackers and through the hands and arms and bodies, breaking free as the ghosts of Wolverines past screamed in a collective voice: “GO! GO! NEVER STOP!”

Leroy Hoard was charging downfield and he was taking Michigan with him. A 61-yard run that would ensure a Michigan victory in this traditionally haunted stadium. And when he sprinted over the goal line on a gutsy fourth-and-goal call for the winning touchdown, and the Michigan fans showered the field with plastic seat cushions — “SIT ON IT, USC!” — well, you could hear the sigh of relief all the way out here.

“I can hardly even remember, it happened so fast!” gushed Hoard after Michigan beat the Trojans, 22-14, in the 75th Rose Bowl. “They say when worst comes to worst take the ball and run — and that’s what I did!”

Wake up and smell the roses, U-M. This was not only a great Michigan win, a great comeback, and a tribute to the spirit of a team that had to come back from the very first game of the season — but it was also long overdue. Bo Schembechler has brought too many good teams out here too many times and gone home empty.

Not this time. Here, against the No. 5 team in the country, which featured Mr. Charisma, Rodney Peete, at quarterback, the Wolverines did it the way they have all year, as a team — a suddenly choking defense, a suddenly gambling offense.

And when the gun sounded, they banded together for one final team effort: carrying Schembechler off on their shoulders.

Happy New Year, Bo.

Smell the roses. Just the way Bo likes it “ON BEHALF OF SOME GREAT WOLVERINES, I ACCEPT THIS TROPHY!” yelled Schembechler when they handed him the victor’s trophy. And why not? In his 20 years as U-M coach, he had suffered through seven Rose Bowl defeats and only one victory before this one. Finally, in the dying sunlight of Pasadena, a Schembechler dream came true.

And it was just the way he likes it. Who says this wasn’t better than the
“national championship” Fiesta Bowl across the TV dial? Here was a game that ran the gamut of emotion.

Pick it up at halftime, the score Trojans 14, Wolverines 3. The Michigan offense had fallen asleep. Receivers were dropping passes. The Wolverines failed to gain a first down in the second quarter. They were getting beaten up and beaten down, and Peete had scrambled through their defense twice for touchdowns. The jokes were hatching again. Good ol’ Michigan. Nice team. Just can’t beat the Pac-10.

And then, the second half.

“Bo told us to forget the score at halftime, just forget it,” said defensive tackle Mark Messner. “He said if we stopped beating ourselves (a fumble, overthrown passes, a missed 34- yard field goal in the end of the first half), then we could beat this team.”

And he was right. In that second half, it seemed as if the voices from Wolverines past joined in a singular chorus that screamed “No more! Enough of this embarrassment!” And suddenly the 1988 Wolverines began to rise, from the mountain of dirt on their Rose Bowl reputation, from their traditional size deficiency against Pac-10 teams, from the unforgivable errors they had committed earlier in the game.

And they rolled. A touchdown drive to close it to 14-9. A snake-tight defense. Another drive featuring Hoard’s running and a clutch pass from Demetrius Brown to tight end Derrick Walker. Another touchdown. More defense. And that final drive, the undying legs of Hoard carrying them to Pasadena heaven.

“HAIL TO THE VICTORS VALIANT . . . ” the outnumbered U-M fans sang in the stands. For here was a comeback performance led by comeback kids. Remember Brown, the shy quarterback who was demoted in pre-season for iffy grades and a lackadaisical attitude? All he did Monday was rifle a touchdown pass, direct the offense, scramble when necessary, and yes, not throw a single interception, thank you.

“I want to clear something up,” he said afterward, looking around the locker room. “Earlier in the week I was quoted as saying my best friend on the team was myself. I shouldn’t have said that. These guys are all my friends, my family, sort of. I want to give them credit.”

Talk about a turnaround.

And how about Hoard? He had been suspended at mid-season because he cut two classes. Schembechler doesn’t bend the rules. Not for walk-ons. Not for stars.

“Sometimes it gets a little frustrating when (the coaches) get on you and get on you,” Hoard said, sitting behind the Rose Bowl MVP trophy he had justifiably won with 19 carries, 142 yards and two touchdowns. “But then, at moments like this, you realize why they were doing it.”

If that isn’t what college football is all about, what is? It’s been a long time coming And what of Schembechler, the coach who refuses to bend, keeps his team under the same strict principles as always — and had to lug around that lousy bowl record year after year?

How long had he been at this? Long enough that one of his assistants in his first Rose Bowl (1970) was now coaching against him across the sidelines. Larry Smith, USC’s head man, once baby-sat for Schembechler’s kids. Now he was trying to do unto him what the other Pac-10 coaches had done seven of eight times.

Sorry, Larry.

“There is a world of difference between winning and losing,” admitted Schembechler, who had lost five of these Rose Bowls in the ’70s, and two since his only previous win (1981, a 23-6 victory over Washington). “Losing tears the heart out of you.”

He grinned. “And I don’t have a real good heart to begin with.”

His cardiologist might agree; his team might object. They end the 1988 season with only two defeats — to the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, Notre Dame and Miami, by a combined three points. And they played this last game as much for their coach as for themselves. With 50 seconds left, when John Milligan stepped in front of a Rodney Peete pass in USC’s final desperation drive, intercepted it, fell on the ground and was smothered by wildly cheering teammates, well, they had delivered.

“A dream come true,” said Messner.

“A dream come true,”‘ said Hoard.

What else can you say at a moment like that?

An hour after the victory, with the stadium empty and the night sky dark and cold, Schembechler sat in the yellow coaches’ room, reclining in a chair, his fingers wrapped around an empty Diet Pepsi can.

“That how you celebrate?” he was asked.

“Nope.” He smiled. “Look here. I wanna show you something.”

He got up, reached for his sports coat, and pulled out a long, plastic-wrapped cigar.

“See this?” he said. “I quit smoking how long ago? But I promised myself I’m gonna smoke one of these after every Rose Bowl we win.”

He broke into a howling laugh.

“And that probably ain’t gonna be too many!”

Light ’em if you got ’em. Michigan wins — in January. On the feet of a once-suspended fullback, the arm of a once- demoted quarterback, the hits of a once-defeated defense, and the resiliency of a team that believes in its coach, and therefore, believes in itself. Happy New Year, Michigan. Wake up and smell the roses.

Or in Bo’s case, the smoke. CUTLINE

University of Michigan’s Wolverines mob Chris Calloway, who caught a six-yard pass for a touchdown Monday in the third quarter of U-M’s 22-24 Rose Bowl victory over the University of Southern Califonia.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!