“I have waited each year for that moment. . . . I have watched for that miraculous synthesis. . . . When it comes, I look around my field, I look at my boys, and I want to shout to the sun: ‘By God, I have created a team!’ “
— Pat Conroy, “The Prince of Tides” ANN ARBOR — For five awful minutes he was gone, he had bid farewell, there would be no more teams, no more autumns, no more blocking and tackling on Saturday afternoons. Bo Schembechler was being wheeled into surgery, a quadruple-bypass operation, and he figured that was it, another heart attack, his second open-heart surgery, he was truly pushing the outside of that fleshy envelope. When he awoke, if he awoke, the coaching — his love, his life, his passion — would have to stop.
And they operated.
And he awoke.
And he heard the doctor being asked if Michigan’s greatest coach would be able to do it anymore.
And the doctor said, “Yes.”
Bo raised his eyebrows.
The shortest retirement in the history of college football had just come to an end.
I really had accepted that it was over,” he says now, sitting in a classroom, squeezed into one of those desk/chairs you always find in college.
“If I wanted to survive I had to change my life. I knew that. I was ready. I really was.
“And then there’s that press conference and the doctor said it was OK and I said, ‘Well, holy smoke! THIS IS NEAT!’ “
He slaps his knee and laughs as if that was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. And Bo is back. In his shorts and shirt and blue Michigan cap, he does not look 59, he does not look like a man about to begin his 20th season on the Ann Arbor campus. He simply looks like all real football coaches look in September: grizzled and explosive and ready to go.
In a few minutes, the doors will open and the room will be filled with his players and he will address them. Their first game is Saturday at Notre Dame. Already you can hear the gathering in the hall, squeaky sneakers and deep voices. I notice Schembechler’s left foot has begun to bounce anxiously, revving up.
There is a knock on the door. John Kolesar, his star receiver, pokes his head in, apologizes, and asks, in almost reverent tones, if he can speak to Bo at his convenience.
“Whadda you need me for?”
“Well, I gotta meet with some writers later and I know they’re going to ask about our quarterback situation and, um, what should I say?”
The coach snorts.
“Say if it’s thrown anywhere near you, you’ll catch it.”
And the door politely closes.
Bo is back. Right where he belongs — with a whistle around his neck and a swagger in his walk and 100 young soldiers just praying for a nod, a grin, say the word, coach, and we go through the fence. Changes? Sure. There have been changes. He has cheated death. He has survived another major heart operation. And he’s now the athletic director as well as head coach.
Other than that, it is autumn as usual; the excitable man with the sunglasses is intoxicating himself with the smell of muddy grass and touchdowns. Return to the job? Hell. He is the job. You watch Bo Schembechler and you realize you are watching a legend in hardening concrete, an antique that still works better than the new models. The heart didn’t get him. The surgeons didn’t get him. The Bear is gone. Woody is gone. Ara is gone.
Bo is back.
The last of the one-name coaches.
When you were a kid, did you want to be a football player?”
“Sure,” he says. “I played in high school. I was a wingback. But my sophomore year, three freshmen came along that were faster than me.”
“What did you do?”
“I went to the coach and said, ‘Where are you really hurting?’ He said,
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Put me down at guard.’ “
Does that tell you something? Was this guy born to coach, or what? Never mind that his beloved Wolverines had a down year in 1987. Never mind that they lost to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, an almost unheard-of triple play around these parts. Never mind that he was suffering from kidney problems that made even standing up difficult. Never mind the heart attack and the surgery and the Hall of Fame Bowl that he had to watch from bed. Never mind that he opened 1988 football practice by suspending his quarterback, Demetrius Brown, for academic uncertainty (he has since been reinstated).
Hey. We are dealing with formidable material here. You could build a house out of Bo Schembechler. As long as there are headphones to be thrown and players to be screamed at and character to be shaped, he will have a place and he will keep coming back. And he will win. Believe it or not, The Sporting News, in its pre-season poll, picked the Wolverines No. 1 in the country.
“Aw, I think they just did that for attention,” he says, growling. “Let me ask you something: How many times have you heard people since then say,
‘Hey, did you see who The Sporting News picked No. 1? They picked Michigan.’ Sure. If they’d picked Florida State, nobody would have noticed. That’s why they did it. Attention. That’s all. Awww . . . bleep.”
At Michigan, they call that gratitude.
And yet there is more to Glenn (Bo) Schembechler, the only son of an Ohio fire chief, than volume and teeth marks. I’m not sure how many college coaches are left out there who would suspend their incumbent quarterback for grades
— not failing grades, but the possibility of grades that might make him ineligible. Schembechler did it with Brown.
“The misconception about Demetrius Brown is that he’s been a problem. He’s never been a problem. I don’t know how to say this exactly, but, well, I want him to have a greater respect for the position. Which means he’s got to do more than just say, ‘Well, I’ll make this class up and be eligible.’
“When he came into camp and there was a possibility he wouldn’t be eligible, I wasn’t going to put my other players through that. I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we could play without him if we had to.
“So, I asked for his playbook. I said, ‘Demetrius give me your playbook.’ And you know what? There was a sudden flurry of activity on his part. Because he wasn’t so sure it wasn’t gonna be permanent.”
Now. I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of story comforting. Think about the splashy news lately in college football: Brian Bosworth claims his former Oklahoma teammates accepted large sums of money, abused steroids and once even fired a machine gun off the top of a building; Miami’s Jimmy Johnson led a wild, partying bunch to the national championship; players lose their eligibility for signing with agents; drugs are rampant.
And then there’s Michigan. Can you imagine someone with a machine gun on a Michigan team? Schembechler would grab the thing, make the player eat the bullets, then kick him halfway to Canada. Agents? Schembechler chops your head off if you go near one. Drugs? Well. Bo Schembechler wasn’t about to wait for the Supreme Court to rule on a drug policy. Around U-M, it is simple: If the coach wants you tested, you are tested. At random. Like it or leave it.
“Do you get any flak from civil liberties groups?” I ask.
“If you write it, I probably will.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Well, the fact is, I never had anybody balk yet. I write the parents before their sons come here and I tell them when I recruit that I will do everything I can to keep the kids off drugs when they are at Michigan. And I have had nothing but support.”
Now that may seem tyrannical to some. But in college football, discipline is often the butter that makes the bread worthwhile. I am no psychologist, but I honestly believe no athlete ever respected a coach who didn’t demand something from him. In that category, “Coach Bo” has few peers.
Think about it. In the past few years at Michigan, the star player at U-M has had the classic love/hate affair with Schembechler. Jim Harbaugh. Jamie Morris. They had each endured his tantrums, his ridicule and, eventually, his pat on the shoulder, which to all U-M players, feels like a golden massage.
“I have never met anyone like him,” Harbaugh and Morris have both told me, on separate occasions, and then each recalled his freshman year, how Bo had reamed him out in front of the whole team and said, “WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU? THAT WAS AWFUL! YOU’LL NEVER PLAY A DOWN FOR MICHIGAN! NEVER!”
At the time, they believed it. They all do. And by senior year, when they had won his respect, they laughed and cherished the memory like a favorite photograph.
“What happens,” I ask Schembechler, “if a kid comes along who has read everything there is to read about you, he knows all your tricks, and no matter what you try, he’s got you figured out?”
He smiles. “Wait a minute. You don’t honestly think that Jim Harbaugh didn’t know every trick of mine? The kid grew up from the time he was six years old hanging on my pants. The reason it still works is that every now and then, when I let him have it, he never knows if I’m being serious.”
“That’s the secret.”
Did you know that Bo Schembechler works without a contract? It’s true. He has never had one. All these years. All the Ohio State showdowns and Rose Bowl trips. All those 103,000 screaming fans on cold Saturday afternoons. All the rumors about him being wooed someplace else. And technically, he is free to go at any time, and the university can fire him without repercussion. Why? Who knows why, he says. That’s the way it has always been at Michigan.
“Bear Bryant used to tell me (he lowers his voice to a growl), ‘Bo, you’re the dumbest football coach in America. Let me tell you the story about so-and-so who won the Sugar Bowl one year and they fired him the next year. .
. .’ “
“And what did you say to him?”
“I told him it was too late.”
There is a lesson about Schembechler in this story. I would imagine, as big as he is, he could have demanded a contract at some point and gotten one. He would have owned a piece of paper that let him know, even if his teams stunk up the field, he would be paid X number of dollars for five years. And he admits that, were he doing it now at some other school, “I’d get a contract for sure.”
But here, there is a tradition. And Bo is nothing if not respectful of tradition. They didn’t have contracts when he started. He won’t demand one now. “Anyhow, if the university wanted to fire me,” he says, smiling, “I certainly wouldn’t want to stay.”
Of course, that’s not likely to happen, especially because Schembechler is now the athletic director, a role he really shares with Jack Weidenbach, and a move that gives new meaning to the phrase “Be Your Own Boss.” When I first heard about this appointment (which Schembechler accepted only if he could continue to coach), I had this vision of Bo sitting on the 50- yard line at midnight, going through a stack of purchase orders and stamping “YES” and
“NO” and “YES” and “NO.”
It turns out I wasn’t far wrong. Each night during training camp, after the two-a-day practices and the film sessions and the coaches’ meetings and the media interviews, an assistant brought Schembechler the stack of papers and he rifled through them — yes, no, yes, no. It is true, he will certainly not ignore his football program in his new position. But it is also true that the athletic director often sets the tone for integrity on a sports campus. And I think, with Schembechler, that is in good hands.
He is old-fashioned. He wails against the new breed of coaches that he calls “face men,” guys who run their teams like corporations and stand stoically on the sidelines, watching the action. “I never saw Ara do that, I never saw Woody Hayes do that,” he says. “Just stand there and do nothing!”
He shakes his head. I ask Schembechler, who has won well over 200 games and 11 Big Ten titles, whether he would be hired were he just starting out today with his philosophy.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I really don’t.”
There was a moment last January when a room full of Michigan players squeezed around a telephone and sang “The Victors” to their ailing coach, who lay in bed 2,000 miles away. There are former players, guys like Harbaugh, now with the Chicago Bears, who still can’t speak of the man without a certain light of fear and respect in their eyes.
Bear is gone. Woody is gone. Ara is gone. There are still a few great ones working, guys like Joe Paterno and Eddie Robinson, and soon-to-be legends like Barry Switzer and Vince Dooley and Miami’s Johnson. But of the coaches for whom one name is enough, the craggy men who get in the trenches and throw the damn blocks themselves and who inspire fear and sometimes hatred and often tears but always respect — well, we’re down to Bo. When he goes, there will be a hole in the fabric of college coaching. And I’m not sure any of us realizes that yet.
So the good news is he is back, his foot is bouncing wildly, and the players are outside the door, psyching up, ready to play. Sometime this weekend, maybe during warm-ups, maybe during the opening kickoff, he may be infused with that glorious spirit that Conroy wrote about, the merging of the souls of dozens of young men. And he will look to the autumn sky and shout:
“By God, I have created a team . . . AGAIN!”
“Do you ever feel like you’re the last of a dying breed?” I ask. “You know. Like you’re, well. . . .
And he laughs. Those were a lonely five minutes, the Bo Schembechler
“retirement.” Medically, perhaps, he should still be there, some warm climate, a place where rest and a rocking chair would keep him healthy and alive. But, aww, what do doctors know? A coach is a coach. Besides, when your heart is shaped like a football, the sucker is bound to take some funny bounces. CUTLINE Coach Bo Schembechler will guide Michigan’s troops for his 20th season. The Wolverines — 8-4 last season — open Saturday night at Notre Dame. Bo Schembechler, in the process of creating a team.