He was private soul with a booming public voice, a soft heart beneath a hard, gritty exterior, a good man who had a bad hour in a Southfield restaurant 27 years ago and never really stopped paying for it. Many a football coach has issued this warning to his players: one night can change your life forever.
Gary Moeller lived it.
When I heard the news, I felt a gush of sadness, not simply for the obvious reasons, that a man I knew and liked was gone at age 81, that his family and friends would no longer have his rich and caring company. There was more. With Moeller’s passing, it felt as if two lives had ended. The one he lived. And the one he never got to live.
Gary Moeller loved football, played football, and coached football, as an assistant to Bo Schembechler on two different campuses, as head coach at Illinois, as an NFL assistant, and even, briefly, as head man of the Detroit Lions.
But the job he truly loved, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, was carved out of his heart after he got inexcusably drunk one night at the old Excalibur on Northwestern Highway, and instead of going quietly into the cab they had called for him, he kept yelling and pushing until he hit a cop and they arrested him.
It was bad behavior that deserved a suspension. I wrote it then. I believe it still. But it did not merit his departure. I wrote it then. I believe it still.
“Some things go with the job,” I said in these pages back in 1995 “Crucifixion is not one of them.”
A second chance skipped him twice
But Moeller was forced out anyhow — officially he resigned, a week after the incident — and some say it was about power and some say it was Michigan’s sometimes too-precious self-image. But to those of us who knew Moeller, it seemed that he was never the same.
It took a long time before any media really spoke to him about that night, and over the years, when he did address the incident, he did not address it for long. Moeller was nothing if not a proud man, and he blamed no one and he asked for no sympathy and he said he learned a lot from what happened and all that is precisely why U-M never should have fired him.
He’d had no record before that. No trouble, No belligerence. He didn’t have Schembechler’s temper, let alone that of their former mentor, Woody Hayes. He was honorable, his players loved him, he ran a clean program and in five seasons at U-M, while he didn’t win at the same percentage as his famous predecessor, he captured three Big Ten titles and won four out of five bowl games.
But “Mo,” as everyone called him, was gone after the Excalibur incident and he never coached in college again. It was the college game’s loss, because he was a good mentor, a straight shooter. Joe Roberson, then the Michigan athletic director, said, “Given what has happened, it would have been quite difficult for Gary to have been an effective leader of the team.”
Baloney. I believe Moeller could have taught young college players an awful lot about the dangers of substance abuse and they would have listened because he spoke the truth.
Instead, he had to find his way in pro football. Yet even there, Mo was snake-bitten. He was minding his business as a Lions assistant coach, when suddenly Bobby Ross abruptly quit in the middle of the season, famously explaining his last loss by saying the Lions “have the wrong coach.”
Moeller was instantly promoted to head coach, with a game looming that weekend. Despite such crazy circumstances, he won four out of the last seven and just missed the playoffs. He earned a contract from Lions owner William Clay Ford.
Then Ford hired Matt Millen, that famed judge of football talent, and Millen fired Moeller so he could hire the legendary Marty Mornhinweg, who proceeded to lose 27 of the next 32 games.
Moeller had to be looking at the heavens and saying, “What gives?”
‘Aw, hell. You’re different’
But what the Lions and alcohol robbed Moeller of in this life should not haunt the way he is remembered in death. So let us keep a few things in mind about this man. He was recruited by Hayes and co-captained the Ohio State Buckeyes as a linebacker his senior year. He was hired by Schembechler to be his assistant at Miami (Ohio) and followed Bo to Ann Arbor. Mo was so thoroughly a football man that over the years at Michigan he was the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator and the quarterbacks coach. How many people today have that resumé?
He worked 23 years for U-M and was so loyal to the program that he sought Schembechler’s advice when offered the Illinois head coaching job. Bo told him to take it “but make sure they give you five years to develop the program.” When Moeller was fired after three years, Bo immediately said, “I want you back.”
“But Bo,” Moeller protested, “you always said ‘Never take a guy back when he’s left your staff.’”
“Aw, hell. You’re different,” Schembechler said.
Mo was different. He came back and resumed the assistant’s job with nary a hint of bruised ego. He stayed another nine years. I remember sitting in Schembechler’s office in 1989 when he told me he was going to quit. I immediately asked who was going to take over.
“Mo’s gonna take over,” he said.
He said it as assuredly as Don Corleone announcing Michael as his successor. There was no hesitation. Nor should there have been. Moeller was everything Bo admired. A quintessential football man. Thick bodied. Thick necked. A man who sometimes had a goofy smirk as if he’d just been knocked down by a 300-pound lineman and bounced back up for more. He spoke loudly, laughed loudly, preached character, and developed leadership.
He was the right choice then, and you wonder, if not for that one unfortunate night — and the tape recordings of his drunken rants that played incessantly on TV and radio — if we might be remembering a man today who coached Michigan for a decade or two.
We’ll never know. One night should not define a life. Yet it can alter that life, and Moeller will be remembered by the turns in his road as much as his straightaways.
This is what he said in 1995 upon resigning from Michigan, the program he loved:
“I have left my job as head football coach, but I still have my family and dignity.”
He never lost either one. And, in the end, both are more important than football.
Here’s to a man who took it on the chin but never bowed. Gary Moeller, a good guy who endured bad breaks, has left the life he lived and the life he might have lived. He was always too humble to seek appreciation, but he deserved more than he got.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.