by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — You want to get Leroy Hoard’s attention? Put a whistle around your neck, make your voice sound like Bo Schembechler’s, then sneak up behind him and yell, “DAMN IT, LEROY! NOT AGAIN!”

Chances are he will spin around and plead, “It wasn’t me, Coach! I didn’t do it!” Or maybe he will race down the street and block somebody.

You remember that kid to whom all eyes would turn when the teacher crossed her arms and asked, “All right. Who threw that eraser?” That’s Leroy Hoard in the Michigan football program. Star running back. Rose Bowl MVP. And the only player ever to show his keys to his mother and say, “This one’s for my car. This one’s for my apartment. And this one is for Bo’s doghouse.”

That’s a true story.

“Can you recall how many times Bo has yelled at you since your first day of practice?” someone asked Hoard, the redshirt junior running back, Tuesday morning in the opening press conference for this season’s Rose Bowl.

“Oh, man,” he answered, “I’d say . . . at least once a day.”

That’s a lot of yelling. Even for Bo. And it’s not that Hoard is a troublemaker. He is not like some college athletes you read about, who never got arrested for drugs only because they were too busy holding up gas stations. In four years at Michigan — and what, 400 chew-outs? — Hoard never has been cited for breaking any kind of law, or even a dorm rule. He just gets, well, a little lazy now and then. He might sleep through a class or forget to block.

And consequently, he ends up having the kind of relationship with Schembechler that Dennis the Menace had with Mr. Wilson.

Leroy and I have no disagreements,” jokes Bo. “He says something, I say something, and I’m the head coach, so what I say goes.”

He laughs and shakes his head, a mixture of pride and disbelief. Hoard will bring those things out in a coach. He will fool you, because he is only 6-feet tall, and he walks a little slowly and his voice is high-pitched, like Walter Payton’s. But give him the football when he is hot and he will drag half the opposing team into the end zone with him, they’ll be hanging on his legs like tin cans hanging on a wedding car. Last season in the Rose Bowl, he was a bull, he plowed through USC for 142 yards, the biggest of which came on a fourth-and- goal late in the game. Before the play, the team gathered on the sidelines around its coach.

“Now Leroy, we’re gonna give it to you!” Schembechler screamed.

“Give it to me,” he panted.

“You’ve got to get it in there!”

“I’ll get it in there.”

He got it in, as if there were never a doubt. Touchdown. Michigan won. Schembechler referred to him as “Leroy The Magnificent.”

Of course, he has referred to him as a few other things as well. How do I coach thee? Let me shout the ways: There was Leroy’s first scrimmage, four years ago, when Jarrod Bunch was hurt and Leroy was the only fullback. Oops! He fumbled. And here came that gravelly voice. “WILL I BE GLAD WHEN BUNCH GETS BACK!”

Then there was the time last year when Hoard played well against Indiana, then missed a few classes, as if he were entitled. “WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?” yelled Bo. “I’VE WARNED YOU ABOUT THIS! YOU THINK JUST BECAUSE YOU HAD A GOOD GAME YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO TO CLASS?”

He sat out the next week.

There was the incident this year, before the Indiana game, when Hoard had root canal surgery. Said he couldn’t practice. Bo said OK. The next day came, and he still couldn’t practice. Couldn’t get his helmet over his swollen face, he claimed. “DAMN IT,” said Bo. “I HAD ROOT CANAL MYSELF! ONE DAY IS ALL YOU MISS FOR THAT. NOW YOU PRACTICE OR YOU WON’T START.”

He didn’t practice.

He didn’t start.

For all this scolding, you might expect Hoard to be bitter, annoyed, scowling all the time. Fat chance. Ask him why he gets yelled at so often, he’ll answer: “I deserve it.” Ask if he ever yells back, out of frustration, he makes a face. “No way!”

It is almost as if, deep down, he possesses a wisdom that makes him know what he needs, even when it’s not fun, like a kid who might walk into a dentist’s office — by himself.

I guess Bo figures I need the yelling,” Hoard said Tuesday, outside the pink stucco resort where the team is staying. “It’s like when he recruited me down in New Orleans. A lot of coaches were telling me just the good stuff, what I wanted to hear. They skipped over the bad parts.

“But Bo was really honest. He told me how hard it would be, academically, and how tough practices would be. I respected him for that. . . . It was funny, because as a kid, I watched him on TV throwing a fit on the sidelines. I said to myself, ‘Boy, I’d hate to be one of his players.’ And what do I end up doing? I go to Michigan.”

Exactly. Why choose the hard route? Why not go where he would be pampered? Why not go to a school like SMU, whose booster types, Hoard claims, once offered him $150,000 in a suitcase to choose their program? “It was in a restaurant,” he said earlier this year. “They just opened the suitcase and there was all this money. I told them I couldn’t take it.”

He went to Michigan instead.

Why? Why make it hard on himself? Why talk about the importance of education, then miss a class? Why return for a fifth year next season when money awaits in the NFL? This is a guy who might appear to be selfish, but who wore a towel that read “BOLES” in the Ohio State game, dedicated to his injured teammate Tony Boles. He has a sweetness that belies his sometimes mischievous actions.

“Leroy,” says Schembechler, “is basically a good kid. Deep down. And extremely likable. When it’s all over, I think coaches are a little closer to the guys who gave them a little friction but turn out OK. That’s the way it’ll be with Leroy.”

After Monday’s game.

“What does it mean to be playing this game without Tony Boles?” Hoard was asked.

“No rest,” he said.

Exactly. Which should worry USC more than the Wolverines. Hoard seems to kick into higher gear when the team needs him desperately. Against Ohio State last month, with Boles out, he amassed 152 yards and a touchdown. Last year, in the crucial game against Illinois, again with Boles missing, he had 137 yards and two touchdowns. And you already know about last year’s Rose Bowl.

Here’s something you might not know. Late last season, Hoard went to Schembechler to complain about all the screaming. He had finally reached the saturation point. “How come you yelled at me for this time, and this time, and this time?” Hoard asked.

Instead of losing his temper, Schembechler listened, then answered each question. Gave his reasons for every yell. “By the time he was finished, I said, ‘OK, you can yell at me any time now,’ ” Hoard said. “Because he had a good reason for every one. And that’s all I needed to know.”

And on they go, Dennis and Mr. Wilson, into their final game together. It will be a fitting finish to Schembechler’s career, being led in his favorite part of the game — the rush — by a kid he molded, cajoled, punished and embraced. A kid who will benefit from having chosen Michigan, and not just because he gained a lot of yards. Hoard will be the first to tell you that he has grown up at Michigan, “learned responsibility and how to act.”

It may be a good thing, however, that Bo is retiring after the Rose Bowl.

His vocal cords could use the rest.


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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.

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