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

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Gary Moeller is wearing a tie these days. Pretty soon, the jacket will follow. He’ll develop that special walk, the brisk pace that discourages autograph hounds. His eyes will focus straight ahead. His mind will work a mile a minute. He inevitably will have someone on his right or left, a PR guy, an assistant, and he’ll turn and say, “How much time do I got?”

He will be the Head Coach, soon, very soon, 100 hours from now and counting. Already, he has one foot on the stage, like an Academy Award nominee who has been told the results. People slap him on the back. Old friends are calling for jobs. Thursday, for the first time in the years that Bo Schembechler has taken Michigan to Rose Bowls, Moeller took Bo’s place in the morning press conference. “Might as well get used to it,” Bo seemed to be saying.

“Are you studying how Bo does things this final week?” I asked Moeller Thursday in his hotel room.

“Well, yeah, a little,” he admitted. “He’s really good at that stuff, like meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyland and talking to the media. But people have to remember. The biggest difference between Bo and me is all the years that he’s had to get used to this head coach stuff.”

Twenty-one years, to be exact, at Michigan. And six before that at Miami
(Ohio). How do you replace a legend, they ask? Ha! Gary Moeller — “Coach Mo” to rhyme with “Coach Bo” — was there when Schembechler was mere flesh and blood.

Remember? Bo was once the nice coach

It was Ohio State, 1959. Moeller was a hard-nosed freshman lineman from Lima, Ohio, the son of a creamery worker. Bo was an crew-cutted assistant to Woody Hayes. Back then, Schembechler was actually the nice one, the friendly
“players’ ” coach. Woody was the tyrant. He once ripped Moeller for chewing gum in a nationally televised game against UCLA. “All I did was move my jaw a little while the camera was on me. And hoooee! Woody was all over me.

Bo was a pussycat by comparison. He and Moeller grew close. When Bo got his own team, he gave Mo his first job in college coaching — as an assistant at Miami (Ohio).

So it began. They were together when Bo got the job at Michigan. They were together for the ride to Ann Arbor, when Bo got lost and had to ask for directions.

They were together when the Wolverines beat Ohio State in the biggest upset of the decade. They were together, chuckling, when Hayes ripped up the yard markers and threw a temper tantrum.

They were together when Moeller was offered the head coaching job at Illinois, and Bo said, “Take it, but be careful. Make sure they know you need five years to build a program there.”

They were together when Moeller was fired after only three years.

“I want you back,” Schembechler said.

“But Bo, you always said never take a guy back once he’s left your staff.”

“Aw, hell. You’re different.”

They never separated again. They were together for Dierdorf, O’Neal, Carter, Harbaugh. They were together for the bomb that beat Ohio State, and the crazy onside kick that gave the game to Miami. They would hibernate in the football rooms for hours, arguing and smoking cigars.

And when Bo called Moeller into his office a month ago and said, “Mo, I’m giving it up,” his friend said, “Hey, Bo, don’t do it. You’re tired? Let me do the work. You take the credit. Stay.”

“Nuh-uh. I’m turning it over. To you.” Remember the Woody factor And now the hours pass until their final game together. Moeller admits the Michigan offense is “probably 50 percent me, 50 percent Bo.” He has already coached the defense. He’s got three decades of experience. He is prepared. And yet. . . .

“I sort of like the way it is right now, knowing I’ll be the coach, but still having Bo here in charge. . . . I know I can’t be him. I won’t have the same effect when I first meet people. But I want the same kind of program. Heck, I’ve been in it long enough.” He laughed, a different laugh from Schembechler’s, deeper, louder. But then, nothing stays the same. Or does it? People whisper that Coach Mo may never be another Coach Bo. But look at the facts: Woody coached Bo. Woody coached Mo. Bo was Woody’s assistant. Mo was Bo’s assistant. Bo coached against Woody. Mo coached against Bo.

How much symmetry do you want?

“I can get mad,” Mo says of his temper. And the media? “I can deal with it.” Biggest frustration? “When a kid who knows better still makes mistakes. That really bugs me.”

Remind you of anyone?

He is wearing the tie. Soon he gets the whistle. They say U-M will never be the same. But you think of Bo and Mo, two crew-cut dreamers from Ohio, and how much they have endured together, and you know what? Something tells me not to worry.


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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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