So this is how far it has sunk. Tom Monaghan, who used to worship the turf Bo Schembechler walked on, now fires him in the middle of a Monday afternoon. Sends out a press release. Cites irreconcilable differences. Like some kind of marriage that went south.
Which, I guess, in a way, it was. Monaghan is the same guy who once came to Bo’s house on a snowy winter night and begged him not to leave the University of Michigan for Texas A&M. He was near tears. He offered Bo a pizza franchise to stay.
Years later, when Schembechler’s health forced his exit from football, there was Monaghan again, across a restaurant table, making promises, writing numbers on a napkin. “This is what I’ll give you to be president of the Tigers,” he said.
Bo had better find that napkin now. He’ll need it. Because no matter how much Monaghan may admire you from afar, when you work for him, you are under his thumb. And sooner or later, you are going to get squished. So it happened Monday, without warning, to Schembechler, a guy who got into baseball because he loved the game and exits wondering what happened to the good part.
“Nobody has talked to me, I’m not going anywhere,” Bo had insisted, from his office, just hours before this news broke. He obviously didn’t know what his boss was cooking up. Sure, it was inevitable that Schembechler and Jim Campbell would move on once the team was sold. But there are ways to let people go. And this is not the way you do it.
Monaghan hadn’t talked to Schembechler in nearly a month. What a boss. He makes you promises, then he disappears to build churches in Nicaragua.
Then you get a press release: You’re fired.
This much is true: Monaghan has sold the team to Mike Ilitch — they are just waiting for the final paperwork and baseball approval — and, as part of the deal, Monaghan’s people promised that, by transfer day, Schembechler and Jim Campbell would be gone.
“Oh yeah, right from the beginning, they made that clear,” Ilitch said Monday evening. “Believe me, I’m not behind this. Gosh, no, not at all. I think it’s something between Tom and Bo.
“But they told us all along that Jim was going to retire and Bo was going to leave.”
Sure. Except they never told Bo.
Lotta class this Monaghan has, huh? Firing isn’t justice served
Now, no matter what you think of him, Bo Schembechler did not deserve this. He made mistakes, but he was hired to do a job and he did it the best he knew how. He helped whip the farm system into some kind of shape. He insisted on a conditioning program that would at least bring the Tigers into the 20th Century. He may not have been the world’s biggest baseball expert, but most presidents don’t have to be. Besides, you try working for Monaghan, a guy who says one thing today and disappears tomorrow. Schembechler took countless bullets for his owner on things like Ernie Harwell and the stadium issue — which, when all was said and done, wasn’t about Bo’s money and wasn’t about Bo’s stadium. But he took the bullets anyhow, while Monaghan was off trying to spend his way into heaven.
Now he takes the good-bye bullet. Monaghan promised Schembechler all sorts of things when he hired him, and if he’s any kind of man, he’ll live up to those promises. I’m not sure Bo can count on that, and that is probably why he hired a lawyer.
If the news that Bo has a lawyer angered Monaghan to the point of firing him, well, the boss ought to use a little common sense. He hasn’t told Schembechler anything throughout this whole sale process. And remember, Bo has a gravely ill wife, enormous medical bills, insurance needs, etc. He has been splitting his time this past year between the office and the hospital, between the office and home, trying to keep Millie’s spirits up, getting her to exercise, urging her to keep fighting the cancer.
Monday, by the way, was the Schembechlers’ 24th wedding anniversary.
I guess this was Monaghan’s gift.
“What I hope will happen,” Bo told me Monday, when he still thought he had a job, “is that we’ll sit down and negotiate a fair arrangement before the sale of the team is final. I’m hoping that happens. I think it will.”
Sorry, Bo. You gave your boss too much credit.
Of course, that’s easy to do, considering how little he actually deserves.
Month-old yelling match
This is not the first rift between Monaghan and Schembechler. The boss actually “fired” Bo once before, last month, in a yelling match at Tiger Stadium. At the time, Monaghan wanted Bo to allow someone from Ilitch’s staff to work in the Tiger offices between the signing of a deal and approval by the league. He made it sound like the deal hinged on it. But Schembechler, who has always played by the rules, said “absolutely not.” It wasn’t legal. Baseball wouldn’t allow it.
And he was right.
Didn’t matter. Monaghan, apparently desperate for the deal to go through
— he needs that $80-85 million, believe me — became incensed with Bo, showed
up at his office, argued, yelled “You’re fired!” a few times, then broke into tears and recanted. That was the last time they spoke, Big Tom playing the bully one minute, weeping the next. I think it’s pretty obvious we are dealing with a skittish personality here. And I’m being polite.
The sooner he is gone, the better. The Tigers, under Monaghan, have been an impossible, clandestine and archaic organization to deal with, and right up to Monday, when they claimed Schembechler had not come into work that day — hey, I spoke to the guy at noon and he was in his office — they were lying.
And when I asked Ilitch if he ever insisted on having a staff member work alongside Schembechler — as Monaghan had suggested — he said, “No way. We never asked for that.” So who knows what Tom was griping about?
The fact is, Monaghan has been reduced to a pawn of Goldman-Sachs, the investment firm he hired to sell his team. If they want Schembechler and Campbell out — who knows why, legal reasons, money reasons, I’m sure money is at the bottom of all this, somewhere — then Tom, like a marionette, will do what they say. This is baseball in the ’90s. Maybe someday, before the turn of the century, we can get back to talking sports at Michigan and Trumbull.
Meanwhile, so ends today’s soap opera. Schembechler is not blameless in this mess, of course. He trusted Monaghan. Thought he was OK. But time brings out the truth in everyone. And this morning, we have one more person who thought he loved baseball, and found out the front office is a million miles from the playing field.
You know how Schembechler discovered he had lost his job? Bernie Smilovitz, from Channel 4, called him after reading the press release on the wires, and read it over the phone. This was Bo’s entire reaction:
“Today is my 24th wedding anniversary. I’ve got more important things to think about right here. The hell with that.”
And he hung up.
And that is the only good part of this story.