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

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — A great thinker once said: “To know a man, you must walk a mile in his shoes.” Or, barring that, you must at least learn his bathroom habits.

Well. That’s the way it worked for Larry Smith:

“It was back at Miami of Ohio, 1967. Bo Schembechler was head coach and we were his assistants. We were all living in Bo’s house — he was a bachelor then — and there was only one bathroom. Of course, since he was head coach, he got priority in using it.

“He went in every morning at 7 o’clock. Never failed. The rest of us worked around him. You could get up at some ungodly hour, like 5:30, and have the bathroom to yourself, or you could wait until he was done at about 7:30 and use it then.

“Of course, he expected you at football practice by 8 o’clock sharp.”

He laughs.

“So you learned to move pretty fast in there.”

Hollywood loves the theme of student facing teacher. There was Cruise against Newman in “The Color of Money.” Luke Skywalker battling father Darth Vader in “Revenge of The Jedi.” It is good theater, a warfare of emotion, respect mixed with jealousy, intimidation dashed with fear. Age, youth, wisdom, hunger.

So why not? Today, in the tinseltown glory of the Rose Bowl, we have Southern Cal versus Michigan.

Smith vs. Schembechler.

The Battle For The Bathroom, Part II.

Well, after all, Schembechler is approaching 60. You stick around football as long as he has, you are bound to see your shadow come back on itself. Bo is no stranger to the horseshoe of time; he grew up under Woody Hayes, then, for years, battled Hayes in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.

And now Bo is the champ, and Smith is the challenger. It has been 16 years since they worked together, and yet that is misleading, for those were not ordinary times. There was something raw and wonderful about college football at Miami of Ohio and Michigan in those days, a feeling of birth, of hunger, the kind of ground-floor desire that means smoky rooms at midnight, empty pizza boxes, the projector humming late and long. Everyone was on the rise, no one more so than Schembechler, a four-star general in cleats. He was the leader. And those who were with him knew they had grabbed onto a hurricane.

You were almost giddy with football in those days. “We practiced all day, came home, watched film, ate, and watched some more,” Smith recalls. “That’s the way Bo wanted it. And we did whatever he said.”

Of course there were rewards. The Miami of Ohio team was successful, and when Schembechler was offered the head coaching job at Michigan, he took most of his staff with him. Smith had coached the defensive ends for Schembechler in Ohio. In Ann Arbor, he oversaw the offensive line, as near to Schembechler’s heart as his arteries.

And speaking of heart, yes, Smith was there for the very first Schembechler Rose Bowl, 1970, the one Bo missed because he suffered a heart attack the morning of the game. “We had to tell the team,” says Smith. “That was the hardest part. We all gathered together for the pre-game meal, and we decided to wait until after they were done eating. But it was obvious something was wrong. I mean, this was the biggest game of the year and Bo wasn’t in the room? They knew something was up. So finally we just stood up and said, ‘Guys, Coach had a heart attack.’

“And then we had to go play the game.”

You don’t forget memories like that. You don’t forget the weeks that followed, when you took care of Bo’s kids, moving into his house in Ann Arbor, making the boys peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

You don’t forget the time you scouted the Ohio State Buckeyes, then considered the greatest team of the decade, and a guy asked you if the Wolverines could beat them and you said yeah, they could, and it turned out the guy was from The New York Times, and a big story came out, and Schembechler called you in and screamed his head off and said you were fired if the Wolverines didn’t win that game, which, thank the Lord, they did.

You don’t forget how your wife, Cheryl, introduced Bo to his soon-to-be wife, Millie, a blind date set up with a phone call. You don’t forget when Bo offered you a spot on the Michigan coaching staff, and you don’t forget how he pleaded with you not to leave Michigan when an opportunity came up in Arizona.

You don’t forget the screaming, the temper tantrums, the unexpected pat on the back, the tears, the late night jokes, the refrigerator that was empty, the bus rides, the sidelines. And you don’t forget the bathroom.

You don’t forget, and yet you can’t allow yourself to remember, not fondly, not now, because the guy who gave you all that, the guy you yourself call “the No. 1 man in college football, easily, bar none, he’s a legend along with Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes,” will be across the field today. And if you allow all that he means to you to creep into your brain, well, you might as well hand over the whistle to someone else.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, to coach against Bo,” Smith admits. “But it’s exciting as well. One thing he wanted from all of us was to be competitive. We are. When we step out there, I want to win, make no mistake about that. I’m not intimidated by him at all.”

Why should he be? He has been a head coach for a long time now. And he has history on his side, right? After all, Schembechler’s teams have won only once in eight tries at this Rose Bowl. The Pac-10 champion traditionally has the bigger, stronger, faster players, and today will be no exception.

Still, Smith, 49, a tall man with a full head of pepper- colored hair — he looks almost too scholarly for football, like a professor, or a cardiologist — cannot yet lay claim to Pac-10 supremacy. He is in only his second year at USC, after seven years as head coach at Arizona. Last season his Trojans made the Rose Bowl, only to lose to Michigan State.

So what we have here are two head coaches who have little luck in this New Year’s tradition. Who has the advantage?

“If you ask me,” Schembechler said last week, “it may be Larry. I remember when I was coaching against Woody, I always studied him harder than I think he studied me. I had the extra incentive. It may be that way for Larry now.”

Smith, when told of the comments, broke out into laughter. “He told you that? Ha. Fat chance. That’s so like him, trying to shift the advantage. I’m never going to have an edge on him. He’s putting you on.”

So be it. The teacher and the student, on equal footing now, across the grass from each other, surrounded by their own armies and their own memories. The tendency is to turn this into a major subplot, and of course, that’s not fair. These are still two football teams preparing for each other, not two coaches. After all, Bo doesn’t have to tackle Smith at any point during the game.

Still, the mind games abound. The other day at a dual press conference, Schembechler was a few minutes late, so Smith left the podium and commenced with one-on-one TV interviews in a back room. In the meantime, Schembechler showed up. He took his seat at the podium, waited for Smith to return, and, when he did, glanced at his watch and said, “Well. It’s about time you showed up.”

Walk a mile in his shoes. Get to know the man. There is something nice about the symmetry of this game, something that says tradition, patience and hard work all have a place in the game. And so does memory.

Of course, should Smith win today, he will not be counting on a smiling Schembechler patting him on the back.

Then again, if his players want to throw him in the showers, at least he won’t have to wait until the bathroom is free. TEACHER AND PUPIL Here’s how Bo Schembechler’s record matches up against that of his former assistant, Southern Cal coach Larry Smith:

SCHEMBECHLER SMITH Seasons 26 13 1988 8-2-1 10-1 Current school 183-46-5 18-5 Overall 223-63-8 84-60-3 Bowls 4-11 1-2-1 Rose Bowl 1-7 0-1 CUTLINE

When Southern Cal coach Larry Smith (right) looks across the field at today’s Rose Bowl, he’ll see his old boss, Bo Schembechler.


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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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