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

PASADENA — Uh-oh. Death before this. That’s what was racing through Jim Harbaugh’s brain the first time he threw a pass in a Michigan practice. It wasn’t a bad pass. Not for a nine-year- old. The problem was neither he nor the football was supposed to be there. Harbaugh was the son of a Wolverine assistant coach, Jack Harbaugh, and he was playing on the sidelines with the other coaches’ sons, and his pass accidently flew out into the middle of the big boys’ practice and when he heard the whistle shriek there was only one question left to be answered.

Would he get out alive?

“GET…THOSE…GOD…DAMNED…KIDS. ..” The voice was sizzling like onions on a grill, and Harbaugh can hear it even now. He does hear it even now. Almost every day. The same voice.

Bo Schembechler’s voice.


There might have been more said, but we’ll never know. Because by that point, little Jimmy Harbaugh — the kid who would grow up to be Bo Schembechler’s finest quarterback to date — was too busy running for his life.

This is a story about a football player and a coach who are about to play their last game together, and if you never had a coach you may never understand it. What is it that ties the guy with the helmet to the guy with the whistle? Fear? Admiration? Love?

Love? You wouldn’t have thought so the time Schembechler called Harbaugh
“the worst quarterback he’d had in 40 years,” or when he threw him off the team in his sophomore year, or when he told him, as a freshman, he would
“never play a down for Michigan in his life.”

You call that love?

But then again….

Well, you’ll see.
“To me Bo was bigger than life.”

Jim Harbaugh
“Aw, Jim was an ornery kid.” Bo Schembechler

Jim Harbaugh can barely remember a time when he wasn’t in awe of Bo Schembechler. Maybe in the crib. But from he moment he could pronounce the name, there was a tingle that went with it. He first became aware of him when the Michigan team used to roll into Iowa — where Jack Harbaugh was a coach
— and smear the Hawkeyes by 50 points. He became more aware when his dad was hired as an assistant by Schembechler and the family moved to Michigan. Bo would come over to his house to visit, and one time, he found Jim, then 10 years old, wrapped in a blanket watching TV.

“What are you doing watching TV?” Schembechler growled. “Why aren’t you doing something productive?”

What could Harbaugh do? He grabbed a book and pretended to read.

Today Jim Harbaugh is a completed version, senior quarterback, 23 years old, affable, mischievous, with a look that falls somewhere between Richard Gere and Dennis the Menace. He has been on the cover of magazines. Been televised by the major networks. Get him talking about an opponent and he sounds like a sergeant. But get him talking about his coach, and soon comes this glazed-eye look, like a child staring at a big rock-candy mountain, and when he really gets going he sounds almost religious.

“I’m starting to realize now I’m playing for a living legend,” he says.
“No matter what I do the rest of my life people will ask me what was it like to play for Bo Schembechler. I’ll always have that.”

And if that sounds a little, well, enthusiastic, remember that this was a kid whose fourth-grade show-and-tell project was a film entitled “A Week In The Life Of Bo Schembechler.” A kid who used to play in his underwear down in the basement, imagining he was a star at Michigan. “Jim Harbaugh’s having a great day today,” he would say into a make-believe microphone. “Yes,” he would add, now playing the color commentator, “I think he’s going to win the Heisman Trophy.”

He finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy this year. He holds most of the important passing records at UM.

Not bad for a guy who never figured to be here.

“Jim Harbaugh didn’t need Michigan to have a great career. Jim Harbaugh was a highly recruited quarterback out of high school.”


“I had like two schools recruiting me.”


It was his senior year in high school, he was living in California, and as he walked across the street to the Stanford football stadium, Jim Harbaugh figured his future might be determined in the next hour. He was dressed in a nice sweater, his hair neatly combed, loafers on his feet. Did he look grown up? He wanted to look grown up, because he was going to see Bo Schembechler, who was in town to coach the East-West Shrine Game. He hadn’t seen Schembechler since the family moved from Michigan two years earlier. “They weren’t even recruiting me,” Harbaugh recalls. “I got a few things in the mail, but, you know, no phone calls, nothing.

“So I went to see Bo after practice and he was nice to me, real cordial. He said they hadn’t seen any film on me, they didn’t really know anything about me. He talked a little about the quarterback situation at Michigan and then he started to talk about my parents, and that was it. I got the feeling he was just being nice to me, but there wasn’t really any interest.”

Harbaugh walked back to high school, got out of his nice clothes, and sighed. There was no question he dreamed of playing at Michigan. And there was no question he had no chance. Or so he thought.

According to Schembechler, this was all part of the strategy. “I knew Jim wanted to come here,” the coach says now, leaning back in the big chair in his mahogany-toned office. “Of course some of these kids figure just because I know mom and dad they’re gonna get a scholarship. That’s just not true. I don’t do that for anybody. But in his case, we had planned to offer him a scholarship before I ever went out there.”

“Why did you wait so long then?” he is asked.

His voice deepens. “If Jim Harbaugh was going to come to Michigan, then Jim Harbaugh was going to wait for me.”

Well, he waited. Right up to the last weekend of recruiting. Wisconsin had wanted Harbaugh badly. Arizona had expressed legitimate interest. Yet on the last possible weekend, the kid was flown into Ann Arbor, walked into Schembechler’s office — the same office where he had romped as a child — and the coach said simply, “We want you to come here,” and although he didn’t answer right away, Harbaugh walked out knowing he was hooked.

Not long after, he called Schembechler to accept. And that was that. So understated was the whole process that after Harbaugh said, “I’m coming,” and after Schembechler said, “Good,” the kid was compelled to ask one more question.

‘Uh, Bo,” he said, “that is a full scholarship, isn’t it?”

Schembechler cracked up.

“I never had any off-the-field problems with Jim.”


“He threw me off the team twice.”


This will be Jim Harbaugh’s first and last Rose Bowl. He led the Wolverines to a Fiesta Bowl victory last year over Nebraska. He could be the first UM quarterback to win two bowl games. Impressive, no? Especially considering the way he began his football career at Michigan. Which is to say, in the dumper.

“It was the very first meeting of the freshmen,” he says. “I was out somewhere and I lost track of the time. I got there late. Oh, man. I popped my head in five or 10 minutes late and Bo just exploded. ‘WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?’ he said. I just froze. I couldn’t get a word out. ‘WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?’ he said again. I mumbled something. I was petrified. He was screaming at me in front of all these guys I had never even met before. He goes, ‘You of all people! I can’t believe you! Your dad’s a coach! I’m gonna call him tonight!’ He was enraged. He stormed around. Then he said, ‘YOU’LL NEVER PLAY A DOWN OF FOOTBALL HERE! NEVER!”

Welcome to Michigan.

It would prove to be only one of a dozen times Harbaugh was told he would never play for the Wolverines. Such is the method of Schembechler — whose most common profile is with his mouth in mid-scream. But in Harbaugh’s case, it was more deliberate than you might think.

“The consensus about Jimmy,” Schembechler says now, “is that he would have been a problem to coach at quarterback. He was too stubborn, too cocky, and his temper was out of control. I remember seeing him as a freshman get up after a guy took a late hit at him and throw the ball right at the guy’s face. You can’t do that and be quarterback. You have to control your emotions.”

Schembechler smiles. “The other thing was, the other coaches around here seemed to think he played better when I stayed on his case.”

He never got off.

“I used to think, ‘My whole life will be ruined if I don’t play football here.”‘


“I was a little surprised at how Jim hung on every word I said.”

Schembechler Harbaugh saw little action his first two years. He thought he had a pretty good freshman spring, but whenever an assistant coach would compliment him, Schembechler would bark, “Leave him alone, I’m coaching him.” Then he’d turn to Harbaugh and say, “You’ve done nothing here.” Once, after a few mishaps, the coach called him “the worst quarterback he’s had in 40 years of coaching.”

“I walked away thinking ‘That can’t be true, can it?”‘ Harbaugh recalls.
“But what if it is? Forty years? God!” In February of his sophomore year, 1984, he and a few buddies went out after watching the Olympics and they got into trouble. They had a few beers. A screen was ripped from a dormitory. Words were exchanged with students. One football player shoved a student and the others turned and got out of there. Harbaugh was actually guilty of nothing but being along for the ride, but the next day Schembechler called him into his office.

“YOU’RE OFF THE TEAM!” he began.

Harbaugh swallowed. “What?” he said.


‘Yes…,” Harbaugh squeaked.

The coach slammed down a police report. “This is your name on this report! Assault and battery! Drunk and disorderly conduct! Damaging school property!”

“Bo, I didn’t do any of that!” Harbaugh said.

“IT’S IN THE REPORT!” the coach screamed, his face within inches.

“WELL I DIDN’T DO IT!” Harbaugh screamed back. It was the first time he retaliated so strongly. Schembechler stared at him for a long time, then said,

“Well you better clear it up.”

He did. He was reinstated. The weeks passed. Spring practice arrived. Harbaugh played well, he clearly won the starting job, and when it was over, Schembechler called him in.

“He told me I played great, that I was his starting quarterback, that he expected great things out of me,” Harbaugh says. “I left there feeling 10 feet tall.

“And the very next day he calls me in and says, “Forget everything I said yesterday! None of that is true today. You’ll probably never play here again!”

What had happened? The night before, Schembechler had gotten a call from a dorm director charging Harbaugh with breaking a fire alarm, and with being guilty of the incident to which he had pleaded innocent a few weeks earlier. Once again, it would be proven false and Harbaugh would be reinstated. But he never forgot the 24-hour roller- coaster ride. “It was the lowest and highest I have ever been.”

And he would never get that high or low again.

“How is he different than me? He has so much more charisma.”


“How is he different than me? He’s a better athlete.”


Harbaugh broke his arm his junior year against Michigan State. His first season as a starter was finished after five games.

Schembechler went to the hospital that night. “I told Jim there’s nothing he can do, just rehab it, stay up on the books, we’ll see if we can get it ready for spring. And as I’m walking away, you know what he says?

“He says “You won’t forget about me, coach, will you?”

Schembechler laughs. “You won’t forget about me,” he repeats, his voice softer than usual, “that’s the kind of kid he is.”

Know this. For all the macho that comes with football, there is still some genuine emotion wrapped into the Michigan program. Sch


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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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