JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — One good thing Bo Schembechler is accomplishing with this Ernie Harwell fiasco: he is making Gary Moeller’s job a lot easier.
Face it. When Moeller took over at Michigan, his biggest hurdle was not teaching the boys how to block and tackle. It was escaping the Schembechler ghost. Schembechler was worshiped as a football coach. Had he merely retired, then hung around Ann Arbor, his shadow would have dwarfed Moeller for years.
Ah, but here came the Tigers. Bo signed on as president. And now, the more news he makes in baseball, the good moves, the bad moves, the interviews, the controversies — the more he does, the more he erases himself at Michigan. You start to think of Bo as a Tiger man now, in a suit and tie, and not so much the Wolverines coach with the blue cap and the whistle around his neck. That image, more and more, belongs to Gary Moeller. Mo knows football.
Here at the Gator Bowl, he walks around like a man in charge. He is comfortable these days, he feels the part — kind of like a new president after his first State of the Union address. True, Moeller wears fewer ties than his predecessor. He also doesn’t bark as much. “At Bo’s practices, you always heard him hollering,” offensive lineman Dean Dingman said. “At Mo’s practices, you just hear the whistle.”
Which is not to say that Moeller doesn’t take the game as seriously. On the contrary, while Schembechler would boil, steam, then erupt, Moeller takes the harder route: he keeps it inside.
Only his pillow takes a beating. Season has taught him a lot “There’s so many nights you just don’t sleep,” said Moeller, who Tuesday will cap his first season with a New Year’s Day bowl. “That’s the one thing nobody can really appreciate about this job until they have it. All those nights you stay up thinking, if I had done this, if I had done that. . . .” He sighed and looked over the hotel balcony. At 49, his dark hair is still thick and peppered with gray. His voice is deep, loud — a good voice for a commander. This is his second bowl as Michigan’s head coach
(he directed U-M in the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1988 when Schembechler underwent heart surgery). Moeller jokingly admitted, “I’ve coached more bowl games than seasons.”
And yet no bowl game will teach him what the autumn of 1990 has taught him. In a single fall, his team has been as high as No. 1 in the nation, and as low as .500 with no bowl possibilities. That it is finishing closer to the former than the latter is a credit to Moeller. It may be what makes him a great coach before this is over.
See, every new coach has this moment where the devil pokes him and says,
“Prove yourself.” For Moeller, it came midway through the season, after the stunning, last-minute loss to Iowa. Having been upset the previous week by Michigan State on a play they’re still arguing (both losses were at home), Moeller suddenly found his team 3-3. Confidence was low. Spirit was down. U-M had gone from trying to win the national championship to trying to win the Big Ten to trying not to embarrass itself. “If I had to point to one moment where I started to feel like a head coach, that was it,” Moeller said. “That week. I pulled my guys aside. I said from now on, we shut the outside world out, we start a new season, we don’t listen to what anyone says about us, good or bad.
“To be honest with you, I got mad. I reacted to the biggest challenge of the year by getting mad.”
And getting even. The Wolverines — who could have given up and blamed their new coach — instead responded to his tighter focus. They knocked off Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio State. Since Moeller got mad, they haven’t lost. They are not a juggernaut. But they are a ship with a captain.
And the captain is getting used to the wheel. Tough transition to head coach “You know,” Moeller said, “when Bo was coaching, sometimes he would walk right past people, players, staff, and not say hello. I used to think it was all calculated. But now I see that as head coach, it’s possible to have your brain so flooded with things that you honestly don’t notice people. . . .
“Another hard transition is with your former players. As an assistant coach, you could be their buddy. Let the head coach do the yelling. I can’t do that now. I’m the head guy.
“The other thing about the job is the losses. They really hurt. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that Michigan State game, and wonder if I did the right thing by going for two points instead of the tie. I ask myself, “Where would we be right now if I had gone for the tie?’ Maybe we wouldn’t have lost the following week. Maybe we’d be in the hunt for a national championship. I’d still do the same thing over again, but . . . “
He ran a hand through his hair. The second-guessing will continue. The losses will always hurt. But at least one stumbling block is behind him. This is his team now. The questions about Schembechler have diminished. And when they do come, they usually have to do with . . . baseball?
“Bo told me his side of the Ernie thing. All I can say is, there’s more to it than it seems. Bo’s pretty rational. He wouldn’t make that move for no reas-“
Suddenly, he spotted his secretary. He excused himself, got up and began to talk about plane schedules. Baseball stuff will have to wait. The head football coach is, you know, kind of busy.