PASADENA, Calif. — In the end there was no Santa Claus. There was no Happy New Year. Bo Schembechler could only stand there, the headphones dangling, as the final seconds of his career ticked away. The wrong way. Michael Taylor, his quarterback, threw wide, the ball hit the ground. He threw deep. The ball sailed past the intended receiver. He took the final snap — fourth down and miracle to go — and he was stuffed in an army of Southern Cal defenders. They dragged him, they swirled him, they threw him to the ground the way many of Schembechler’s Rose Bowl dreams have been thrown to the ground in years past.
Three, two, one . . .
Wait a minute. Is that any way to say good-bye? Is that any way to bring down the curtain — with a 17-10 loss to USC that stung perhaps more than any bowl loss before it? Well. That’s the trouble with sports. You can’t orchestrate your farewell party. And so instead of the victory march that Maize and Blue fans had dreamed about, it was the Trojans carrying their head coach off the field. Instead of the dominating Michigan ground game that fans had come to expect, it was USC grounding out the real estate. Instead of the miracle finish that the Wolverines had put together on this field, against this team, just one year ago, it was the Trojans doing it this time, scoring their winning touchdown with just 70 seconds to play.
No fair. No fun.
And no coming back. What’s so good about good-bye? Nothing on this cool California evening. This was hardly the game the Wolverines had wanted for their coach’s farewell. The offense sputtered. The defense could not contain. The special teams made critical mistakes. Perhaps the only solace a Wolverine fan can take is that it was close.
Man, it was close. You can say this. If it’s the drama of college football that Schembechler is going to miss, he took a healthy spoonful with his last swallow. This was a game of mini explosions. It seemed as if something was happening all over the field, but you look up and the score is tied 10-10 with 10 minutes left.
And what a fourth quarter! There was a fumbled handoff that was barely recovered. There was a 2nd-and-29 play. There was a fake punt that might have changed everything — called back for a holding call. There was Schembechler in a farewell temper tantrum, throwing his play sheets to the ground and tripping over a wire.
That might have been his farewell right there. That play. That tantrum. Earlier in the week, a reporter had asked him if there wasn’t some trick play he’d been saving his whole career, just for this, his last game.
“Well, yeah, there is,” he giggled, without explaining.
Maybe that was it. Fourth and two at Michigan’s 46-yard line. Just six minutes left. Chris Stapleton, the punter, took the snap, and chugged around the left side. A fake! Look! It was a beautiful call, it easily made the first down, Stapleton kept running for a 24-yard gain, and surely the momentum would take the Wolverines to the end zone. The Michigan fans went crazy in the stands. Old Bo! What a card! What a call! What a . . .
What the . . . ?
A yellow flag.
It was all coming back. The play. The gain. The game, really. “The most incompetent call I’ve ever seen, ridiculous,” Schembechler would say. He launched into a fit, the team wound up with an unsportsmanlike-conduct call, and when the smoke cleared, the Wolverines were punting 25 yards behind where they had punted just minutes before.
And that was that.
USC took the ball and marched through the Wolverine defense. It was Todd Marinovich, the freshman quarterback, who wasn’t even born when Schembechler took over at Michigan, playing the hero. He ran on a third-down option play and got the first down, saving the drive. He held steady in the backfield on another third-down play, waiting for the rush, then threw over the middle to John Jackson for a big gain. An apple-cheeked freshman? This is the guy who ruined Bo’s good- bye party? A freshman?
Well. Remember how Schembechler had said he didn’t want any maudlin speeches at his farewell? “Just treat me like one of the seniors,” he said.
Seniors get replaced by a freshman.
Three, two, one . . .
Career. Maybe it was fate,” Schembechler said of that holding call after the game was over. “The way we were playing, so poorly . . .”
Well. What did you expect? He would just walk out quietly? Since when has he done that?
That’s the game. And thus ends a remarkable era, in which a stumpy, grumpy hot-tempered coach pulled a team out of mediocrity and made it great. For years. And more than that. He made us feel great, too. There were plenty of reasons to dislike Schembechler — if you didn’t live in Michigan. But those who rooted maize and blue fell in love with a man who would not let them down. That was the best part. You could bank on Bo. For honesty, integrity. Mostly for victory. Oh, he might lose a game, but he’d win the next. He might miss a championship, but another would be coming. You know what we were with Schembechler? We were confident. That was the most contagious part of him.
And maybe that is what walked off the field Monday in the dying California sunset. Our confidence. At least a slice of it. Michigan is mortal again. The Bo edge is gone. When we next see the Wolverines in uniform, they will be under new command.
So be it. During one of the countless press conferences this week, someone asked Bo how he wanted to go out. He squirmed as if someone had dropped an ice cube down his back. “Aw, geez,” he said, “I don’t know how to answer that. Nothing fancy. I don’t want to be one of those guys who fades into the sunrise.”
The sunrise? Well. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. Let the old blend into something new, something good and young. What’s so good about good-bye? In the end, as Bo has been saying all along, nothing much.