by | Dec 14, 1989 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He began his legacy by driving down the wrong street, getting lost, and having to call the football office from a pay phone. “Uh, this is Bo Schembechler, the new coach?” he said to a rather confused secretary. “Where the heck are you?”

Twenty-one years later, on a cold winter evening, he was saying good-bye. This time the room was stuffed with reporters, tight-lipped coaches, former players and a million memories. This time, he knew exactly where he was. This time, it was the university that felt lost.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” said Bo Schembechler, 60, choking back tears as he announced his retirement, “is give up . . . my football team . . . but I’m doing it . . . I think I’ve run my luck about as far as I can take it.”

There goes a legend. What will Michigan do without Bo? Who will win all those games? Who will pace the sidelines on Saturday afternoons, who will scream at the referees, who will waddle through an army of apple-cheeked freshmen every August as they squat on the playing field. “GENTLEMEN, THIS IS MICHIGAN!” he would say. “AND AT MICHIGAN WE DO THINGS ONE WAY.”

His way.

It was always his way. Oh, maybe not this retirement part. He had wanted to tell his team first, but when he woke up Wednesday, the story had leaked. That upset him. So did these questions about the athletic director position
— a job he can’t possibly keep, not if you know his personality.

Here walks the ultimate coach. On his first day of practice, 21 autumns ago, he sucked a mouthful of air and blew into a whistle — only to find the whistle was broken. So? He just screamed, “GATHER ROUND,” and began a remarkable era of college football, one that would span countless big games and Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls and star players and never, never a losing season. Nor the hint of scandal. His way. Always his way. He beat Ohio State, he beat USC, UCLA, Notre Dame. He beat the Big Ten knotheads, he beat the doctors. He beat everything they could throw at him; he just couldn’t beat himself. Finally, after a lifetime of pushing the outer envelope of his existence, he said, “All right, you win. I’ll slow down. I will live.”

“Something told me after the last Ohio State game I would not be back again,” he said Wednesday. Truth is, he knew sooner than that. The thing that was telling him was his own voice.

And there is no mistaking that voice. Last one-name coach

“This has been the greatest job I’ve ever had,” he said. And he will miss it. Big time.

This, after all, is the last of the one-name coaches. Woody. Bear. Bo. You know how some men seem born for their occupations? Check out that walk, that frumpy coat, that crooked smile, those booming vocal cords. A football coach. “That’s all I am,” he would always say. As of Jan. 2 — after his final game, the Rose Bowl against USC — he will be one no more. Gary Moeller, his long-time assistant, will take over. Bo’s Wolverine days, at least the active ones, will be finished.

Oh sure, he said he “might stay on” as athletic director, the position he has held the last year. I don’t buy it. Not for a second. He will be gone when the football is over. Let’s face it. Bo is never one for office work. He was never one for watching. I once sat next to him in the stands, and he nearly punched a hole in my arm. And that was basketball!

No. A football coach should coach football, not play executive. Bo never really liked the role of athletic director — he really only took it because of university pressure and his desire to keep the football team away from any evil new bosses. Once he hands over the whistle on Jan. 2, he will find a new challenge, something closer to home, something with fewer airplanes, something in sports. I promise you this: He will not go gentle into that good night.

He never has.

This, after all, is a man who once destroyed an office when the Big Ten sent Ohio State to the Rose Bowl instead of Michigan. A man who got so mad once at halftime, he kicked an entire tray of Coca-Colas into the air. A man who stood in the middle of practice and got blind-sided by a speeding receiver, knocking him down, making his entire body throb with pain. You know what he did? He looked up, saw his team gathered in a circle, and rose to his feet. “That,” he said, dusting himself off, “would have killed a mortal man.”

That’s Bo. Ask any of his former players to tell you a story and they will inevitably launch into an impersonation, some bark, some holler, some magic words that have stayed with them years after Schembechler has forgotten them.

Think of what he has done. When he first arrived, the program was merely average, in the shadow of national champion Ohio State and his one-time mentor Woody Hayes.

“GENTLEMEN,” Bo said to his skeptical players, “THOSE WHO STAY WILL BE CHAMPIONS!” That November, his Wolverines shocked the nation by upsetting Ohio State in the biggest game to be played here this century.

He kept his word.

When he first arrived, the coaches’ “locker room” was five hooks on the wall. “GENTLEMEN,” he told his staff, “THERE WILL BE SOME CHANGES AROUND HERE!” Today, they are building the new Center of Champions, a state-of-the-art athletic facility that costs $12 million. Bo raised every penny from contributors and threw in a healthy chunk of his own money to boot.

He kept his word.

Throughout his time here, there were scandals across the nation, other coaches were buying players, changing grades, handing out sports cars, cheating. “GENTLEMEN,” he announced. “WE WILL RUN A CLEAN PROGRAM!” They never wavered. Once, in his first year at Michigan, an over-zealous booster called to complain about the use of a player. Bo ignored him.

“You don’t understand,” said the man. “I’m a very influential member of the M Club.”

“Not anymore, you’re not,” said Bo. He kept his word. He keeps promise

So it should be no surprise that he is keeping his word now. He promised himself and his wife, Millie, who had stood there that morning two years ago as the doctors gooped his chest and prepared to slice him open, that he would not push things beyond human limits. On Wednesday, Millie stood in the corner of the crowded press conference, her lips tightly clenched.

“Did you cry?” someone asked her.

“All day,” she confessed.

She met him on a blind date in St. Louis, back when nobody knew his name. Bo who? How do you spell that? They went for a ride in a Missouri riverboat.

He played with her children. He seemed so happy. Three months later they were married.

And by the following winter, their lives had changed forever. He was suddenly coach of the Michigan Wolverines. Who knew what fame that would bring? Who could foresee the success — all those Big Ten titles, the coach-of-the-year awards, the banquets, the speeches. Who might predict that students would one day chant, “Bo is God!”

Nobody. So in the margins around football, Bo and Millie tried to build a normal life. It hasn’t really been normal. “You work 14 or 15 hours a day, you get to bed late, you get up early, you eat on the run, you don’t have time to exercise,” said Schembechler, listing the perils of coaching. After awhile you say, “It’s time to stop.”

The time has come.

Health concerns him now, he admits it. Oh, once upon a time, he laughed at it. He suffered a heart attack the morning of his first Rose Bowl, and as they pushed him down on the operating table he said, “Hey doc, I’ve got a game to coach today.”

Now, health is not so funny. Despite an image to the contrary, Schembechler does not wish to be buried on the sidelines. There were moments this season when the travel left him exhausted. Another airplane. Another bus. Another press conference. Last month, when someone tried to coerce him into yet another commitment, he exploded. “I can’t! I can’t do it!” he yelled. “I don’t want to die, OK.”

His doctors told him he was pushing his luck. Two heart attacks? Two open-heart surgeries? Sixty years old? Yeah. You could call that pushing your luck.

But let this be known: What he did Wednesday was not because of some X-ray or medical chart. It was not because a collapse was imminent. On the contrary. He wants to walk away while he still can.

“I’m not sick, make sure you write that,” he admonished one reporter.

OK. He’s not sick. True to form

But he is gone. This is for real. And the feeling is like losing an old friend, a favorite teacher, and, for the players — a father figure. True to form, he announced his retirement now rather than go recruiting when he knew he wouldn’t coach the kids he attracted.

“That wouldn’t be right,” he said. And that was reason enough to say good-bye.

The man who will replace him, Moeller, his offensive coordinator, is his hand-chosen successor. Moeller not only thinks like Bo, reacts like Bo and has a rhyming nickname (Bo, Mo), but he was in that car 21 years ago when Schembechler took the wrong turn and wound up cruising Ann Arbor like a general in search of his army.

“Yep, a green Toronado,” Moeller said Wednesday. “I can still remember that car.” Good. Tradition should count for something.

It has counted for 21 years. We were lucky to have Schembechler all this time. So were his players. So were his coaches. So were the mothers and fathers whose living rooms he graced, from mansions in California to a rundown tenement in Detroit, where Bo once visited a promising player and found his mother huddled around a fire rock that was the only heat in the house.

“We’ve got to do something about that,” he told his assistant when they left. “And we’ve got to get that kid into Michigan.”

He came. He graduated. He is on his way to becoming a teacher.

You want to know the true Schembechler legacy? That’s it right there. Kids you won’t see in the NFL, but who have their degree and a nice job and a family, thanks largely to the stumpy, grinning tough guy who wore the blue cap and the black shoes.

There goes a legend.

“Would you like to be a sports writer next?” someone jokingly asked. Schembechler laughed. “No, because I’d be too much of a homer. I’d always come down in favor of the coach.”

You know what, Bo? That hasn’t been so hard to do. As Moeller spoke of the future and reporters scribbled away, someone saddled up to Schembechler and asked if he would be available the next morning.

“Hey man,” said Bo. “I got some film to look at. I got one more game to coach here, you know.”

And with that, he left his farewell party. What becomes a legend most? In this case, just being himself. Really, now. What more could you want?


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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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