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

There are some big shots in New York who have been trying to get Bo Schembechler to leave Ann Arbor, just for a few hours, to promote his new book on shows such as “Good Morning, America” and “Late Night with David Letterman.”

“I can’t leave my team during football season,” he says.

End of conversation.

Last year, George Bush personally called to ask for his support. One night, that’s all. Schembechler told the future president: “I can’t leave my team during football season.”

End of conversation.

You want Bo, you get him before July or after January. Fall is off-limits.

He never leaves Ann Arbor. Yet this week — as his No. 2 Wolverines prepare for perhaps the biggest game of the college football season, against No. 1 Notre Dame — Schembechler has already left twice. He has gone to Barberton, Ohio, his hometown, to be with his mother, who is ill.

When I heard this, it concerned me, more than such news usually would. It’s no secret that I helped Bo write his book. In doing so, I got to know Bo. And I got to know his mother. I’ve made an effort not to write this stuff in the newspaper, because I don’t want to seem like some sort of Schembechler expert.

But as I watch the hoopla of Michigan-Notre Dame swell into hysteria, I think you should know something that might put it in perspective. The rock of the Schembechler family

With everyone else on the planet — his players, his staff, his friends
— Bo Schembechler is the growling bear, the General, and he blows his whistle, you jump. And he loves it — it gives him an edge. But I swear, he can be in the middle of a red-faced tantrum, and you can say, “How’s your mother?” and he’ll stop and break into a huge grin.

“Oh, old Mom is doing all right . . . heh-heh . . . she’s something else
. . . she’s 86, you know.”

I know. In the past year I must have been told she’s 86 about 860 times. No surprise. Bo was always his mother’s boy. She was the one who took him to Cleveland Indians games, on Ladies Day. She was the one who taught him that if you don’t agree with someone, let him know it. When Bo’s nose was broken in a high school football game, she took him to a doctor, and the doctor said,
“No more football for this boy.” Bo looked at his mom. She rolled her eyes when the doctor turned away.

He played the rest of the year.

Betty Schembechler was the rock of the family, as stubborn and as strong as her now-famous son. When Bo’s father died of a stroke, just fell over on the couch, she remained strong and called Bo at Ohio State and told him the news. She never remarried. She never left Barberton. She still lives in the old house, and when Bo goes home she drags him upstairs to the attic to clean out some of the memorabilia, including the letter from the college administrators that said: “Dear Mrs. Schembechler, Your son, Bo, is in serious academic jeopardy. He is spending too much time socializing.”

She loves to show him that one. Like mother, like son

It is not uncommon to hear myths about a coach’s temper. But his mother’s? Well. Consider this tale, told by one of Bo’s closest friends: Several years ago, Bo, against her wishes, sent his mom a first-class plane ticket to California to visit her daughter. “A waste of money,” she called it. A few weeks later, the phone rang in his office.

“Bo, the car is broken.”

“So? Take it to our regular mechanic.’

“I’m not in Barberton.”

“Where are you, Mom?”


She was driving to California, on her own, without telling him, a woman in her 80s, and the car had broken down. Bo got so angry. How could she? Why didn’t she take the damn plane ticket? Finally she said, “If that’s the way you’re going to talk to your mother, I’m hanging up.”

She did. Only then did Bo realize he had no idea where she was. It took a dozen phone calls and the Nevada state troopers to track her down.

A great story, right? Except when you tell it to Mrs. Schembechler, she flat-out denies it. “That is the biggest bunch of malarkey I’ve ever heard. You must be crazy.” Bo just laughs and says he can’t remember. And to this day, I’m not sure if it’s true.

But it could be. I’ve never seen a relationship quite like theirs. He yells, she yells. And, yet, they’re as close as a mother and son can be. It is as if, beneath a blanket of mutual stubbornness, they’re exchanging hugs.

After last season’s Rose Bowl, Betty greeted her victorious son by saying, “What the heck were you doing the first half?” He tells that story to everyone. He’s so proud of her tenacity, her grit, all the things, I guess, that she gave him.

And now she is ill, hospitalized. She collapsed last week, and Bo wept when they called to tell him. Twice this week, while his coaches were running projectors, he was down there by her side.

He’ll probably kill me for telling this stuff. But sometimes we get so juiced for a game, we forget these are human beings. Can you imagine preparing for U-M vs. Notre Dame while your mind is 200 miles away?

That’s called real life. “Did Michigan win?” might be the most-asked question in the state Saturday afternoon, but it won’t be the first concern on the coach’s mind. “Is my mother OK?” will be his first concern, and that is how it should be.


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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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