Friday, November 17, 2006

The finest man I ever knew is dead

I have only cried over the deaths of a few non-family members in my life.
I shed tears when Groucho Marx left us, I cried when John F. Kennedy was gunned down and I had watery eyes recently when learning of the passing of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
But this morning, when I discovered that former University of Michigan football coach Glenn “Bo” Schembechler had died at the age of 77, collapsing while taping his weekly television show in Detroit, I’m not sure how I reacted. I shed tears and I got ill in my stomach. It wasn’t a family member I had lost; it was someone who was a mentor at an age when I needed one the most.
And he never knew it.
Bo Schembechler was a larger than life presence on a major college campus like Michigan, even back in the early 1970s when the student body laughingly claimed it didn’t care about football and sports. We allegedly were all about free love, drug, sex and rock and roll. After all, Ann Arbor was the town that was known nationwide for issuing $5 parking tickets for marijuana possession and “usage.”
Of course, that was a lie (um, not the $5 tickets) but the attitude toward football and winning. We cared – a hell of a lot. We just didn’t become as ESPN-obsessed as fans are today. Games were day-long parties, beginning early with noontime keggers at various frat houses and friendly apartments. Students converged on Michigan Stadium by foot, like ants to the queen ant’s colony, from all points around the Ann Arbor campus.
At the games, we cheered as lustily as ever and demonized all our opponents, especially Ohio State. The 1971 10-7 win, when halfback Billy Taylor went around end and ignited a delirious celebration with two minutes to play might have been the single finest moment any UM fan could experience in the giant bowl, later anointed as the “Big House.” Few remember about the sleet/rainstorm that struck during the national anthem and we had to sit back down in puddles of freezing water for the rest of the game.
I spent three years on the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, including witnessing the infamous 1973 10-10 tie in Michigan Stadium, which caused Big 10 officials to vote to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl instead of Michigan (and ruining my Pasadena plans). It was a decision Bo would never ever, EVER forget ... and forgive. In 1974, I went to work for the Sports Information Department as a student assistant and got to mingle with all the school’s coaches, including Bo.
Seeing basketball coach Johnny Orr or hockey coach Dan Farrell or track coach Jack Harvey was never a problem. They were easy-going and appreciative of any help, even from lowly student assistants. But getting a call to see Bo in HIS office was like going to the principal’s office, Even if you didn’t do anything wrong, you weren’t sure why you had to go. Bo just wanted everyone to do their jobs at the same level he expected his players to perform – their ultimate best.
Bo began his television show in the 1975 season on the ABC Detroit affiliate. I think it was called “Michigan Movin’” or some such title, and I had to participate in the SID office as a researcher for a couple of historical segments. I dug through old films and photos and connected with producers in Detroit for the taping, which took place on Sunday mornings in the Southfield studios.
A hair-brained concept had a novice student assistant trying to coordinate game film highlights, of runners like Gordie Bell and quarterbacks like Rick Leach, with rock songs I had on old 45s. I fondly recall matching several of Bell’s signatures side-stepping moves to the old Dave Clark Five’s “Catch Me if You Can,” which might have been a forerunner to what experts create today by digital means. Back then, it was innovative stuff.
One segment was to spotlight a former UM player and I had found some old film of Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, who starred at Michigan before World War II and then transferred to Wisconsin. Everyone in the office and at the Detroit studios seems satisfied, but when I went to the football practice facility, and told Bo when he asked about the choice, the man exploded. He pushed me against a wall and I swear he lifted me (and I weighted 300 pounds by then) by the coat lapels.
There was genuine anger in his eyes.
“There is NO way that son of a bitch ever appears on MY show,” he said in the coldest, sternest voice imaginable. “YOU find someone else.”
He put me down, took a deep breath and cleared his throat.
“You don’t understand,” he said in a much quieter, subdued voice. “That was the bastard who voted to keep us from the Rose Bowl in ’73. It was 6-4 and his was the deciding vote. That’s not anyone at Michigan wants to honor. Period!”
He turned and walked away. I felt lucky to have escaped alive. But I fully understood and would never have made the mistake if I knew. But Bo knew.
He had not been in good health lately. It was only a few weeks ago (Oct. 20) when he suffered an “episode” and had to have a defibrillator implanted in his chest to regulate his heartbeat. His heart had been a problem for years, but not because it wasn’t true or honorable. It just had …problems.
He suffered his first heart attack on the eve of the 1970 Rose Bowl, having pulled one of the greatest upsets in college football history, beating Ohio State 24-12 in his first season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines did not recover from that blow, losing to Stanford.
In 1987, he had a second heart attack, forcing his second quadruple bypass surgery. It also hastened his retirement in 1989 after 20 years at Michigan (prior to that he was head coach at Miami of Ohio served under the tutelage of Woody Hayes). For the record, in 26 years as a head coach, Bo was 234-64-8; at Michigan, he was 194-48-5.
To say he was as stubborn (sometimes) as a mule would not be giving a mule much credit. Bo could have outlasted any mule and when Bo put his mind to something, it took heaven and earth to change it … or his family. His first wife, Millie, held more power over Bo than anyone in the office.
One afternoon, I was in the office of Sports Information Director Will Perry when Bo waltzed in unannounced, plopped himself in a chair and began to discuss the serious topic on his mind – the plight of his beloved Cleveland Indians. He took that as seriously as designing a defense to stop Purdue or Michigan State.
Perry knew that Bo was scheduled for surgery the next day and asked him why he was still in the office.
“Let me ask you, what will my scar look like?” Bo said. Perry and I both shook our heads in total bewilderment. “Well, I need to know that before I do it. Otherwise, I’m not doing it!”
Bo then demanded that we call the team’s doctor, Dr. Jerry O’Connor, right then. Somehow we interrupted the good doctor in the middle of a procedure and he accepted the call … from Bo.
“Jerry, I wanna know what the scar is going to look like … whadda mean ‘don’t worry’ … I want to have a say in how it looks; if I don’t like it, I don’t want it …”
O’Connor convinced him all was well with the world and with the scar and Bo returned to the Indians and their infield needs. He was THAT kind of man.
His genius was football and motivating young men to perform at their best – and doing it within the rules. There was never one iota of stink about a Schembechler program. But his passion was baseball, based on his days as a high school second baseman-pitcher. After he left coaching, Bo had a brief stint as Michigan athletic director, where he became best known for firing basketball coach Bill Frieder on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament and put assistant Steve Fisher in charge of the eventual NCAA champions. Bo made the decision with the famous words, “I want a Michigan man coaching Michigan!”
Bo became president of the Detroit Tigers in 1990 at the behest of owner Tom Monaghan, whose Domino’s Pizza headquarters were located in Ann Arbor. While he brought a few innovations, Bo was scorned for appearing to have been who fired Tiger broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell (it was later admitted that station management at WJR made the choice).
Schembechler never seemed comfortable in the big money world of professional sports, although he made several upgrades to the Tigers’ minor league system. Overall, it was a marriage made in heaven.
If one wants to find some gallows humor in all of it, I’m sure in Buckeye Heaven, wherever Woodrow Wayne “Woody” Hayes is, Bo’s coaching nemesis is tossing about a few words not meant for the Lord’s ears.
“Damn Schembechler, he’ll do anything to give THAT team up North an advantage.”
You know, I wouldn’t put it past him.
Bo Schembechler was old school in the sense that his terms were the ones to follow. He was true to his friends, his profession and his university. Officials named the new football complex-offices after Bo and the man retained an office there until the day he died.
Which was today. In fact, he was in the process of taping another one of his weekly TV shows when he collapsed. He was being Bo up to the end.
And to some of us, that meant he was being the best person they had ever met.
God speed, Bo! Tell St. Peter to wear Maize and Blue tomorrow.

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