Sunday, November 20, 2011

The game of the century – this year’s version

Earlier this month, LSU and Alabama (two teams with Michigan connections) squared off in Tuscaloosa for the Game of the Century – v.2012. It was somewhat of a snoozer, though, a 9-6 overtime contest between the two top-ranked programs in the nation (LSU emerging on top).
It had drawn comparisons to the 21st century’s initial GAME OF THE CENTURY just five years ago when Michigan played Ohio State, in Columbus, with the same rankings placed one each squad.
But ... that is where the comparisons cease; the games were NOT comparable in meaning, purpose and emotion. It wasn’t the game of the century, decade, year or even game of the week. It was too over-hyped by the folks at CBS and SEC and didn’t come close to the affair that REALLY assumed that mantle five years before.
The date was Nov. 18, 2006 and the buildup was enormous. The Buckeyes were ranked slightly ahead of the Wolverines in the polls (and BCS rankings), both at 11-0 and the game would have double meaning attached to it. The winner would earn the Big Ten championship outright and have a slot in the BCS National Championship contest, set for Glendale, Ariz.
It was a nationally-televised affair showcasing the schools involved in the bitterest rivalry in all of college football. For the first time in this battle, each school held the top two spots in the sport.
The sports nation knows that legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler died from a heart attack the day before the contest, and cast a pall over the entire affair. The man who engineered the greatest upset in collegiate football (the 24-12 victory in 1969) was as much a part of the rivalry as any human could be. His “10-Year War” with Woody Hayes became the stuff of legends – mythical in the stories retold for the next three generations.
Many fans spent the run-up to kickoff with tears in their eyes. Even the Columbus faithful were touched; stores displaying messages such as “We Miss Bo,” or “Bless you Bo.” He was honored with a video tribute on the Ohio Stadium jumbotron, which drew a prolonged standing ovation. The Ohio State Band formed the word “BO” to start a moment of silence (after all, Schembechler WAS an Ohio State assistant under Hayes).
But it wasn’t the only tragedy ... another member of the Michigan football family had died earlier in the week. Dr. Tom Slade Jr. lost his battle with leukemia the Sunday before “The Game,” at the far-too-young age of 54. His death ended a relationship with the U-M program beginning in 1970.
The world lost more than an outstanding dentist; some of us lost a long-forgotten friend from old days in Ann Arbor.
Tom Slade, a square-jawed, tough-as-nail competitor with a million dollar smile BEFORE he officially became a dentist, was born in Manotick, Mich., but raised in Saginaw after he had been adopted. He was an All-State quarterback for Saginaw High School, and also played basketball and tennis.
As a 1970 high school graduate, he was one of the first quarterbacks recruiting by Schembechler, along with Larry Cipa, and the pair battled for the starting position throughout the 1971 season (when they first became eligible to play varsity football).
Although they shared playing time for the first half of the season, Slade eventually garnered the full-time starter’s role and led Michigan to an 11-0 regular season mark. Neither the swiftest of runners, nor the strongest of passers (Cipa was acknowledged to  have had the better arm), it was Slade’s leadership ability, and the guts to use himself as a lead blocker for tailbacks like Billy Taylor that impressed Bo the most.
In the 1972 Rose Bowl, Slade came within 19 seconds of completing that perfect season, and possible national championship. However, Stanford, led by QB Don Bunce, upset the apple cart.
After the two teams exchanged field goals in the first three quarters, Michigan took a 10-3 lead on a 1-yard plunge by Fritz Seyferth in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, but with 6:29 to play, Indian halfback Jackie Brown tied the contest on a 24-yard run (after his 33-yard run on a fake punt).
Side note: Stanford was still known as the “Indians” back in the day before going all politically correct and changing to Cardinals (then  singular Cardinal) the next season. The 1972 Rose Bowl was the last game by which Stanford employed that Native American mascot moniker.
Late in the game, Michigan pounced on a Stanford fumble close to midfield, but was unable to drive inside the 20. So Dana Coin attempted a 42-yard field goal, which was short. However, Stanford safety Jim Ferguson tried to run the ball out of the end zone, only to be slammed to the turf by Michigan fullback Ed Shuttlesworth for a two-point safety.
With three minutes to play, and the ball following the free kick, things were coming up “roses” for the Wolverines. But the Indian defense stiffened and forced a three-and-out by Michigan. With 108 seconds to play, Stanford started at its own 22, on its fateful scoring march.
Bunch (who had been Jim Plunkett’s backup one year before when Stanford beat Ohio State in the 1971 Rose Bowl) connected on five consecutive completions down to the U-M 17, with 22 ticks left. After two plays, little Rod Garcia would begin a “tradition” of undersized kickers beating Michigan with last-second field goals – this one from 31 yards out with 12 seconds to play, and the 13-12 upset over the Wolverines.
Bunce was named the game’s MVP but only played pro ball for one season in Canada. He eventually became an orthopedic surgeon and served as the Cardinal team physician for a decade. Slade also served as Eastern Michigan University’s athletic team dentist from 1984-2006.
Slade lost his starting job in 1972-73 to Dennis Franklin and turned his thoughts to his post-athletic career. After his undergraduate work, Slade attended the U-M School of Dentistry, earning his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree in 1978. He remained there for three years as a teacher before setting up a private practice in Ypsilanti Township for the next 24 years when his illness forced his retirement.
And one of his best clients was ... Bo Schembechler.
Slade never left athletics during his business career. He served as a Michigan High School Athletic Association official for basketball, working several state finals contests, and was a Big Ten and Mid-American Conference official for women’s basketball.
He was a member of the Ypsilanti Area Chamber of Commerce and served three terms as president of the EMU Baseball Dugout Club.
If all that wasn’t enough, he was in the press box every Saturday as a color analyst for U-M broadcasts over WUOM-fm, the campus’ official station.
In 2004, Slade was inducted into the Saginaw County Sports Hall of Fame – an honor of great pride to him.
But just a year later, in 2005, Slade was struck down with leukemia, In June, 2006, many former teammates, including fellow Saginaw native Calvin O’Neal, an All-American linebacker at Michigan, organized the Tom Slade Marrow Donor Registration Drive to assist in finding matching donor for Slade and other leukemia victims. The once-vibrant Slade could no longer participate in those outdoor activities he cherished – golf, running, camping.
“You do everything, live every day the fullest. Today could be the last day of your life.” He told WJRT-tv reporter Terry Camp in June of 2006.
Slade’s former coach never forgot him up to the final days. Bo would send weekly notes and messages and frequently visited the ailing Slade in the hospital.
“During a particularly difficult day in the hospital, Slade woke up to see his former coach sitting in a chair against the wall,” wrote U-M athletics historian John U. Bacon in the Detroit News following Schembechler’s death. “They looked at each other, but said nothing, and Slade fell back to sleep. When he awoke again five hours later, Bo was sitting in the same chair, looking right at him.”
According to all reports, Schembechler, ailing as he was, attended Slade’s funeral the Thursday before the 2006 Michigan-Ohio State game and followed that up with one of his traditions – a pep speech to the Wolverine team that night.
As written in the Detroit News, “Bo’s speech was not about Ohio State, the Big Ten title or a national championship. The whole speech was about Tom Slade and how, if the players worked hard, listened to their coaches and stuck together as teammates, one day they might be as good a Michigan man as Slade. That was the goal at Michigan, not national championships.”
A little more than 12 hours later, Schembechler collapsed at the set of his weekly television show in Detroit and died, of heart failure at the age of 77.
At the time of his passing, Tom Slade was married to Pam St. John, a former U-M cheerleader, and was survived by his two sons, Andrew and Spencer, from a previous marriage.
As the world knows, Ohio State won the 2006 game, 42-39, viewed by almost 22 million fans – the largest TV audience for a regular season college football game in13 years. At the time, it set an attendance record for Ohio Stadium at 105,708 (since broken twice against Penn State and Southern Cal).
Some might challenge the superiority of all SEC schools to the Big Ten and those two representatives in 2006, pointing to what happened after “The Game.” Ohio State did lose 41-14 to Florida in the BCS Title Game while Michigan fell 32-18 to USC in the Rose Bowl.
Could it have been a case of each team having spent all its emotional capital on the field in Columbus? Perhaps; it wasn’t a question of talent. Some 40 players on each roster for the 2006 “Game” were drafted by teams in the NFL (not counting others who were free agent signees).
And there was this post-script, just 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 2006 clash – the winning numbers that night, in the Ohio Lottery PICK 4 were ... 4-2-3-9! Each person holding those winning numbers received $5,000 (a total of $2.2 million was paid out).
It WAS a special night!

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