ANN ARBOR, Mich. – They decided to bring a stool out for Bo Schembechler, because he was 77 and fresh off a heart procedure and everyone knew that once he got going at Monday’s press conference, once he started regaling everyone with stories of Ohio State and Michigan, of he and Woody, of a bygone era when college football was both more and less important, he was going to keep going.
Bo needed a stool. Bo needed to sit. Bo needed some help.
“I think I’ll stand,” he said, of course.
Bo Schembechler died Friday of a massive heart attack just before he filmed his weekly television show, just at the end of another busy, uncompromising week. If there is any solace to the sadness here, any silver lining to the loss, it is that Bo went out like Bo, fulfilling obligations, refusing to slow down, accepting no stool to sit on.
The winningest coach in University of Michigan history, a giant of an icon here in the Midwest, a legend of the sport, is gone on the eve of the biggest game in a rivalry he helped turn into arguably the best in all of sports.
“I just don't see one any bigger than this,” he said.
Monday he was everything Bo Schembechler ever was, charismatic yet uncompromising, charming yet combative. Bo was never one to tell stories about himself, that’s the kind of self promoting he would never stand for. But here on game week he was willing to talk about Woody Hayes, he was willing to stick up for his protégé, Lloyd Carr, he was willing to choose sides and say the things that others couldn’t or wouldn’t and fight for what he always believes is right.
"The thing that stood out to me was that he never worried about what somebody in the news media thought or said," said Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight, a long-time friend of Schembechler. "He did what he thought was best for his team and his players. And if that put him out on a limb, he didn't worry about it."
On Monday, Schembechler would laugh one minute and growl the next. He would bash Ohio State for silly gamesmanship one sentence and praise its class the next.
“I hope Bo didn’t say anything to screw this up,” Carr smiled, wondering if old Bo had just given the Buckeyes bulletin board material.
He hadn’t, of course. Schembechler was always tough but always respectful, especially about Ohio State, whose own excellence had driven him to greatness.
He was, as always, a throw back to a time when football was about building character, about accepting challenges instead of money, fame or glory. A window into a day and age that is about gone for good now, and not for the better. It sounds trite until you listened to Schembechler, until you looked into his eyes and saw the truth.
Bo never believed in national championships, never believed there should be or could be anything greater for a Michigan team than beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten and playing in the Rose Bowl. He never cared to hold the school up for money, to move games to night for television, to play on a weekday, to make kids miss class.
For as unbending as his demands were, for as tough as he could be, for as all-encompassing as his focus was on winning football games for the Maize and Blue, he also always fell back on a realization that this was nothing more than extracurricular pursuit, that academics were the priority, that this wasn’t the pros.
He coached 20 years at Michigan (and five prior to that at his alma mater, Miami of Ohio). His team’s reached 10 Rose Bowls, including three in the final four seasons before he retired in 1989.
That run of success, 235 career victories, is what he will always be remembered for on the field. But Schembechler was always more proud of the kids he turned into men, of the degrees that were hanging on office walls, of the fact that in two decades the NCAA investigators never even bothered to sniff around Ann Arbor.
Bo Schembechler did things his way, without excuse, without debate and his way turned out to be the best way.
He believed in personal integrity and responsibility, of ethics that never wavered, of doing things only one way – the right way – because any other way wasn’t worth doing.
He coached hundreds of players and taught scores of young coaches, but he also, through his powerful position, was a rock who navigated the turbulent 60s and 70s, inspiring a state, a region, a country even, with the reminder that bedrock values still had their place.
"I always felt that he placed playing, in every way, by the rules in front of winning." said Knight. "Winning by the rules of the game or the rules of life was extremely important to him. Unlike most, he did not feel that bending the rules to help him win was worthwhile.
"No one I've ever known in coaching have I admired more than him."
He wasn’t just a role model to his players, but to a lot of everyday people who had never been near Ann Arbor.
He was fair to whites and blacks, to men and women, to rich and poor, old and young. Even in his retirement, even as old age and modern challenges could have made him callous and unreasonable, he was still trying to relate to the kids, still trying to live in a bright new day.
Here in his final week, he was just as alive and just as active as ever. He wasn’t going to attend the game because travel was difficult, but he was as engaged in it as ever.
“I'm as excited as you are about this game,” he said. “Because I love to see Ohio State and Michigan come down to the end and, ‘let's play it.’”
"The leaders and the best," hails the school fight song.
About one man they could have written it for.
- Bo Schembechler
- Ohio State