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What Bo Schembechler lacked in national championships (none) he made up for in arrogance.
Schembechler, according to Schembechler, wasn’t merely the coach of the University of Michigan football team from 1969-1989. He wasn’t even a coach who turned teenage recruits into prepared-for-life men. He went beyond that and made them “Michigan Men” — a special breed unto their own.
There was an honor to it, an accomplishment to it, an ethos rooted in timeworn values. Or so he claimed.
Follow the plan, fight through the pain, overcome the frustrations and everything will work out.
The Team. The Team. The Team.
Those who stay, will be champions.
And Michigan would do it the so-called “right way.” No paying players (or so Bo claimed). No cheating (or so Bo claimed). A real education (or so Bo claimed).
Michigan meant something special because Bo said so and even a Buckeye or a Spartan would admit that Bo had one powerful, magnetic way of selling it, of creating a brand long before such marketing concepts were common. The way Bo would spit out the mere term — “a Michigan Man” — dripped with so much elitism that he made you wonder if there was actually something to it.
To some, there was. It wasn’t all junk. It wasn’t all motivational sayings and stylings of a man of great charisma. There was more to it than just 234 career victories or 13 Big Ten Titles.
A lot of his players gleaned important lessons and concepts from it. They went on to successful careers and speak of what they learned from their old coach. That even includes some who while playing for Bo were getting sexually assaulted by Bo’s hand-picked team doctor, Robert Anderson.
“Don’t get me wrong, Bo was a good coach,” said Gilvanni Johnson, a Michigan running back from 1982-86 who was an Anderson survivor.
That's how deep this runs.
Johnson said that Thursday at a news conference where he was part of a group of men (including Schembechler’s own stepson, Matt) who tearfully described not just their abuse at the hands of Anderson, but how they told Bo about it only to watch as Bo protected the doctor rather than his players or family.
“Bo said, ‘Toughen up,’ ” Daniel Kwiatowski, a hulking offensive lineman from the late 1970s, recalled Schembechler saying after he said he told him about being molested by the doctor.
The whole thing is sad. It’s horrific. It’s awful. It’s also astounding.
Bo Schembechler, a man who both held, and constantly expressed, the values of accountability and responsibility and honesty, a man who claimed to hold the NCAA rulebook in near religious regard, a man who would bully through any problem, just let Robert Anderson run around fondling players?
Bo Schembechler smacked his own 10-year-old stepson in the chest when Matt told him about being molested and then stepped in to keep Anderson — Robert Damn Anderson — around?
Bo Schembechler, who prided himself on doing the right thing and couldn’t tolerate anyone who didn’t — at least if it led to an on-field loss — didn’t care about this?
Since Schembechler and Anderson are dead — as are athletic director Don Canham and Bo’s wife, Millie — a full accounting of what happened is impossible.
Much of it rings true though. The men who spoke Thursday came off as extremely credible. You could see them still processing decades-old pain. They took their stories public even when they didn’t need to — all of Anderson’s victims are in private mediation with the university.
Besides, we’re talking some 850 men who have come forward with similar stories of abuse, as detailed in a university-funded investigation. Anderson was a running gag in the locker room, gallows humor trying to minimize what was happening. Players called him “Dr. Anal.” A visit to him meant you might get “Anderson-ized.”
There was no way, over two decades as the program's omnipotent coach, Schembechler didn’t know about this. Just no way.
“Bo knew everything that goes on on campus,” Johnson said.
Matt Schembechler said Bo was obsessed with the brand of Michigan football. Everything was about protecting that brand and doing whatever needed to win more games. So perhaps that obsession, and the lack of understanding of how abuse impacts not just the moment, but the lifetime ahead, clouded everything.
“The only thing that I can come up with, knowing Bo and how he operated,” Matt said, “is that [by knowing of Anderson’s abuse] he's got the goods on Dr. Anderson. Dr. Anderson's gonna do what he tells him. ‘Kid can’t play? No, Doc, you’re gonna send that kid [out there].’ ”
Winning … above literally everything?
Whatever it was, Bo Schembechler was nothing but a fraud. The good parts lionized, the process minimized. Schembechler was God’d up as this coaching icon, this untouchable leader, but the manner in which he led, in which many of his peers led, came with drastic consequences. The abuse in this case was sexual. There was plenty of physical and mental and emotional as well, all over these sports.
Schembechler ran a program that treated players terribly — endless work, play through injuries, mental and verbal anger. That was how it worked then, of course. He wasn’t the only coach who subscribed to that concept.
Everything was built on the promise that it would lead to victories — first against Ohio State and then in life. He found a parade of willing young recruits eager for that deal. Schembechler, like many coaches of that era, would do almost nothing for a current player but anything for a former one.
It is tortured logic now.
The result was fleeting glory draped in wickedness. The result was misplaced values. The result was in the worship, and pursuit, of false idols — victories, compliance with NCAA rules, pretentiousness — with little regard for the carnage left in the wake. The coach that just bought the recruit’s mom a new car doesn’t sound so bad anymore.
This was college football, not the Marines. There were no foxholes to prepare for, no enemy hills that one day might need to be stormed. This was about beating Iowa. This was about getting to Pasadena. This was about Bo.
This was about the brand, the one Bo built that filled trophy cases and that giant stadium out in Ann Arbor. The one that includes a big statue of Bo in front of Schembechler Hall (two tributes all but assuredly doomed to be stripped from campus). The one that still sells memorabilia and sepia-toned memories of the glory days gone bad.
Turns out it wasn’t glorious though. It wasn’t that glorious at all.
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