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Tom Archdeacon: A Miami Man -- The 'remarkable life' of Bill Gunlock

Jan. 12—For over eight decades, football was a mainspring of Bill Gunlock's life: — It's what lifted him out of childhood poverty in Chillicothe and, in 1948, took him to Miami University, the school he'd be associated with for the rest of his life. — Thanks to football, Gunlock became one of the college game's best and most innovative assistant coaches in the 1950s and early '60s, working for four Hall of Fame coaches — Ohio State's Woody Hayes, Army's Earl "Red" Blaik, Bowling Green's Doyt Perry and Heidelberg's Paul Hoernemann — and alongside another Hall of Famer, Michigan's Bo Schembechler.

Had he not quit the profession because he had a family and couldn't make any money, he certainly would have become a head coach and, in a story accredited to Schembechler himself, he likely would have been hired as the Michigan coach in 1969 instead of Bo. — And last week, with his health failing, football was there for Gunlock once again.

In his final hours, it buoyed him as he sat in his Kettering home with Sandy, his wife of 48 years, and watched Michigan push aside Alabama in overtime in the College Football Playoffs semifinal at the Rose Bowl.

"I knew he was declining — I saw it when he came to our home for Christmas dinner — but we all figured he hung on because he wanted to see Michigan win," said his son Tom, who's now the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Wright State.

After the Wolverines topped the 'Tide, Gunlock likely figured they'd handled their stiffest test on the way to a national title — he was right — and soon after he died.

He was 95.

As for the championship game with Washington, Sandy figured he had a new viewing partner:

"He and Bo were up in heaven rooting the team on."

With the college football season now over, it's time for Gunlock's funeral, which will be Saturday at 1p.m. at the Fairhaven Church, 637 E. Whipp Road, in Centerville. Burial will be at the David Cemetery and a Celebration of Life will follow at Moraine Country Club.

Everyone who knew Gunlock — whether it was from the football world; when he became an influential real estate developer; later as a big-time southern Ohio farmer and then a Texas rancher; or as a family man with five sons (Tom, Randy, Roger, Bo and Brad) nine grandchildren and seven great grandkids — will agree with Sandy, who said:

"He was a good man who lived a pretty remarkable life."

Bill and Bo

A decade ago — on the same day it was announced that Randy, himself a former Miami football player, was donating the $6 million lead gift to build the Gunlock Family Performance Center next to Yager Stadium — Bill sat down with me in a quiet spot away from the press conference and talked about the flip side of these high-cotton times.

"I've been on my own since I was 12," he said as he explained how his dad had health issues and the family struggled financially.

To ease some of the burden, he said he was sent to live with "a maiden lady" who had a farm outside Chillicothe:

"I milked cows before I went to school and took care of 32 sheep and five sows."

He had chores after school, as well, and because of that he'd never even seen a football game until ninth grade.

He eventually became an All-Ohio lineman at Chillicothe High School and in 1947 was chosen to play in the Ohio All Star game in Canton. That's where he roomed with a kid from Barberton — Bo Schembechler — who became his lifelong friend.

Gunlock had become enamored with Miami football because the team would stay in Chillicothe the night before playing Ohio University and would practice on his team's field.

He and Schembechler ended up playing together at Miami, then coached by Woody Hayes.

A decade later, Hayes made the pair his top assistant coaches at Ohio State and the Buckeyes won the national title with them.

"It blows my mind when I think where he was and who he was coaching for," said Miami coach Chuck Martin. "Ohio State didn't have 10 assistant coaches then. Bill told me he coached defense and Bo coached offense. They were Woody's only full-time guys."

Later in life, Sandy said she and Bill and Bo and Cathy (his second wife after Millie died from cancer) would go on long cruises, including around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America.

The bond Bill and Bo was formed during their Miami days when they both were offensive lineman on some very good teams.

Miami won the Mid-American Conference in 1948 and again in the 1950, the later campaign followed by a 34-21 victory over Arizona State in the Salad Bowl, the precursor of the Fiesta Bowl.

After lettering three seasons at Miami, Gunlock graduated in 1951 and after a stint in the Army, he began his coaching career first at Heidelberg and then at Bowling Green, where he was known as a superb recruiter.

No one knows that better than Jack Harbaugh, the father of Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

Jack was a talented prep player himself in Crestline, a small town west of Mansfield.

"Jack told this story at the deal they had for Dad at the Agonis Club last year," Tom said. "He said Dad came to recruit him at his high school and then visited his parents.

"When Dad left, Jack said he asked his mom, 'What am I going to do?'

"He said she told him, 'You're going to go play for that guy at Bowling Green!'

"Jack said if that had not happened, he would have ended up working at a local mill in Northwest Ohio and all this other stuff may not have happened."

After BGSU, Gunlock headed to West Point to coach the Army team under Red Blaik. He was the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach and was instrumental in developing Army's famed 'Lonesome End" offense.

The 1958 team produced several All Americans — including Heisman Trophy winning halfback Pete Dawkins — went undefeated and finished No. 3 in the nation.

After three years, Woody Hayes lured Gunlock to Ohio State, where he installed Army's offset '5-4 Defense' and the Buckeyes went 8-0-1 and won the 1961 national crown.

Assistants didn't make much then and he left OSU for the business world in 1963.

With his innovative mind and the success he had at every stop, Gunlock would have fared differently today.

"Trust me, he wouldn't have gotten out of coaching now days," Martin said. "He coached at the wrong time.

"But he went and became a millionaire businessman. That's pretty amazing."

Gunlock became president of Cole-Layer-Trumble Company before he started his own full-service appraisal services and data processing company.

In 1985 he returned to his roots, first owning and managing a 5,000-acre farm outside of Chillicothe and then a 700-acre ranch in Texas, where he successfully bred horses.

Along the way he gave to many arts and service groups in the Miami Valley.

"What I liked most was that was he was a man of his word," Sandy said. "He told you what he thought — he was a no-nonsense guy — but he also was a lot of fun.

"He ended up with a great life, but he also knew the other side of it. That's why he worked so hard. He never wanted to be poor again. And it made him care about other people and want the best for them, too."

As Tom put it: "He always challenged you to be a better person than you maybe thought you could be."

'He was passionate about' Miami

Over the years, Gunlock was on the Miami University Board of Trustees, the Foundation Board, was active in the Red and White Club and in 2008, he was inducted into the Miami Athletic Hall of Fame.

Two of his sons also went to Miami.

Randy was a three-year letterman and captain at Miami in the mid-1970s. His teams won three bowl games against SEC teams: Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. With his success with RJ Properties, he's been a major donor at the school.

After graduating from Miami, Tom coached at Centerville High School, Ball State and Morehead State and was on the Miami Board of Trustees.

As the Gunlock Family Performance Center was being launched, Martin — who had won a pair of Division II national titles at Grand Valley State and was the offensive coordinator of the Notre Dame team that had just gone to the national title game — was taking over a RedHawks program that had hit rock bottom.

After a decade of decline, Miami had gone 0-12 the season before and was riding an 0-16 streak.

"Bill was very concerned about getting Miami football back to the level he could be proud of it again," Martin said, then laughed. "There were days he was on my (butt), saying we've got to quit doing this and start turning that around. He was passionate about it.

"He said, 'I want to see a conference championship here again before I die.' "And when we won it in 2019, he was one of the first people I called."

And this year was even better.

"We won the MAC title again and then Michigan won the whole thing," Martin said. "That had to be pretty nice for Bill.

"That was a great sendoff."