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It was not just
a man who died last Friday in Michigan, but another piece of a college football
institution whose time is nearly gone. The sport was once ruled by giants,
larger-than-life figures whose names were synonymous with the schools they
coached and whose presence towered over games and players. Knute Rockne at
Notre Dame. Earl (Red) Blaik at Army. Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma. Paul (Bear)
Bryant at Alabama. Woody Hayes at Ohio State. Florida State's Bobby Bowden and
Penn State's Joe Paterno are the last of the breed still working the
Don Nehlen, who worked under Schembechler from 1977 to '79 before becoming head coach at West Virginia, recalled that he would sit in his Ann Arbor office hoping that Schembechler would not accompany him on recruiting trips. "He was such a giant, and such a celebrity, that when the word got out that Bo was coming, you'd have the house filled with grandma and grandpa and every little kid on the street," says Nehlen. "Of course, once Bo got in the house, he didn't lose many recruits."
Born a Buckeye in Barberton, Ohio, Schembechler was recruited by passing-game guru Sid Gillman and played tackle for ball-control disciplinarian Hayes at Miami ( Ohio). After five seasons working under Hayes at Ohio State, Schembechler first became a head coach at his alma mater in 1963 and went 40-17-3 in six seasons before succeeding Bump Elliott at Michigan in '69. In that first year Schembechler engineered a 24--12 upset of Hayes's defending national champion Buckeyes, who had won 22 straight. The clash started a decade that came to be called the Ten Year War, in which Michigan went 5-4--1 in a decade of fierce battles, elevating the rivalry.
Schembechler will not be remembered for his innovations. His teams played simple, remorseless football. "His teams were disciplined and tough," says Perles. "If you weren't ready to play, you were going to get your block knocked off."
In 21 seasons at Michigan, Schembechler was 194-48-5; his teams won or shared 13 Big Ten titles and only four times lost more than one conference game. His bowl record was less impressive: losses in his first seven bowls and a 5--12 postseason record. His Wolverines never played for a national title.
Television audiences saw a cantankerous, short-tempered man patrolling the sideline in a blue baseball cap and oversized spectacles. His players and assistant coaches saw something else. "He was a teddy bear," says Nehlen. "Sure, he was tough, but he loved his players and they loved him back."
He loved Michigan almost as much. On the eve of the 1989 NCAA basketball tournament--when Schembechler was not only the school's football coach but also its athletic director--Wolverines basketball coach Bill Frieder accepted an offer to jump to Arizona State the following season. Schembechler immediately replaced Frieder with assistant Steve Fisher, announcing in a news conference that he wanted "a Michigan man to coach Michigan."
Fisher guided the Wolverines to the national title and was named head coach. Last weekend he recalled spending a long day with Schembechler in Chicago in the spring following the championship. "Bo was such an icon," said Fisher, now the coach at San Diego State. "People who had the resources to buy and sell all of us would stand in line to shake his hand. But on that trip Bo went out of his way to get to know me. He asked about my wife and my family and my life. He did it because he wanted to, not because he had to."
Deep into retirement, Schembechler remained a touchstone for his former underlings. In the spring of 1997, after losing eight games in his first two seasons as head coach, Lloyd Carr felt he was on the verge of a meltdown. "The pressure can destroy you," he told SI. "It was breaking me." Carr went to Schembechler, who told him, "Stop listening to the bull----. You've got this thing going in the right direction." The message gave Carr the strength to continue, and the Wolverines won a national title that fall.
When I heard of Schembechler's death, I was transported back to another Bo Moment. On Nov. 25, 1995, Michigan upset unbeaten Ohio State 31--23 in Ann Arbor, ruining the Buckeyes' shot at a national championship. Schembechler watched the game from his customary box at the top of Michigan Stadium, and long after it was finished, he wandered into the virtually empty home locker room after a game for the first time since his retirement six years earlier. He sat in a folding chair next to the dressing cubicle that had been his for more than two decades, before two heart attacks drove him from the sideline.