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A Michigan Man
Douglas S. Looney
August 20, 2008
Bo Schembechler was a curmudgeon of a coach but, as strange as it sounds, a really good guy. Got it?
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August 20, 2008

A Michigan Man

Bo Schembechler was a curmudgeon of a coach but, as strange as it sounds, a really good guy. Got it?

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"It's terrible," interrupts Bo. "That's all. Look, nobody can eat it."

"But Bo," says Millie, "I got the recipe from the cookbook Barbara Dooley [wife of Georgia coach Vince] sent me. It's Extra Rich Georgia Pecan Pie with molasses. I did—"

Bo interrupts, of course. "See, the problem is the ingredients aren't any good. Then you messed up cooking it. That's that. Got it?"

The subject is closed. And Bo is right, it did happen to be less than great pecan pie. But heck, it was Barbara Dooley's fault, and she was 600 miles away. The point is, this is classic Bo Schembechler. He talks straight ahead; no matter what the circumstances, he says exactly what's on his mind; he makes judgments on everything; he is secure in every way; he dominates everywhere and everybody. All of which makes him, remarkable as it sounds, a good guy up close. A really good guy.

"It must be great to feel as confident as he does," says Millie, "but he truly is a good person. All I have to do is what Bo's mother told me. She said, 'Handling him is easy. Just remember that when he loses a game, don't talk to him.' And he does hurt so bad when he loses one of those dumb football games."

O.K., from a distance Bo comes on like a yahoo. And that's Bo's public image. He has had horrible problems with the press, which has this nasty habit of wanting to talk to him when he loses, his mother's advice notwithstanding. But even if the media's timing were better, it probably wouldn't make much difference, because Bo hates the press. Not just a little. A lot. The Voice of Michigan Football, Bob Ufer, says he has tried to get Schembechler to be nicer to the media. "But he told me," says Ufer, " 'Bob, if I win, I don't need the press, and if I lose, they can't help me.' " Ufer defends Schembechler, whose record at Michigan over 12 years is 114-21-3; Bo's teams have won the Big Ten title twice and tied for it seven times. Says Ufer, "Bo has two categories of things in his life: what matters and what doesn't matter. What matters is football. What doesn't matter is everything else. Bo is the kind of guy who is so dedicated that he doesn't realize how he's coming off." So while some coaches like to go out and drink with sportswriters, Bo would prefer to break out in warts.

Until a couple of years ago, he would routinely storm out of press conferences, kick reporters out of the sessions ("Don't be offended," says one of Bo's friends. "He'd kick Millie out, too"), make himself unavailable and order his players not to talk. Talking very softly once at a press conference, he was asked to speak up. "I'm speaking as loudly as I can," said Bo softly—and arrogantly. And in a memorable set-to on Oct. 1, 1979, Schembechler gave an absolutely unnecessary push to a publicity-seeking college newspaper reporter.

Yet too much is read into all this. As Don Canham, athletic director at Michigan, says, "Bo is oblivious to life." That, though, is his appeal. The world clearly would be a better place if more people cared as much about their pursuits as Bo does about his.

Canham, who had the genius to hire Bo, reflected on his coach. "Bo is a delightful guy with a heck of a sense of humor," said Canham. "He also has a heck of a temper. I guess a lot of people do think of him throwing his hat and kicking dirt and screaming at the officials. But I've found that when he gets mad, it's time to get mad. And while he has a short fuse, he also has a short memory. The only danger with his temper is that he will do something dumb. I don't think he will." Something dumb would be, to give a purely hypothetical illustration, for him to slug an opposing middle guard in the face during a bowl game. But nobody would do that.

Former Michigan president Robben Fleming once took Bo out to lunch and asked him, "Do you really have to get on the officials the way you do?" Schembechler had no real response. He says now, "I didn't try to justify it. I think he was right. But the only way I know to get their attention is to yell. How else do you do it? I'm open to ideas."

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