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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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Bo wins, wins, wins, 88.8% of the time in the Big Ten. Eleven of his 12 Michigan teams have ended the season ranked in the nation's Top 10. During the 1970s the Wolverines were 96-10-3 in the regular season, best of any team in the country. For the same decade they were also first in rushing defense, first in total defense, first in scoring defense. Schembechler's record of 154-38-6 in 18 years as a coach, including five at Miami ( Ohio), gives him the fourth-best winning percentage among active coaches, behind Barry Switzer, Robinson and Joe Paterno.

Now Bo has won everything in coaching—conference titles, a bowl game, coach of the year (1969)—except a national championship. You can ignore the fact that Bo says it's not important, got it? Former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian, who goes way back with Bo and had him on his staff at Northwestern, says, "Sure it bothers him, just as it bothers Paterno. They have both been so close, but it has escaped them." Bo is steadfast in his contention that "I don't lust after national championships; I lust after Big Ten championships."

Today Bo—he will deny this too—is enjoying life a little more. He's stopping to smell the roses. What he really likes is to be out on the field with the players and to talk on the phone with other coaches. The nuts and bolts of the profession are his loves. One of his assistant coaches, Jerry Hanlon, says, "Bo is learning to live with imperfections. So he enjoys being around his staff, he really does. A lot of us think he calls meetings just for that purpose, to be with us." Says quarterbacks coach Gary Moeller, "Bo understands that the bad part about coaching is if you don't win, you won't be coaching." And that would be awful, for Bo simply loves coaching, got it?

Sitting in his family room one evening, Bo was feeling reflective. "I love to win," he said. "Love it. Football is just too hard and too tough if you're not successful. This isn't recreation, and the sport isn't for everybody. Soccer is a great game too; it's just that by junior high, it's time to play football. Anyway, I just don't want to expend all this time and effort and come up short, got it? I love college because you have to make do with what you've got. I may want a better player, but I can't trade for one or pick up a free agent, so I'll coach the hell out of the guy because he has to play—and because he's mine. Sure, I know I've got a lousy temper, but sometimes it can make you compete better. But I'm smart enough to know you have to learn to control it. It's just when things aren't right, I react aggressively. And I'm a disciplinarian. At meetings, the players sit up straight, have both feet on the floor and don't wear any hats. They get in early at night, too. Why shouldn't they? You tell me—does anything good ever happen after 11 p.m.? I guess my philosophy is I want to do what I'm doing better than anyone else in the country. But the problem is I'm just an average guy, got it? But aren't we all? What I've learned is there are not nearly as many bad guys or super guys out there as you think. Just a bunch of average guys." He falls silent, thinking. A penny for your thoughts, Bo.

He can now laugh at himself, which he does, recalling the night before the 1975 Northwestern game. Northwestern is a college football power on the order of most any high school you'd care to name. Sitting in his hotel room looking at films, Bo suddenly bolted upright. "Goddam, Northwestern is good and we aren't ready," he said. "I am sitting on an upset." Whereupon he raged through the hotel, clicking off TVs, screaming, berating, threatening, kicking ass and taking names. He finally returned to his hotel room, spent. Next day, Michigan won 69-0. Got it?

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