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One for the roses

Times Staff Writer

John Robinson drove to the hospital after hearing that Bo Schembechler had fallen ill while taping his weekly football show at WXYZ-TV in Southfield, Mich.

Robinson was in town last fall as part of a radio team broadcasting Michigan's game that weekend.

He got there in time.

"He looked fine," Robinson recently recalled of his visit with Schembechler. "But he said 'I'm getting worried now. This one just seems like there's not too good of a future.' "

Schembechler survived that Oct. 20 scare.

Four Fridays later, however, on Nov. 17, Schembechler collapsed again in the same television studio, taping the same show, and died later that morning of heart failure.

Robinson couldn't get there this time — he was in Columbus, Ohio, preparing for the radio broadcast of No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Michigan.

In the Ohio Stadium press box the next day, Robinson said, "You know, we were very close."

Robinson, the former coach at USC, and Schembechler, the former Michigan coach, were at opposite sides of the country, a Rose Bowl rivalry and, seemingly, the coaching tree.

Robinson was West Coast, a laid-back leader who, when out socially, sometimes wore shoes without socks. Bo was button-down, cantankerous, Michigan blue.

But friends they became.

"I don't think many people from USC or Michigan would say 'I don't respect those guys,' " Robinson said recently. "Both schools look at each other and say, 'This is as good as it gets.' That's a big deal to me. There won't be a better game in the bowl series" than USC versus Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Robinson wasn't going to attend the game until a UCLA upset and the Bowl Championship Series computer spit out this traditional matchup.

"Michigan, USC, you got to go," Robinson said. "Those two schools, those bands, represent the best in college football. And now with Bo going down, I'll just go there and I'll be thinking about him a lot."

Schembechler coached 21 years at Michigan, from 1969 through 1989. Robinson led USC from 1976 through 1982 and then, after a stint with the Los Angeles Rams and some time off, returned to USC for five more seasons in the 1990s.

They met twice in the Rose Bowl, in 1977 and 1979, with USC winning both games. The scores were 14-6 and 17-10.

Forged, though, was a friendship that lasted until Schembechler's death at age 77.

"Somehow, we hit it off," Robinson said.

It started at a news conference the week before the 1977 Rose Bowl — the end of Robinson's first season as USC coach. Robinson was answering a question about being compared with former USC coach John McKay when Schembechler stormed the podium in Robinson's defense.

And that was that.

Schembechler invited Robinson to Michigan for spring practices and Robinson reciprocated.

"As far as the technical part of our football, we were the same," Robinson said. "We ran the ball. … He used to come out, and I'd have him talk to the team."

Robinson said Schembechler liked to joke about Californians being "soft."

"But not SC guys," Robinson said, repeating Bo's words. "You guys are tough."

Robinson says Schembechler was nothing like the gruff character he portrayed to the public. That was a side he honed while coaching under Woody Hayes at Ohio State.

"He was funny, a hilarious guy," Robinson said of Schembechler. "In the kind of getting on your rear, kidding each other. He just loved it all. … He was very different than Woody. Woody was a generation before Bo. Woody was much more rigid, much more in a box than Bo. Bo was pretty flexible."

Robinson, Schembechler and their wives often vacationed together. Last summer they toured wine country in Napa Valley and then retreated to John Madden's home in Carmel, Calif.

Schembechler didn't fare well in Rose Bowls, going 2-8, and it was a subject that came up in conversation.

Robinson noted that all of the games Michigan lost were close, its largest margin of defeat in those games being 10 points.

Schembechler would sometimes downplay the importance of winning the Rose Bowl, claiming Michigan's main goal each year was winning the Big Ten Conference title.

"That was coach-speak," Robinson said. "I think when he got there, he was going to do anything to beat you. But all those eight games, he lost most of them by one play or two plays. He didn't have a whole lot of luck."

Robinson always thought Big Ten teams were at a disadvantage when they came west to play USC or UCLA.

"In those games, they were the visiting team," Robinson said.

"I don't know if many of the Big Ten teams ever were comfortable with the change of environment. Maybe it was too exciting. They were all very organized and disciplined. … Bo tried to adapt, and loosen up. We used to talk about it. He tried to make it a lot of fun."

After five consecutive losses, Schembechler broke through with his first Rose Bowl victory in 1981, against Washington.

Schembechler's invited guest at the game that day?

John Robinson.

Robinson will be back in the Rose Bowl today, clapping with mixed emotions.

The Rose Bowl, although always a contractual sellout, will be missing an important fixture.

What's Michigan in Pasadena without Bo?

"He was loved in Michigan by anybody that had anything to do with Michigan," Robinson said. "He represented what the coach should be. If I had a choice for my sons to go anywhere to play, I'd want them to play for him — more than any other coach.

"It was his mixture of toughness and love for the player. Everywhere I went over the years, in airports, guys would come up and say, 'I was one of Bo's guys. I went to Michigan.' It was special, like being in the Marines. It wasn't just Michigan, it was, 'I was one of Bo's guys.' "

Robinson won't be hard to spot this year.

"I'll have a USC shirt on," he said. "And a thought for Bo."


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