Bo Schembechler is not a complicated man. Much like the teams he has molded as football coach at the University of Michigan, Schembechler is a straight-ahead, hard-hitting honest American.
With Schembechler, almost everything is communicated on a basic level: See Bo on the sidelines. See Bo pace. Pace , Bo, pace. See Bo throw his headset at an official. Throw , Bo, throw. See Bo throw his blue ‘M’ cap to the ground and kick it. See Bo’s tinted glass es fog. Steam , Bo, steam.
College football fans who were weaned on Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, the nation’s leading crippler of yard markers, have been thrilled as Hayes’ former assistant has carried on the tantrum tradition.
Then, after nearly two decades of carryings-on, there were some nasty rumors last season that Bo had mellowed. Michigan football fans in and around Detroit--who like their football coaches to be like the cars they manufacture: big and powerful--began to worry that the opinionated Bo they had come to love was turning into a Phil Donahue doll.
That rumor was put to rest last season after the Holiday Bowl, where BYU pounded Michigan, 24-17. After the game, Schembechler criticized the Cougars’ offensive line for holding and, taking on another favorite target, criticized the Southwest Conference officials for allowing it.
“I think BYU should be outlawed,” Schembechler said. “BYU is the worst holding team in the United States, and you have my solemn promise I’ll never again criticize Big Ten officiating.”
So much for mellowing. And so much, as it happens, for solemn promises. Bo has fallen back into the fold, it seems. Here, where Michigan is preparing to play Nebraska in the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, Bo is hearing a lot about this mellowing and he’s laughing a lot, which in itself would seem to testify to his alleged new mellowness.
“Nah,” Schembechler said. “I haven’t mellowed any more than any guy when he gets a little older. As we grow older, people tend to embellish what we did when we were younger.”
Schembechler’s record as a coach needs no embellishment. In his 17 years at Michigan, Schembechler has compiled a 155-38-4 record. In 23 years as a head coach, he has never had a losing season. Similarly, Schembechler’s record as an ill-tempered, petulant complainer is almost unparalleled. Great coach, lousy manners.
One former boss, Ara Parseghian, saw this in Schembechler years ago: “I was always impressed with Bo. The one reservation I had was his temper. I didn’t know if he could control it in order to become a head coach.”
Guess what, Ara. Bo found out he didn’t have to control his temper to become a head coach.
Guess what else. Bo’s boss’ bosses, the Big Ten commissioners, found out that even they couldn’t get Bo to control his temper.
In 1974, the commission put Schembechler on two years’ probation for saying uncomplimentary things when archrival Ohio State got to go to the Rose Bowl that year and not the 10-1 Wolverines. “Oh yeah,” said the commission, “You better watch it now, Mr. Hot Stuff.”
Wrist slapping has never reined in Bo. No sooner did he come off probation than he called Big Ten officials a “bunch of goons” and got a reprimand. That was in 1977.
There’s been assorted boorish behavior since then, too, like the time Bo stalked out of a ceremony set up to honor the Big Ten’s representative to the Rose Bowl. What is it with Bo and the Rose Bowl, anyway? A hint: The team being honored wasn’t Michigan.
Speaking of bowl games, and when they do that in Ann Arbor it’s often in hushed tones, since Schembechler is 2-10 in bowls, what about the incident with the clock that put a bee in the 1981 Bluebonnet Bowl? Terry Donahue remembers it as vintage Schembechler intimidation.
The problem was the 25-second clock that times the teams between plays. The Pacific 10 uses the clock, one of which is put at either end of the field. The Big Ten has the officials keep track of the time and doesn’t use a clock.
Officials at the Bluebonnet Bowl thought that both coaches had agreed to use the clock, but at game time, with the clocks in place, Schembechler refused to put his team on the field. An argument ensued, which Schembechler won.
A Bluebonnet official later called Schembechler “rude, childish and stupid.” Not so stupid, though, that he didn’t win his point.
There have been no reported sightings of that famous temper here, however. In fact, it’s been a mild, self-effacing Schembechler who has barred reporters from Michigan practices and kept his players incommunicado.
Bo has been speaking out on issues, of course, just not many issues relevant to Michigan football. Indeed, Schembechler is well read on many subjects, particularly politics. He recently turned down a spot on the “Today Show” in favor of an 11:30 p.m. interview on “Nightline.”
“That Ted Koppel is a sharp guy,” Bo said, admiringly.
Said Bruce Madej, Michigan sports information director: “Bo is just Bo. I can’t say he’s mellowed. People think of him as some kind of an ogre, but he’s a great guy to work for. You always know the bottom line. He’s a great guy--he must have fired me 250 times--but he’s a great guy.”
A great guy with a low irritability threshold. That impatience may have brought on the heart attack he suffered on the eve of the 1970 Rose Bowl. From his hospital bed in Pasadena, Bo watched USC beat his team, again. Not recommended therapy for a recovering heart patient.
Schembechler underwent open heart surgery in 1977. The specter of death spurred Millie Schembechler to act. She suggested to her husband that he walk for exercise--he paced more on the sidelines. She encouraged him--no one tells Bo to do anything--to give up his beloved cigars.
“I just smoke ‘em after wins,” Schembechler said. That incentive has helped the Wolverines to a 9-1-1 record this season. (Bo allowed himself a short smoke after the tie.)
There’s more. Schembechler says he’s now a semi-vegetarian. “I never was much of a red-meat eater,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time I had a steak.” Saturday night, at the steak fry, reminds an assistant coach. Oh yeah.
Another mellowing factor is this current Michigan team. After a 6-6 season that Schembechler termed unacceptable last year, this Wolverine team has played, in several games, well above its potential.
“We weren’t even expected to be a contender, which is kind of ridiculous,” Schembechler said. “But it’s been a satisfying year. I enjoy this group so much. It’s fun coaching them. They work hard at whatever they do and they love to compete.”
And they love Bo, despite the tirades and tantrums. It’s a team that has eight fifth-year seniors. It’s a team with several players who are the sons of Schembechler’s current or former assistant coaches.
That in itself says something. Fathers thought so much of their experience at Michigan that they sent their sons to Bo.
“I feel very close to this team,” Schembechler said. “I have tremendous respect for this team. They are easy to coach. They aren’t just a bunch of one-dimensional guys.”
If Bo keeps up like this, that’s going to be said about him, too. Think of the damage to his image.