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They Wrapped This Up and Put a Bo on Top

You want to check out your window today and see if the birds are chasing the cats? Maybe the rivers are running uphill? The sun still rising in the east, is it? Maybe Cuba will turn Republican.

Anything can happen now. The South can rise again.

Are you sitting down? You might want to take a nice stiff drink.

You may not want to tell it to just anybody--not everybody will believe you.

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Bo Schembechler won a Rose Bowl Monday. Honest! Trust me. Would I lie about a thing like that?

There’s hope for Harold Stassen yet, the Minnesota Vikings. Shoot, Custer might have got it right if he stuck to it long enough.

Pasadena had been to Coach Bo Schembechler what the iceberg was to the Titanic, the flood to Noah. He should have taken out an insurance policy against ever even hearing about the place. The first time he came there, he not only lost a football game, he almost lost his life. He had a heart attack, almost on the sidelines. He watched the game from an oxygen tent.

His health improved but his record didn’t. One of the best football coaches who ever blew a whistle or screamed at a cornerback, Bo won 223 lifetime games, he was the scourge of the Big Ten. Nobody knew the X’s and O’s or the secrets of motivation better than Bo.

But, when he’d get to Pasadena, he kept ending up second. No one minded in the Midwest when he couldn’t beat USC and UCLA. Happens to a lot of people. But when he couldn’t beat Stanford, people began to think he was in the wrong business. Even Arizona State beat him. That was going too far.

They grumbled about him. He was too conservative. Maybe the game had passed him by. He belonged to the Flintstone era of football. And so on.

It was all hogwash. As the USC Trojans and the wise guys of Vegas found out in Rose Bowl LXXV Monday. When Bo has better players and his heart doesn’t start missing, Bo Schembechler can play football with anybody. Anywhere.

The story of the 75th Rose Bowl game Monday is that Bo Schembechler knew he was going to win it. He took the measure of the USC team he was facing and he knew it wasn’t one of those cat-quick, bury-you-at-the-line-of-scrimmage SCs you usually run into at Pasadena.

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Bo is ordinarily one of the crankiest individuals you will ever see when he’s behind in a ballgame. But, when he came into the locker room behind, 14-3, at the Rose Bowl Monday, he didn’t throw any chairs, question the ancestry--and the courage--of his secondary. What Bo did was tell his players they should have been 17 points ahead, that they didn’t have ahold of the Lombardi Packers here, or even the John Robinson Trojans. What they had here was a team that not only could be beat but could beat itself.

The Trojans could have broken the Schembechler losing streak all by themselves. In a sense they did. You have seldom seen--outside of a Kennedy family picnic on the White House lawn--so many slap tackles by one team in one game. The Trojans appeared to think the game was tag.

Michigan didn’t put you in mind of the Olympic relay team. They were not blindingly fast. They were just a typically good, strong-arm, ball-control Big Ten team. They didn’t dazzle you, they just put a chokehold on you.

Games, like wars, have turning points. The 1989 Rose Bowl game’s came in the third quarter. With some 12:54 left to play in the period and the score SC 14, Michigan 3, the Michigan team had the ball on its own 42-yard line, first and 10.

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Schembechler’s team tried a reverse. A schoolyard play. The ball ended up in the hands of a back named John Kolesar, a hard-working flanker who never put anybody in mind of Lynn Swann. Kolesar was trapped by 3 Trojan tacklers some 20 to 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

It wasn’t as if King Kong had the football. In the old sandlot, we used to have a technique called “pants-slapping” in which you just made a halfhearted swipe at some boulder-thighed guy going by. You hoped to fool your teammates into thinking this was a sincere, reckless effort.

The Trojans had this technique down pat Monday. John Kolesar, who should have been screwed into the ground on his own 15 or 20 got away from the thigh slaps for a gain all the way to the Trojan 42.

Shortly thereafter, Michigan drove in for their first touchdown. The elation was palpable. So was the realization that they might have the better football team this day.

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SC made more mistakes than a politician who takes his secretary on a cruise, but the Trojans’ biggest mistake was failure to finalize a tackle. Their flag-football endeavors turned the Michigan backfield into the new Four Horsemen. In a sense, Michigan and Bo didn’t win the game so much as they inherited it. You might say, they Hoarded it. Thigh slaps didn’t stop Leroy Hoard, a rugged specimen who rolled up 142 of his team’s 208 rushing yards, much either. Hoard should be immobilized by a rope tie like a running steer.

SC’s coach, Larry Smith’s brow was as black as a Canadian Rockies cold front when he came into the interview room after the game. “We didn’t block, we didn’t tackle. We didn’t wrap up. We let the ballcarriers out of jail all day. We were sloppy. We’d get to people and relax. You got to tackle ‘em.”

Bo Schembechler is now 2-7 in the Rose Bowl. Every Rose Bowl game he lost, he lost by a touchdown or less save for one 24-14 defeat by UCLA.

But, when you don’t gang-tackle and play muscle football against a Schembechler team, you not only bury a jinx, you make him notice for the first time that Pasadena is not a place where people turn into wolves at midnight or sleep in coffins, but it is a place where they have snow-capped mountains, they parade flowers down the main street and the temperature is nice and the people dress for dinner and have good manners.

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Bo might even grow to like it better than South Bend or Columbus. Now that he has turned it into a winner’s circle. If he’s going to start to win here every 9 years, he may start to like Disneyland and oranges. He’ll want to come out every year if he gets teams that give you “Oh, excuse me!” tackles.

And pretty soon, the Pacific 10 will be flinching at Pasadena instead.


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