Bo died today. Hail to the Victor Valiant. "'Michigan-Ohio State tomorrow, [Dan] Dierdorf correctly said Friday, "will just be the football game that was played the day after Bo died.'"
DETROIT - The biggest game doesn't seem so big anymore, because the biggest man in the history of Michigan football won't be watching it.
Bo Schembechler is dead. I never wanted to write that sentence. They've asked me to construct his obituary and I don't want the job, because I don't want to fashion a world that doesn't have Bo in it. He used to joke with me that he was an accident, because he was born in 1929, the year of the Great Depression, and "anyone who wants a baby in 1929 is crazy."
But he wasn't an accident. If ever a man seemed destined to be in a certain place at a certain time, it was Bo Schembechler prowling the sidelines of a Michigan football game on Saturday afternoons. He seems permanently painted into that picture - and while the players are bigger and stronger, he is always the largest thing in the frame. Bo could cast a shadow in rainstorm. His voice could be heard on the moon. It is being heard today, in the heads and hearts of the thousands of men who are balding, overweight, nursing sore backs and knees, but who still can hear their old coach's shrill but powerful urgings, telling them to block harder, to tackle harder, to do things "the Michigan way" and good things will happen.
"We are heartbroken," said Dan Dierdorf, one of the more famous of those former players, talking Friday night on a cell phone in a parking lot a short distance from Bo's home, where he was going to do something he never wanted to do: pay a condolence call.
Dierdorf, like anyone who ever played for Bo, knows the old man's voice will never be silenced. And yet the man himself is gone, done in by the very organ that truly defined him: his heart.
It was tragic and sudden and awful and shocking and it was exactly the way we knew it would happen. Bo told me once, "I will die one day from a bad heart."
As usual, the old man was right. We should have seen it coming. Thirty-seven years ago, he was walking up a hill in Pasadena, Calif., alone, in the dark, and he felt a stabbing pain and he grabbed a tree to hold himself up. He was only 40 then, but that incident - the night before his first Rose Bowl - was his first heart attack. Friday's incident, when he was 77 - the day before the biggest Michigan-Ohio State game ever - was his last.
In between there were too many surgeries, procedures, EKGs, a pacemaker, too many scary rushes to the hospital with everyone thinking, "Is this it?" But Bo came back from them all. Sooner or later, there he was, Michigan's Lazarus, in a natty sports coat with a maize-and-blue tie, and he'd be barking his same old bark and telling people he was a medical miracle, and, well, after a while, you just figured he could straight-arm anything, even mortality.
But if death doesn't get you at the shoulders it will get you at the knees, if not by the front, then from behind. And so, during a taping Friday morning of his weekly television show on Channel 7, doing the thing he liked second-best, talking about football - coaching it would always be No. 1 - death tried blindsiding Bo once more.
And this time, the only time, it took him down.
Checking out Michigan
I likely will fail at this assignment, because I cannot focus on what posterity should know about this man. You start with facts about Bo Schembechler but you quickly drift to anecdotes. It can't be helped. Bo made memories even better than he made history.
I can tell you he was born in the small town of Barberton, Ohio, the son of a fireman, and that long after he'd left he still could name you every factory in that town. I can tell you that he had two older sisters who teased him constantly and a mother he adored and who could match him stubborn for stubborn. I can tell you that his father once had a chance to get a cheater's advance copy of a civil service exam but he refused, and he finished one point behind a guy who cheated, and he didn't get the job he wanted. Bo said that night taught him more about integrity than anything ever would.
I can tell you Bo, growing up, was an excellent athlete. I can tell you that the first time he set eyes on a Michigan football field was as a senior in high school, on his way home from a family vacation. They drove through Ann Arbor and the Wolverines, by luck, were practicing. Bo and his father approached to take a peek. Not wanting to be noticed, they watched from near a field that was then open space.
Today there is a building on that field.
It's called Schembechler Hall.
You realize, by that geography, that while Bo played for Miami of Ohio and coached several other places (including Ohio State) he was, and will always be, all over Michigan football. Everything you see now has ties to him. The head coach, Lloyd Carr, worked under Bo, and the coach before Carr, Gary Moeller, worked under Bo. The radio announcer, Jim Brandstatter, played under Bo, and as he gets older he sounds more and more like Bo.
Brandstatter was one of those guys from Bo's first U-M team, the 1969 team that put him on the map - guys like Dierdorf, Jim Mandich, Garvie Craw, Don Moorhead, Billy Taylor - his first team, his most beloved team, the one that shocked the nation in upsetting Woody Hayes' Buckeyes, then ranked No. 1.
It has been 37 years since that game, and yet those players still can tell you every moment of it, every play, every exuberant shout, how in the locker room at halftime, they knew they were living through an historic moment. Bo was their drill sergeant, their tormentor, their teacher and their father figure. He has been the glue that has held them together all these years, the catalyst for their conversations - Hey, remember when the old man whacked that yardstick through Brandstatter's legs?" - and they always spoke about him with love, laughs and reverence.
Today they will be speaking through tears. Many will no doubt see each other again the way too many of us see our old friends again: at a funeral. And they will likely be saying what the voice in my head, maybe your head, too, is saying now: Bo cannot be dead. I refuse to believe it.
He was there for too many of them. He came to their golf tournaments, he stood up in their weddings, he spoke to their sons, he visited them in hospitals. Once, he even walked a former player who ran afoul of the law virtually to the prison door, urging him to stay strong and remember who he was. If you played for Bo, you were granted permission to a special club; you were always one of his boys. Bo had a sign above the locker room door his first grueling season at Michigan: "Those who stay will be champions."
He could have written underneath it, ". . . and will always be welcome here."
A visit with The King
What else can I write? Did you know Bo met Elvis once? It's true. He was in Las Vegas and somehow, after the show, he ended up backstage with The King. Bo didn't really know what to say, so he paid the singer a compliment on his jumpsuits and next thing he knew, he was back in a private closet with Elvis showing him his collection of rhinestone-covered costumes. He told Bo how much they cost, and that he never wore them more than once and then they were shipped to some museum. There was, Bo recalled, an awkward a pause, just the two of them, alone with those jumpsuits, and then they came back and joined the crowd.
Years later, I asked Bo what he thought of that encounter.
"I thought, `I don't want to be him,' " Bo said.
He wasn't. Bo was the King around here, but not in private counsel with secret dressing rooms. He was out among the people, everywhere, at banquets, at charity functions, slapping backs, punching arms, bounding through the press box. Bo genuinely liked people, interesting people - in later years he even mellowed with sportswriters - and he could just as easily strike up a conversation with a janitor as he could with a president of the United States. And he did. Bo knew Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bo Derek and the guy next door. He embodied that Rudyard Kipling poem that celebrates a man who "can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch."
He as a great storyteller, you hung on his words, and he was one of the funniest men you would ever meet. He loved to laugh at himself, and he used his hands to communicate, pounding on tabletops, poking fingers in chests - I once sat next to him at a basketball game and my arm was black and blue from all the times he slapped me when he got worked up. He used phrases like "dad gum" and "by god" and "now you listen to me ..." It is the mark of his combustive personality that he is remembered today by a sentence he bellowed at a news conference: "A Michigan man will coach Michigan."
You had no doubt that a Michigan Man was saying it.
Battling with Woody
He won more football games than any coach in his school's history and his teams won or shared the Big Ten title 13 times in his 21 seasons. He held a small edge in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry - 11-9-1 - and a one-game edge over Woody Hayes in their 10-year war - 5-4-1. His relationship with that irascible coach was as deep and as complex as any in sports. Bo played for Woody, he worked for Woody, and he was ultimately burdened with trying to defeat Woody. It was the son battling the father. The student battling the teacher. Yet for all their fierce battles, their traded tantrums, the most emotional moment came years later, in 1987, when Hayes was long retired.
There was banquet for Bo in Dayton, Ohio. Hayes, despite failing health, insisted on coming to introduce Bo. He was using a wheelchair at this point, but he spoke for 15 or 20 minutes, fond memories, compliments, the kind of thing a friend does for a friend.
The next night he died.
And just as Bo was forever shaped by Woody, so have all the coaches and players who labored for Bo been shaped by him. They have spread out over the land, become pro athletes, lawyers, doctors, some have taken head coaching jobs and come back to play Michigan. But they remain a unique fraternity, ribbons around the maypole of Bo Schembechler.
Bo was passionate about what he did. "Some of the finest people I know are football coaches," he once told me. "They're smart. They're tough. Good thinkers. Hard workers. When I say I'm a football coach, I'm damn proud of the fact that I'm a football coach."
His later careers - athletic director, Tigers team president, TV analyst - were all well and good, he made some nice contributions, but you always knew they were things that he did because he couldn't do what he really loved to do anymore. He told me several times had he had it to do over again, he would not have retired when he did in 1989.
Then again, Bo never really retired. He kept an office at Michigan, close enough to chit chat with any coach or player if he wanted. He served as the elder statesman, the grandfather at the table, Don Corleone sitting in a side chair after he'd turned the business over to his son Michael.
"A guy from Michigan State once told me Bo's still coaching there," Dierdorf recalled. "They just use a different name `Bo-Mo-Carr.' "
There is some truth in that. Bo is the cloak from which the cloth is spun. And it is impossible to imagine what today in Columbus, Ohio, will be like for Carr, who has to guide his young players through one of the biggest games in Big Ten history, while everywhere he looks he hears and sees his old boss and friend.
"Michigan-Ohio State tomorrow," Dierdorf correctly said Friday, "will just be the football game that was played the day after Bo died."
Living a good life
I can tell you he loved his wives. Millie was his partner on the way up, gave him a home, a family, three adopted sons and one more they conceived together. After she died, Bo might never have married again, had he not found Kathy, a perfect partner for his later years, a loving, supportive woman whose strong will probably kept Bo alive years longer than he would have done on his own.
He is survived by Kathy and his sons, the ones who share his name and the thousands more who do not, the ones who wore Michigan helmets and have no blood ties, unless you count bleeding maize and blue a family trait. They all remember him, and if you live on through memories, then Bo is far from dead, he will not be dead for generations.
Maybe I can best end this rambling remembrance with a personal account. Bo and I spent more than a year together writing his autobiography. During that time, by his admission, I spent more time with him "than my wife!" (He usually added a few expletives after that.)
It was a whale of a time. We talked, we argued, we reminisced, we argued, we talked and talked some more. We took planes and cars, we sat in offices and in locker rooms. We ate. He loved to eat. One time, en route to a banquet at the Naval Academy in Maryland, he spotted a Fuddruckers hamburger joint. He loved those places and he gave a forlorn look. I told him he couldn't eat a hamburger because he had a big steak banquet coming up.
But I, on the other hand, was going.
"You dawg!" he exclaimed.
And of course he went with me. And he ate a hamburger - no pun intended - with more relish than I have ever seen a man eat one, he was like a kid getting away with playing hookey. He told me that was the "most outstanding idea" that I had ever had.
Why can I still remember that moment almost 20 years later? Because Bo filled the most normal moments with a sky's worth of wonderful, boisterous air.
Today they are saying "it was his time." But I disagree. Friday morning in a hospital was not his time. His time was Saturday afternoons from September to November, his time was on the field, making memories, his time was chomping on a hamburger, his time was looking up from his desk and seeing an old player pop his head in, accomplished, proud, a man.
His time was the time he lived, not the moment he died. When we finished our book together, the publisher asked if there were any dedications or thank-you's we wanted to insert. I listed dozens of Bo's relatives, friends and former players. Bo only wanted to put in one sentence. He wrote, "I want to personally thank Mitch Albom. The poor son of a bitch had no idea what he was getting into."
He was right, but not because it was worse than I thought, because it was better. A million times better. My days with Bo, like so many others days with Bo, were a carpet ride with a sultan, a balcony address to a cheering crowd, a sidecar on a speeding bike through glorious, chilly football afternoons.
There was a time around here when they chanted, "Bo is God! Bo is God!" He wasn't of course, but now that he's gone, everywhere you turn you hear their names in the same sentence. He will be missed. God, how Bo will be missed
COLUMBUS, Ohio - The game of the year in college football has yet another storyline — a sad one. The first No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between Ohio State and Michigan comes a day after the Wolverines lost their most celebrated leader, Bo Schembechler. The longtime coach, who played a starring role for two decades in the century-old grudge match, died Friday at age 77.
An Ohioan who became a Michigan icon, Schembechler cut across this rivalry and helped make it the biggest — and at times bitterest — feud in football. Now even his death will be forever linked with The Game.
"He will always be both a Buckeye and a Wolverine, and our thoughts are with all who grieve his loss," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
Now, the second-ranked Wolverines enter Saturday's showdown, with the Big Ten title, a spot (or two) in the national championship game and perhaps the Heisman Trophy at stake, with heavy hearts.
"We have lost a giant at Michigan and in college football," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said in a statement released by the school.
Carr, a Schembechler protege, declined to speak with the media when he arrived with his team at Ohio Stadium on Friday. The Wolverines (11-0, 7-0) went through a quiet 25-minute walkthrough, putting the finishing touches on their preparation for the top-ranked Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0).
Schembechler brought Carr to Michigan as an assistant in 1980, and Carr was promoted to head coach in 1995. But Schembechler was never far from the program or Carr. Carr's office is in Schembechler Hall, right down the hall from his former boss.
In fact, Carr asked Schembechler to speak to the Wolverines on Thursday.
Schembechler's Wolverines were 11-9-1 against Ohio State, 5-4-1 while Woody Hayes, Schembechler's mentor at Miami of Ohio turned Big Ten rival, patrolled the Buckeyes' sideline from 1969-78.
Carr, who won the national title in 1997 that always eluded Schembechler, hasn't fared so well against Ohio State lately. Carr's Wolverines have lost four of five to the Buckeyes since Tressel took over in Columbus.
Carr has drawn the ire of impatient Michigan fans for being on the short end too often against the hated Buckeyes. Winning one for Bo on Saturday — especially one this big — would no doubt appease many critics.
It's hardly fair considering these Buckeyes might be the most talented Tressel has coached, including the squad that won the 2002 national championship.
Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith directs one of the most explosive offenses in the country, and he's been at his best against Michigan the last two seasons.
"My success is credited to everybody else around me," Smith said. "It's not just that I'm 2-0 against Michigan. Everybody who has played on the field against them is 2-0."
True, but no one is more responsible for that 2-0 against the Maize and Blue than the multitalented Smith.
He passed for 241 yards, ran for a career-high 145 and accounted for three TDs in Ohio State's 37-21 upset of Michigan in Columbus two years ago. Last season, Smith threw for 300 yards, ran for a touchdown and led two long, late scoring drives to beat Michigan 25-21.
If Smith has another magical day against Michigan, the senior can all but wrap up the Heisman Trophy race. Smith has thrown 26 touchdown passes and only four interceptions while completing 66 percent of his throws.
"First of all, he's a great leader for their offense," said Michigan linebacker David Harris, the leading tackler on a unit ranked No. 1 in the country against the run. "He has a great arm. He has good mobility in the pocket. He's their guy."
He's not their only guy. Speedster Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez make up one of the country's best receiving duos. Antonio Pittman has run for 1,032 yards and 12 TDs.
"You can't really just focus on one guy," said Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley, who leads the team with 11 sacks. "It's an all-around team. They have other weapons in there."
Woodley is the catalyst for a tenacious defense that has 41 sacks and is allowing 29.9 yards per game on the ground.
"It's safe to say he's probably the best defensive end in college football," said Ohio State offensive lineman T.J. Downing, whose father, Walter, was a captain on Schembechler's 1977 team. "So we're just going to have to get after him. We're going to have to hit him in the mouth every play and just go from there."