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I Remember Bo
Memories of Michigan's Legendary Coach
By George Cantor
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 George Cantor
All rights reserved.
Beginnings at Barberton
The town is named for the president of a match company. That was one of the few flashes of light Barberton, Ohio, ever saw. It was and remains a hardworking, tough, blue-collar town on the southwestern fringe of Akron. About a quarter of its 25,000 residents are of German descent, like Glenn Schembechler. Tough-minded people who know value when they see it, and are pretty big on values, too.
Barberton is also situated near the historic heart of Ohio football country. It is a few miles up the road from the birthplace of the National Football League in Canton. The town where legendary coach Paul Brown established his storied high school program at Massillon is just down the Tuscarawas Valley. Football is part of the air you breathe in these places.
"I came from Barberton, too, and I knew what it was like to grow up there. When Bo arrived at Michigan in my sophomore year he called me into his office. I just sat there for five minutes in total silence while he was writing in a notebook. Occasionally he'd peer up at me, but he never said a word and I was getting more and more nervous. We'd been going through some tough workouts and I thought he'd heard about the discontent that was being voiced and was holding me responsible.
"Finally, he looked up at me and said, 'Taylor, you know I'm going to have to be harder on you than anyone else. I can't have people think I'm playing favorites just because we're both from Barberton.' Believe me, he was as good as his word."
running back, 1971
"After my graduation we'd go on road trips together sometimes. This one time somehow we ended up back in Barberton. He was just a different person while we were there.
"His eyes lit up and he showed me his old snow hill and the field where he played football, the spot where he got dragged through a tomato patch trying to make a tackle but refused to let go.
"'When I was in middle school,' he said, 'there weren't enough players to field a team. So if I wanted to scrimmage I had to go over to the high school team. They knocked the snot out of me. But it toughened me up. I never was intimidated by anything after that.
"'Then I played tackle in college at Miami and we went to the Salad Bowl in 1950 against Arizona State. I was lined up against a guy who'd been named to some All-America teams and must have outweighed me by almost 50 pounds. I handled him. That was the Barberton coming out.'
"He told me how his little sister gave him his nickname when she tried to say 'brother' and it came out 'Bobo.' I'd never seen him before the way he was on that day in Barberton. It was like he was letting the little kid in him come out again. He couldn't do that when he was a coach. I don't know that he allowed many people to see that side of him. That was a pretty great day."
running back, 1987
"He liked to tell the story about when his dad was applying for the job of fire chief in Barberton. There was a written exam, and Bo's father was told by his buddies at the Elks Club that his competitor had somehow obtained a copy of the test beforehand. His dad was then given the opportunity to get his hands on the exam, too.
"Bo said that he absolutely refused, and as a result he never got the job. He refused to work for the guy who cheated, too, and quit the department rather than do that. You don't have to have an advanced degree to see the effect that had on him as a coach and as a man. If you didn't do things the right way, whatever you may achieve is going to be empty. That's what he sincerely believed and it's the whole idea in a nutshell of what he instilled in the young men who played for him.
"And it wasn't just talk. Once I got him to appear at a charity outing at Lochmoor Country Club, in Grosse Pointe. He refused to take any honorarium. I felt bad about that, so in the prize drawings after dinner we rigged it so that he would win a shotgun. Somehow he found out that his name was the only one that had been written on the slips of paper that were drawn. He returned the gun immediately and said there was no way he could take it."
end, 1956, and former
M Club president, 1978–79
"When we went out on recruiting trips, the timing was always tight. It seemed we were forever trying to catch up to the schedule, and there were plenty of days we couldn't even stop to eat.
"Bo would take it for a while, but as the afternoon wore on he'd just keep getting grouchier and grouchier. I'd be driving and finally he'd grab my arm and say, 'Hanlon, if you drive past one more Wendy's, I'll fire you.'
"On one of these trips, he started reaching this point and he suddenly asked me how far we were from Barberton. I said we were going to pass right by it on the Ohio turnpike. 'Well, what if we don't get on the turnpike,' he says.
"'Bo, what do you want me to do?' I asked. 'Jerry,' he said. 'You know damn well what I want you to do.' He had a special place in his heart for this place in Barberton called the Belgrade Gardens. It served the most deliciously unhealthy deep-fried chicken with the skin still on, with french fries and coleslaw.
"For a man with his heart problems there were probably few meals that could have been worse. But whenever we got anywhere near Barberton, he insisted that we go there. The funny thing was he made it sound every time like it was some spur of the moment kind of thing and I know he'd been thinking about it for days.
"But he was a great actor and a lot of the things he did in practice that seemed to be spontaneous had been absolutely calculated to get a specific effect at that particular time. Every time he'd do it, I'd say to myself, 'Belgrade Gardens.'"
assistant coach, 1969–91
Bo took over a good Michigan team that went 8–2 during the 1968 season. After an opening loss to California, it reeled off eight wins in a row before playing undefeated Ohio State in Columbus for the Big Ten Championship. The result was a 50–14 throttling. Even though Bump Elliot had taken Michigan to its only Rose Bowl in 18 years in 1964, he was gone, bumped up to assistant athletics director. No Michigan coach could survive that score.
So the cupboard wasn't exactly bare when Bo walked in, and he acknowledged that readily. All-Americans such as Dan Dierdorf, Reggie McKenzie, and Billy Taylor were already in place. In fact, when Bo became president of the declining Detroit Tigers in 1990 one of the things he said was, "Bump, where are you?"
Still, there was no question the Michigan program was down. In most seasons since 1950 the team had finished in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Only twice was it ranked in the top 10 nationally at season's end. A sellout was rare at the Big House, even for the Buckeyes. It was a program that reeked of lassitude.
Fritz Crisler had come to Michigan in 1938 and the next two coaches, Bennie Oosterbaan and Elliot, were his lineal descendants in football philosophy. At last, 30 years later, athletics director Don Canham decided it was finally time to go outside the family. He solicited opinions from many of the top coaches in the country, and his search finally led him to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
He was the darkest of dark horse candidates. When he was registered at an Ann Arbor hotel as "Glenn Schems" the night before he was to be introduced as head coach no one had an inkling who he was. The problem was neither did Bo. When he went to check in at the hotel he forgot the name he was supposed to give.
No one was quite sure how to pronounce his name at the press conference, either. "You can call me anything you want," he said. "How does Field Marshal sound?"
"They didn't have to sell me on anything," he said. "I knew why I was here. As for the money, it was $1,000 a year more than I was making at Miami. I would have come for less."
Over the previous six seasons as head coach at Miami he had gone 40–17–3 and won two Mid-American Conference titles. But this staunch Ohioan was about to become the ultimate Michigan Man. There was one final problem, though. When he and his staff of assistants arrived in Ann Arbor in a caravan of cars in January, no one knew how to find the athletic department offices. The new coach had to stop, find a pay phone, and call for directions before he could officially go on the job.
When they finally got there and started to inspect the facilities, one of his assistants began to grouse at how cramped and dark the coaches' dressing area was. "How can you say that?" Bo demanded. "Don't you realize that hook on the wall is the same one that Fielding Yost hung his clothes on?"
"I'd been on the Michigan staff for 17 or 18 years and I knew what the problems were with the football program. I knew I was going to hire a coach. I thought I was going to hire Joe Paterno because, to tell you the truth, he was a friend of mine when I was a track coach.
"Paterno was the only guy I offered the job to. Schembechler always claimed I offered it to everybody in the country before I got to him, but that's not true. I may have talked to everybody in the country but the only guy I offered it to was Paterno.
"Joe was just another great young coach in those days, and he'd only been head coach at Penn State for three years. But he didn't want to make a decision until after his bowl game and I told him I couldn't wait that long. Meanwhile, in the conversations I was having with people, Bo's name kept coming up.
"Bo had the background, head coaching experience, knowledge of the Big Ten. He was a winner. His personality just struck me right away. I hired him 15 minutes after we began to talk. That was the turning point in my career as an athletics director. That's because he started winning right away. We didn't have to wait four, five years."
late Michigan athletics director
"The first meeting with Bo was intolerable. I was a senior when he arrived and he met with our class first of all. He looked at my 5'10" frame and he said, 'You started here last year? I can't believe it.' I couldn't believe it, either. How many times did I have to prove myself? I'd had to do it with every coach I ever played for before, and now here comes another one.
"So I said to him, 'Yeah, I started and I can play. Watch the films.' He just stared back at me and said, 'I will watch the films.' I figured I had just screwed myself, mouthing off on my first meeting with the coach. But that's the kind of kid I was.
"Later on, one of the assistant coaches told me that was just the response he'd been looking for from this team. He wanted players who would spit back at him. He wanted players who weren't going to be intimidated and back down. The testing had begun even before he had us on the practice field for the first time.
"At the next meeting, he reads off my name and says, 'You're Italian, right? Woody Hayes told me never to start Italians because they're selfish people. Is that true?'
"If a coach said anything like that today he'd have a dozen groups calling for him to be fired the next day. I guess it does sound offensive, but I always thought it was funny. It was all just part of the weeding-out process."
offensive lineman, 1969
"Bo really tried hard to recruit me at Miami and it was tough to tell him that I had chosen Michigan. Then he arrived in Ann Arbor about the same way that General Patton arrived in Europe. He was not exactly an inconspicuous person.
"When he walked into that first meeting, I went up to him with my hand out. You know, let's shake and renew old acquaintances.
"He just looked at my hand, grabbed my stomach instead, and said, 'You're fat, you're mine, and I never forget a snub.'"
offensive lineman, 1970
"Thom Darden and I made our campus visit to Miami together. We were looking for it to be a fun weekend and we'd gone out with some members of the team late on a Friday night. At 6:00 the next morning there was a banging on our door. I thought it was a joke and kind of went stumbling over to answer it and give it back to whomever it was I saw there.
"It was Bo and he was yelling at us to get our asses out of bed. He took us out on the football field and had us doing wind sprints. That was followed by weightlifting and then a full-court basketball drill.
"Darden and I both thought the man was crazy and crossed Miami right off our lists. I had some feelers from Ohio State and even Cornell, but Michigan looked like the best fit for me. That's where Darden wound up, too. I loved Bump Elliot and my first semester in Ann Arbor was great.
"Then I opened the newspaper in December 1968 and my heart sank. 'Schembechler named Michigan coach.' I thought someone was playing a cruel joke on me."
running back, 1971
"I grew up in Ohio and Bo hadn't even tried to recruit me when he was at Miami. So I didn't know what was going to happen when he took over at Michigan. Well, maybe I did know because I heard from friends that it was not going to be fun when he got there.
"I'd been playing fullback on the freshman team for Bump, but Bo watched the film and decided that I had the ability to play strong side safety, or the Wolfman. Of course, he never told me that. He just kept harping on my size. I only weighed 185 pounds and he kept calling me 'Lollipop.' Even when I kept busting up his power sweeps in practice it was always 'Lollipop.'
"But you lived to see a smile on his face. He usually didn't say much if everything was going right. But he'd smile. You'd look for that smile and when it was there everything was rosy. When I was named a captain in my senior year it was really a culmination of everything he had been psyching me up to. He dropped the Lollipop stuff long before that."
defensive back, 1971
"We must have started with about 150 guys when he came here. After spring practice we were down to 75 or 80. A lot of players resented Bo because he was so damn demanding. But it was a strong group who stayed."
"When you'd go to his office first thing in the morning and he'd already be watching films, or you'd see him doing the same thing on Saturday night when the rest of us were off ... well, you'd start to say to yourself, 'If he can do it maybe the rest of us better stop complaining and make up our minds that we can do it, too.'"
tight end and captain, 1969
"I was a walk-on and I really came to Michigan for its industrial engineering program. Football was kind of an afterthought for me, something I'd look into. Then Bo came there in my sophomore year and he scared the hell out of us.
"He let us know that this team was not playing up to its potential and by God he was going to get that potential out of us. That was his responsibility. Then he started laying out the new rules and let us know what our responsibilities would be.
"Up until then we thought our responsibilities were to show up for practice on time and go to class. Bo wasn't buying any of that. From now on, just for starters, freshmen and sophomores had to live in university housing and married players had to live in married student housing. We thought he was kidding. But he was dead serious.
"That's when a lot of the walk-ons decided they didn't want to play football at Michigan anymore."
running back, 1971
"He beat the crap out of us those first few months of 1969. The walk-ons were dropping like flies. We had to run a mile in under six minutes, jump the stadium stairs on one leg, then jump upstairs on one leg with a teammate on your back.
"We hated it and we hated him. But you know what — that was exactly what we were looking for."
offensive lineman, 1969
"These were all someone else's players. Bo didn't recruit them. He had to find out in a hurry who he could count on and who he could trust. He set out to make sure the others left. That's why he put up that famous sign: 'Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.' Everyone who ever played for Bo always remembers that sign."
former M Club president, 1978–79
"One of the players who decided to leave put up an addition under that sign with magic marker. It read: 'And those who don't will be doctors, lawyers, and business giants.' Years later, Bo was speaking to a group of businessmen and asked: 'Being business people what do you expect that guy is doing today? He's probably a lawyer.'"
assistant coach, 1969–91
Excerpted from I Remember Bo by George Cantor. Copyright © 2007 George Cantor. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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