Donnie Warner lines up at middle guard for another play and another chance to prove himself. (Photo courtesy of Don Warner)
For Ohio State week, The Detroit News is publishing excerpts from "Bo's Lasting Lessons," co-authored by Bo Schembechler, the late Michigan coach, and John U. Bacon, a former News sports reporter.
Nothing I know demonstrates the value of giving a guy a chance more powerfully than the story of Donnie Warner.
It was the summer of 1970, and we were getting ready for my second season at Michigan. I was working at my old office at State and Hoover. My secretary, Lynn Koch, knocked on my door to tell me there was some kid outside by the name of Donnie Warner, and he wanted to talk to the head coach.
"How big is he?" I asked her.
"He's just a little devil," she said.
Now, I've always been known as a pretty hardworking coach, but in my first years at Michigan, I was even more intense, shall we say. Every minute was precious. Still, if some kid had the steel to come down and ask to talk to the head coach, I was willing to give him a few minutes.
This kid walks in, and he's 5-9, maybe, and 170 pounds, tops. So, I decided to keep this brief.
"What can I do for you, son?"
"Coach, I want to come out for football. I want to play offensive guard."
I about fell out of my seat.
"Young man, do you know who the offensive guards are here at Michigan?" I had Tom Coyle, who went 6-3, 255, and I had Reggie McKenzie, who went 6-5, 250.
I always hated to burst some kid's bubble, but you've got to level with them. "Look, I like your attitude, but you're just not big enough."
He wasn't giving up that easily. "If I'm too small to play on the offensive line, then I'll play on the defensive line. Middle guard."
"That doesn't exactly solve your problem, son, because then Coyle and McKenzie will be knocking you from one end of the field to the other."
This little son of a gun still wouldn't give up. "Coach, I went to Dearborn Divine Child. Do you remember speaking at our team banquet? Do you remember when you told us if you've got your mind set on doing something, you do it, and you don't let anyone talk you out of it?"
He had me.
So Donnie Warner comes out for the team that fall, and I'm worried about him getting killed. His first year, we only put him in on the demo team for the last few plays of each practice -- and those guys sent him flying like a volleyball. But he didn't give up, and when he came in for his scheduled meeting at the end of the season, I congratulated him.
"Donnie, I wouldn't have bet on it, but you made it. You never quit. But I'm sure you recognize now that this is a big man's game, and you're just too small."
The little bugger didn't blink.
"No, Coach. Now I realize I can do this, so I'm going to lift weights, get bigger and stronger and see you in the spring."
Some guys you just can't get rid of.
The next year Donnie earned a regular spot on the demo team. When I met with him after spring ball his sophomore year, I had to admit he'd proven he belonged on the team.
By his junior year, Donnie was starting to become a pain in the neck because he kept disrupting my offense's plays by getting into the backfield and tackling the ball carriers. And whenever he did it, he'd jump up and down and carry on with his teammates like he'd just sacked Joe Willie Namath.
I'd complain to my coaches. "For cryin' out loud, if we can't keep Donnie Warner from breaking up our plays, how the hell are we going to stop Purdue?"
After a while, instead of watching the offense, you'd catch yourself watching Donnie Warner, just to see what he'd do next.
Well, Donnie got his break the spring before his senior season, when both middle guards in front of him graduated. I told my assistants, "Go ahead and write Warner in there as our No. 1 middle guard. But as soon as you can find someone bigger and better, put him in there."
When the 1973 season started four months later, we still hadn't found anyone who could outplay Donnie, so he was our starter.
We burned through the first 10 games undefeated, riding a defense that was dominant. Ohio State was unbeaten and untied, just like us, and they came into Ann Arbor ranked No. 1. We were ranked fourth. This was the game the whole country wanted to see.
Mind over matter
We couldn't score in the first half, while the Buckeyes scored 10. In the locker room at halftime, I stood at the chalkboard and said, "Men, we only need to score 11 points, and they are done! Because the Buckeyes are not going to score another point on our defense all day!"
Sure enough, our defense stopped the Bucks cold in the second half. They couldn't get another point -- and this was a team with Archie Griffin running the ball. Their center, Steve Myers, was everything you'd expect from an All-American, but he couldn't contain Warner by himself, forcing Woody Hayes to double-team Donnie.
We tied the game at 10-10 and were driving late in the game when our quarterback, Dennis Franklin, broke his collarbone. A few plays earlier, Warner had gone down with a knee injury.
With Larry Cipa subbing at quarterback, we got the ball to the Ohio State 27-yard line, leaving us just a chip shot to win the game, the Big Ten crown, a Rose Bowl bid and a shot at the national title. But our boy misses the kick, sending it just a little wide right.
The game ends in a tie, and the next day, with the help of the Big Ten commissioner -- and I will never forgive him -- the athletic directors vote six to four to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl. You probably know that part.
But immediately after that game, when we still thought we were going to the Rose Bowl -- hell, even Woody wished us luck in Pasadena -- our team doctor, Gerald O'Connor, was driving Dennis Franklin and Donnie Warner to the hospital. Denny was sitting in the front seat, his arm in a sling, and Donnie was in the back with an ice pack on his knee.
Donnie says, "When we go to Pasadena, Denny, Larry Cipa will do a great job subbing for you at quarterback. But Denny, who the hell can Bo sub for me at middle guard?"
Ha! I loved it. That's Donnie Warner.
To this day, I consider Donnie Warner the greatest player I've ever coached, simply because I've never seen anyone else do anything close to what he did. He made up his mind that he was going to play for Michigan and he would not let anyone talk him out of it -- just like we said at his high school banquet.
"Bo's Lasting Lessons" ($25.99) is published by Hachette Book Group USA.