Schembechler's son: Bo stopped Anderson's firing despite abuse

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Bo Schembechler's son says he was sexually assaulted by Dr. Robert Anderson more than 50 years ago, and that when he told his dad, the University of Michigan's legendary football coach refused to hear about it and intervened to save the physician's job.

In an interview Wednesday with The Detroit News, Matthew Schembechler said he told his famous father in 1969 that Anderson had sexually molested him during a physical examination to play in a youth football league when he was 10 years old and weighed 60 pounds. The elder Schembechler, who was coaching his first season, went into a rage, told him he didn't want to hear about it and punched him in the chest so hard that he flew across the kitchen floor, his son said.

Rain falls on a statue of former University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler in front of Schembechler Hall on campus in Ann Arbor Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021.

Now 62, Schembechler said that his mother invited then-UM Athletic Director Don Canham over to their house so he could tell Canham what had happened with Anderson. 

"(Canham) talked to Anderson and terminated him nearly immediately," said Schembechler, who lives in Ann Arbor. "Bo went to him and said, 'I need him, he is our team doctor, reinstate him,' and he did."

"It was the first time of many that I felt betrayed by Bo."

Schembechler is sharing his story at a Thursday press conference, where he plans to discuss how his father failed to protect him and others from Anderson, a longtime UM physician who is deceased but accused by more than 800 people of sexual assault.

He spoke for nearly an hour with The Detroit News on Wednesday about the claims he plans to speak of publicly, including the night he told Schembechler about Anderson's alleged abuse.

"I was confused why he was mad at me," said Matthew Schembechler, who is part of the legal proceedings against UM related to Anderson. "Bo would not talk about it. Bo did what was best for Bo."

UM officials declined to comment Wednesday on Schembechler's allegations.

Editor's note: The below video contains graphic language and may not be suitable for all viewers.

Schembechler will be joined by two former UM football players who also say they told the late coach about Anderson's abuse. 

"Bo’s mantra: 'The team, The team.' The team came first," said Okemos-based lawyer Mick Grewal, who is representing Schembechler's son. "The brand came first. Michigan came first ahead of students, athletes — and his own son."

Bo Schembechler

Schembechler's statement pushes back the timeline of when UM officials allegedly became aware of Anderson's behavior during exams by 10 years. 

Until now, the late UM associate vice president for student services Thomas Easthope was thought to be among the first to become aware of allegations against Anderson in 1979, when an advocate approached Easthope and told him the doctor was behaving inappropriately in the exam room with male patients.Easthope, who died earlier this year, told a police investigator in 2018 that he confronted Anderson at the time of the allegations and fired him. But rather than leaving UM, the doctor was promoted soon after.

Anderson served UM as the head of University Health Services and team physician from 1966-2003. He simultaneously worked as a training physician for the UM Athletic Department beginning in 1968. He died in 2008.

In February 2020, former UM student Robert Julian Stone publicly accused Anderson of sexually abusing him in 1971. His story brought out 850 other accusers, mostly men, with similar claims. They are currently in mediation with UM. 

Anderson's alleged misconduct included unnecessary hernia and rectal examinations on patients who went to him for unrelated ailments, manual stimulation of male patients and arrangements in which he provided medical services in exchange for sexual contact.

A Detroit News investigation found more than 800 men have accused Anderson of sexually abusing them during treatment. Accusers have said they alerted more than two dozen UM officials but they failed to take action.

Bo Schembechler, who died in 2006, was first accused of knowing about Anderson's conduct in a July 2020 federal lawsuit filed by a former UM student, who said he told the coach about Anderson's abuse in 1982 and 1983. The former student said Schembechler told him to alert Canham, but he did not blame Schembechler for not pursuing the matter further.

A May report outlining an investigation of Anderson showed three football players alerted Schembechler to Anderson's behavior. One of the players said  Anderson fondled him and gave him a rectal exam. Soon after, they approached Schembechler and questioned the exam. 

"According to the student-athlete, Mr. Schembechler told him to 'toughen up,'” the report said.

Matt Schembechler said he met Anderson in fall 1969 after his mother, Millie, met and married the football coach after his father died when he was 5 and Schembechler legally adopted him.

He was playing several sports, including with the Junior Wolverines, a little league football league, when he and his two older brothers needed a physical. Their family physician charged $35 each, so to cut costs, Schembechler said his father got the physicals for free from Anderson.

Schembechler remembers riding his bike to the appointment to see Anderson for the first physical he ever had. During the exam, the doctor asked him to remove his pants. The doctor allegedly cupped his genitals and penetrated his rectum.

"I pulled away," Schembechler said. "It was a little scary, I was a tough little kid, but I knew something was wrong.

"I am just a kid, and here is a real doctor with the University of Michigan doing a free physical. I am going to do what he tells me to do."

Schembechler said he rode his bike home and told his mother what happened. She insisted that he tell his dad. When he told his dad that night in the kitchen, he said his father went into a rage.

"He said, 'I don’t want to hear this, don’t tell me this, I am not going to hear this,'" Schembechler said. "I was hoping I had a new dad who would protect me, and that was not the case."

He remembered his mother said, "Bo, this is wrong. You need to do something about this."

When he didn't, Schembechler said his mother then turned to Canham, who lived a few blocks away.

"I told him what happened," Schembechler said. "He was very kind, and he was very empathetic. My mother drove the conversation. He said, 'Millie — I promise you I am going to take care of this.'"

The AD talked to Anderson and terminated him almost immediately, Schembechler said. But Bo insisted that he reverse the firing, his son said.

Canham died in 2005. Millie Schembechler died in 1992.

Matthew Schembechler had a strained relationship with his famous dad. In 1999, he sued his father, the university and 12 other defendants, accusing them of trying to ruin his sports memorabilia business and damage his reputation.

Grewal said that doesn't matter.

"He's telling the truth," the attorney said.

Two other men who say they told Bo Schembechler about Anderson will tell their stories Thursday: Daniel Kwiatkowski, a UM football player in 1977-79 who says he was treated and abused by Anderson four times, and Gilvanni Johnson, a wide receiver from 1982-86 who alleges he was treated and abused by Anderson more than 15 times.

Jim Harbaugh, the current UM football coach who played under Bo Schembechler in the 1980s, has said he doesn't believe he knew of allegations against Anderson.

“I can tell you this: Bo Schembechler, there was nothing that I saw the times that I was a kid here, my dad was on the staff, or when I played here, he never sat on anything, he never procrastinated on anything,” Harbaugh said last week. “He took care of it before the sun went down. That’s the Bo Schembechler that I know. There was nothing that ever was swept under the rug or ignored. He addressed everything in a timely fashion. That’s the Bo Schembechler that I know.”

Grewal said Wednesday the late coach's son and the two former players "are coming forward now to set the record straight, especially with Jim Harbaugh’s statement."

A UM football program spokesman referred all requests for comment to the university. UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald declined to comment Wednesday.

Former UM and professional football player Jon Vaughn said he is not surprised that some are trying to hold Schembechler accountable.

"I have been saying this since the beginning: When you listen to all the rhetoric that Bo didn’t know or he wasn’t aware … You don’t become an iconic coach and not know about everything that goes on," he said.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com