Allegations cloud coach's legacy: 'Bo did not keep me safe'

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
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Novi — University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler is often referred to as a legend. He led the Wolverines to 17 bowl game appearances, was awarded the Big Ten Coach of the Year Award four times and is regarded as one of the best college football coaches in history.

To honor his legacy, UM erected a statue of him in front of building on campus known as Schembechler Hall. 

But a dark shadow fell over his reputation on Thursday when Schembechler's son and two former players alleged that the coach knew they had been sexually abused by Dr. Robert Anderson, yet did nothing to stop it.

Matt Schembechler reads his statement at press conference. on June 10, 2021.

"I'll use one of Bo's quotes, 'You bought and paid for it, you are going to live with it," said Matt Schembechler, one of the coach's four sons. "What other people think, he is going to have to live in his grave with."

Schembechler joined former Wolverine football players Daniel Kwiatkowski and Gilvanni Johnson at a news conference at the Sheraton Detroit Novi. All three said they were assaulted by Anderson and alerted the revered coach to no avail.

As a result, they said, hundreds of others allegedly endured genital fondling, digital penetration and other abuse by Anderson, who worked at UM from 1966 to 2003, including as athletic team physician and head of the University Health Service.

Each spoke of being assaulted by Anderson during physicals they needed to play sports, then telling Schembechler about it. 

"Bo did not keep me safe," said Kwiatkowski, a UM offensive tackle from 1977-79 who alleged Anderson first assaulted him during a mandatory sports physical at the beginning of his freshman year. 

(Editor's note: This video contains graphic language and may not be suitable for all viewers.)

When he told Schembechler, the coach told him to "toughen up," Kwiatkowski said. 

"I graduated and moved on from UM but the scars of what happened to me by Dr. Anderson and Bo never went away," he said.

Johnson, a UM wide receiver from 1982-86 and a Detroit Lions player in 1987, said he was sexually assaulted by Anderson more than 15 times and told Schembechler after the second occurrence.

Former Michigan athlete Gilvanni Johnson talks of the alleged sexual abuse under treatment by Dr. Anderson at the University of Michigan at a press conference in Novi, Mich. on June 10, 2021.

"If Bo had stopped Dr. Anderson after the first exam my freshman year, the rest of the assaults would never have happened," Johnson said. "If Bo had stopped Dr. Anderson before 1982, I would not have been victimized at all."

Anderson's legacy was celebrated after he died in 2008. But in a February 2020 story in The Detroit News, Robert Julian Stone accused Anderson of sexually abusing him in 1971. His story has since brought forth 850 accusers, who are in mediation with UM.

Schembechler, who coached the UM football team from 1969 until 1989, died in 2006.

In a joint statement Thursday, UM President Mark Schlissel and the Board of Regents responded to the latest allegations.

"Our sympathy for all of Anderson’s victims is deep and unwavering, and we thank them for their bravery in coming forward," the statement said. "We condemn and apologize for the tragic misconduct of the late Dr. Robert Anderson, who left the University 17 years ago and died 13 years ago. We are committed to resolving their claims and to continuing the court-guided confidential mediation process."

Rebekah Modrak, a UM professor in the School of Art & Design, said the latest revelations are still more evidence of the university's failure to respond adequately to sexual misconduct.

"In 2017, University of Michigan administrators placed an accused serial sex offender — Martin Philbert — in the position of provost, overseeing (the Office of Institutional Equity)," she said. "And there were no repercussions to anyone on that hiring committee.

"I predict that the revelations about Dr. Robert Anderson’s horrific abuses will be dismissed as a problem of the past and, once again, there will be no accountability," Modrak said. "The culture at the University of Michigan is yet incapable of acknowledging flaws in ways that would provide justice and prevent future violations."

Reached Thursday by phone, Glenn “Shemy” Shembechler, Bo Schembechler’s youngest son, declined to comment.

But he told ESPN that he doesn’t believe Matt, who is his brother. He said he could not speak to the accusations of the other players.

"None of us were in that room when those players were talking to Bo," Glenn Schembechler told ESPN. "The Bo I knew would have taken care of it and found another doctor. It would be that easy."

He added there was “no way” his father would strike his brother and saw no violent behavior at home. His father, he said, was “as loving of a person as you could imagine” and would have stopped the assaults by Anderson.

Seen on Aug. 14, 1969, Bo Schembechler was in his first year as coach of the University of Michigan football team.  The Wolverines would go 8-3 that year, including an upset of Ohio State, coached by his mentor, Woody Hayes.

Matt Schembechler, 62, said Anderson abused him twice, first in 1969 when he was 10. He told his mother, then told his father, who went into a rage, punched him and said he didn't want to hear about it, the coach's son said. His mother called on former UM Athletic Director Don Canham, who according to Matt Schembechler, fired the doctor, only to have the coach intervene to keep him on.

Schembechler said he was coming forward to heal, and add his voice to the chorus of others speaking out about Anderson, along with how his father responded.

"I understand the reverence people have for my father," Schembechler said, "but I know the truth: Anderson abused me and countless others over three decades ... I had hoped my father would protect me but he didn’t."

Schembechler had a strained relationship with his father. He left the home where he grew up when he turned 18.

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. 

Bo Schembechler's trust specifically left out Matthew Schembechler and his two brothers who were adopted by the coach when he married Millie Schembechler in 1968, according to documents filed in federal court.

He, along with Kwiatkowski, Johnson and their attorneys, said Anderson's abuse was common knowledge in the football program.

"Bo knew. Everybody knew," Kwiatkowski said.

Johnson said players joked about "Dr. Anus."

Schembechler said: "Anderson’s abuse of players and students over 30 years was the worst-kept secret at the university." 

Mick Grewal, an attorney for the three men, said they "are coming forward now to set the record straight."

Asked how people should remember Bo Schembechler now, Johnson said it's more than his place as the Wolverines' winningest coach.

"Don't get me wrong, Bo was a good coach," said Johnson. "But, for me, in my remembrance of him at this point, is he allowed kids 17 or 18 years old to continue to be assaulted when he could have did something about it."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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