Remembering Bo: The charismatic coach
He was tough, demanding, charming and hilarious.
Legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, who died 10 years ago today, was a magnetic personality admired nationally and beloved by his players, and those who knew and worked with him.
Jack Harbaugh, who coached on Schembechler’s staff, said there are three dates burned into his memory as life-changing events — the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and Schembechler’s death.
“You could almost chronicle those days, what you were doing,” Harbaugh said. “They’re etched in your memory. The day Bo passed, I was working at Marquette, and I was walking down the hall of the third floor on Friday at 10:30, Tom (Crean, his son-in-law) was walking toward me, and I could see it in his eyes, the news was not good.
“He told me about Bo passing, and it was emotional. He told me I needed to go home and be with (my wife) Jackie.”
But there was more to Schembechler.
Dan Dierdorf went to Miami (Ohio) for a recruiting visit when Schembechler was coach. After his visit, Dierdorf said he was grateful because he thought he never would have to see him again.
Schembechler, however, became Michigan’s coach in 1969 — while Dierdorf was on the roster.
“I thought, ‘I wouldn’t play for this lunatic if it was the last place on Earth,’ ” said Dierdorf, who would become an All-America offensive lineman at Michigan. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m afraid of this guy.’
“Two years later, that was the lesson, the world was a smaller place than I knew.”
Later, the two would play golf together.
“What a treat that was,” Dierdorf said. “He was the worst golfer in the world. I’d ask him, ‘What did you shoot?’ He’d say, ‘Two under.’ I’d say, ‘Two under?’ and he would reply, ‘Yeah, 98.’ To him par was 100.
“He was a beauty.”
On the 10th anniversary of Schembechler’s death, The News talks to some individuals who knew the coach, and they reminisce how he helped shape them, how he entertained ...
And how, all these years later, he still is very much part of their lives.
Keith Jackson — legendary television sports broadcaster
“Bo’s one of my favorite people of all the coaches I met as I traveled for 56 years of doing sports broadcasts. He has to be in my top five of all time. He presented an outward picture to the public and a beloved creature to other members. I was one of those that was a big fan. I never had the privilege of working with him much as a color man, just one time when we were using coaches who were not working on a particular weekend. It was enjoyable. It was more difficult in many instances but not in Bo’s case.
“In capsulizing Schembechler, in my current age of 88 years, I can imagine sitting in a dining room at some sort of gathering and listening to Bo Schembechler and his good night speech and sic ’em speech, and I’m thinking, ‘Send me in, Coach, right now. Right in the middle of it.’ His rubber chicken speeches were great. He didn’t worry a lot about the grammar. That’s all right. The point is, he made his point.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone criticize Bo Schembechler personally as a human being. I can say the same thing about Woody Hayes. That generation of coaches from top to bottom were among my favorite coaches of all time, a period of 40 years there.
“My most interesting weekend with Bo was early on. We had become friends by that time, and I walked in on a Friday to shoot the breeze. He was writhing on the floor because of something in his lower back. One of the women there said, ‘Could you please take that old goat to the hospital? We have one of the great hospitals and he won’t go over there and get relief for the pain.’ I collared him and with a little help from the staff members who had some sway with him, the doctors examined him, gave him some exercises, and he was on the sideline coaching that weekend.
“If I could have had him work with me every Saturday, people would have been rolling in the street. What a great sense of humor. He was very funny.”
Les Miles — played for Schembechler at Michigan
“He never took the field when he didn’t absolutely know we were kicking the living hell out of somebody. He was eminently confident and prepared to compete for victory. I coached with him, stood next to him, and found that to be the case. He was a guy who always knew what his team needed. I can’t tell you the number of pregame talks, the Thursday talk, the 48 hours before the game, where he didn’t just know what to say no matter who we were playing. He’d say, ‘We’re not ready, and if we’re not ready, this could turn the other way.’ We would be sitting there thinking, ‘We’re going to beat them by 50.’ But he got our attention, our approach was better and we did beat them by 50.
“Bo and I had a great relationship, a special one and unique one. But you know what? He had that with hundreds of guys, guys he loved that would come into his office and make him smile. The great Mandich. He loved talking about Jim Mandich. He’d just smile. Kurt Becker. It goes on and on and on. How fortunate we were to be with a guy who cared for his players, cared for his guys and demanded us to be champions. Demanded us. It became who we were. It was something we carried with us. You go off to be leaders in your field. You look at the number of men who have passed through Schembechler Hall and that old cinder block building Bo coached from for 20 years, and those guys have gone on to do magnificent things and become great fathers, husbands and sons. My kids, I have four. People would say Kathy did a magnificent job, and that’s true, but they do not know how much Bo has affected their lives.
“At Bo’s funeral, when you looked at that room, you saw people connected to Michigan football because of Bo Schembechler. I saw a room of people I knew and loved. I thank Bo for that. My life has been touched. I have long-term relationships and my credentials have been Michigan. and it’s been a very nice career. Bo directed my path but he never told me where to go or that it was pre-determined you’re coming to Michigan. He said, ‘Les, you can represent your Michigan background anywhere.’
“This guy was bigger than a father figure. He was so much to so many. Everyone who ever wore the maize and blue loved him.”
Dan Dierdorf — Michigan All-American, College and Pro Football Hall of Famer
“On my office walls, there are two pictures of Bo. The classic of him on the sideline wearing a Michigan jacket, sunglasses and hat. There’s also the picture of me and Bo holding a cleat. (Jim) Brandstatter found it in Bo’s office when he and Mary (Passink) cleaned it out. Bo had signed it, and I don’t think he wanted to give it to me when he was alive. He tried very hard not to say anything nice to me. It says, ‘Dan, to the best I ever coached, and also the ugliest. Bo Schembechler.’ It holds a position of prominence in my office.
“I’ve been around a lot of people. I’ve lived a good life. I’ve walked halls with Hall of Famers and I’ve met movie stars and blah, blah, blah. Bo Schembechler was the most charismatic man I’ve ever known in my entire life. He could suck the air of a room. He was the original E.F. Hutton, where one guy talked and everyone stopped talking and leaned that direction. That was Bo.
“I don’t know how it happens to one person and not another, whatever it was, Bo had it in abundance. Every one of us who played for him was profoundly impacted by the things he taught us. He taught the whole, ‘The team, the team, the team,’ and he taught all of us how important it is and the joy that can come from self-sacrifice for the betterment of the collective. Those weren’t just catchy slogans for a T-shirt the way we’ve become now. Those who stay will be champions, those weren’t just words for us. They made us believe they were the only way to be successful.
“We all miss him desperately. One of the best things that ever happened to me, my youngest daughter playing basketball at Michigan. For those four years she was in Ann Arbor, it brought me there so many more times. I was never there without seeing Bo. I had dinner with him at the Chop House seven days before he died. And he was making me feel the new mechanism they put in his chest. I’m in the Chop House, rubbing his left pectoral, and I said, ‘Bo, someone is going to say something here.’
“Any player who played for Bo, and don’t get me wrong, there have been other coaches who have meant so much to their players, but when someone pushes you and prods you and pushes you through that door to do more than you could ever do, when that happens to you, it’s a painful process while it’s happening, but when it’s over, you’re a different person. Bo and I fought while I played. He pushed me through that door but I went through it very begrudgingly. I was so fortunate as I grew older, and every day I appreciated more and more what Bo had done to me. After 13 years in the National Football League, all the good things that happened to me in the NFL, still nothing was as good as it was in Ann Arbor. I never had an experience like I had playing for Bo.”
Bobby Knight — former Indiana basketball coach and Schembechler friend
“I knew him before he went to Michigan. He was at Miami of Ohio when I first met him and stayed in touch with him. I just really respected him, the way he went about things. He wanted to win fair and square and by the rules. And then I got to know him very, very well after he was at Michigan when they had all those ridiculous Big Ten meetings. Bo and I would have taken care of everything in 10 minutes.
“Bo was still at Miami when he went to Wisconsin for an interview. He didn’t like the people. I had been at West Point for five, six years and I went to Wisconsin for an interview, and it was the same thing. I called Bo and told him what had happened. They had hardly paid any attention to me. I called Bo and it took him five seconds to tell me, ‘You’ll find a better place than Wisconsin.’
“Twenty years later, I’m hitting balls on a golf course in Florida with my wife. A guy walked up and introduced himself as a trustee of the University of Wisconsin. He said, ‘I want to know. I’ve heard this story long ago, and it really made me mad. You had visited Wisconsin and had no interest in taking the job.’ I told him, ‘That’s right. If they had been polite and talked to me, I would have taken it.’ He gets ticked off about this. So I told him, ‘Let me tell you something that’s going to (make you mad). A couple years before I went there, they treated Schembechler the same way they treated me. If any of them had any sense, they could have had both of us.’
“The first (Big Ten) meeting we went to — Wayne Duke was a great commissioner. The guy who succeeded him (Jim Delany), I had no use for him. Neither did Bo. I remember the first meeting we had, Bo came in and he sat down with me. I was sitting by myself. Bo sat down and looked around and said ‘I’m damn sure not happy about this.’ He was very smart.
“One time, my secretary told me Coach was on the telephone. I said, ‘What’s going on, Bo?’ He said, ‘Well, it’s a sorry state of affairs when my best friend in the league is a (expletive) basketball coach.’ He was the best. I don’t think we ever went to a Big Ten meeting we didn’t sit together and didn’t vote the same way.
“Every time something was going on, I’d call him or he’d call me. We got to see each other a lot. He was smart, and he was tough, and he wanted to win, and he did it by the rules. We had a great relationship. When Bo passed, it was sad for Michigan and for so many, but I’ll always be proud of having been friends with Bo Schembechler.”
Jamie Morris — former Michigan running back
“I can’t think about it because it crushes me. There were two significant deaths in my world, my mother’s death and Bo’s death. I’m sure I’ll be the same with my dad, but just knowing Bo’s not here just drives me crazy. As a very confident young man, you think you own the world, but this one man changed my whole world. In the beginning, he humbled me. I was the smallest person to ever come into Michigan football, 5-foot-6, 149 pounds, and this man gave me a scholarship? Really? He took the chance to have me play, he saw something in me nobody else saw.
“You were always nervous around that man. You had butterflies. You were afraid what he’d say about you, how he was going to critique you. He’s going to say ‘You’re fat, you need a haircut, you need to dress better.’ He was always going to give you his opinion.
“I got to become friends with him. When I came back, he said this is not player-coach anymore, and I got to get comfortable with him. This is going to sound weird, but I feel fortunate that I drove Bo around for the longest time. He’d say, ‘Let’s go here, let’s go there.’ We drove to (Schembechler’s hometown of) Barberton, Ohio, and he was so excited to show me Barberton. I drove him four times to Barberton. I always felt guilty because these other guys didn’t have that time, but everybody has a Bo moment, but my moments are so cool.
“We were at the Penn State game in ’97, and he said, ‘Hey, stand right here,’ and he’s got a hot dog. He’s making me stand in front of the glass door so (his wife) Cathy doesn’t see him. She saw us. She said, ‘I’m mad at you, Jamie Morris’ and took the dog. I failed him. So when she went to the bathroom, I got him a hot dog. If he told me to run through a wall, I’d run through a wall and fire. That’s just the way he was.
“It was fun having him as a friend. We would sneak out. He’d say, ‘Screw this, let’s go do this,’ and he would teach me things about Michigan football that we didn’t know. He’d tell me about Ohio State and how he developed his ferocity. He thought about giving gray pants to the players, but no, just beating Ohio was enough for him. He showed me one pair of gold pants he had (from Ohio State). That’s it. He said, ‘No one will ever see these.’ But that was part of his life. I was just glad we were friends. We were player and coach and I would do anything for him, but as a friend I would do even more for him. It was special. It was fun. I had so much fun with him.”
Jack Harbaugh — Michigan assistant on Schembechler’s staff
“For me, there was never a day I went into the office he didn’t inspire me. We would get in 7, 7:30 for our staff meeting and there was no script, no agenda, just Bo being Bo for 30, 40 minutes. He might talk about a TV show or practice, no matter what it was, it was going to be entertaining. I never went to work when he didn’t make me laugh. He always made me laugh. Every day I went to work, for those seven years I learned something about football I didn’t know. Everybody looked at him as a great offensive coach, but he knew the game, he ran the punt team, he knew defense.
“Some of the lessons he taught — never lie, never cheat, never steal — I credit him with that. You don’t whine, you don’t pout, you don’t point fingers. Those lessons are what he taught you, and you taught your kids. Sometimes you found yourselves delivering them in the same chopped manner, the same manner he had given it to you. Every day I brought some lesson home that related to our family
“The thing people didn’t know about him, he had a great sense of humor. He was a witty and funny guy. Great storyteller, maybe as good a storyteller as I’ve ever been around. He could take a two-minute story and make it 20 minutes and we would laugh all the way through it. When I left to go to Stanford, we sat and talked in his office. I told Bo, ‘When I leave this office, I’m blowing your cover.’ He said, ‘What? Blowing my cover?’ ‘I’m going to tell them what a kind, sensitive, humorous, caring man you are, and I know that’s going to upset you.’
“He loved, absolutely loved kids. He would get down on one knee to be eye to eye and he would treat a 6-year-old like a junior in high school. He’d ask, ‘Where you going to school? Michigan?’ Our kids, John, Jim and Joani, he always treated them so well.
“One thing he was, he was a people person. He loved being around people. He’d run into somebody at the school, ‘Hey, Bo!’ He would stop, look ’em in the eye and talk to them and carry on a conversation. If somebody walked by, they’d think these are two old friends. He did that with everybody he came into contact. I never saw him walk away from anybody who wanted an autograph. He sincerely enjoyed being in your company. I don’t think you develop that, I think you have to be born with it.
“As we watch Jim (Harbaugh) coach games and go into his office, I look at him sitting across the desk and I smile to myself. And I think, ‘God, I would love for Bo to be here and be able to watch this. Just to hear what his comments would be.’ There would be a lot of comments, because he was so honest. If he sees something that could be better, he’s going to tell you. You can let your mind drift and wander and put him in that place I could almost picture it. I could do a pretty good job of imagining him. He’d be so proud, but would say, ‘Jimmy, what were you thinking?’ That would be the opening for the discussion. ‘Tell me what were you thinking.’ ”
Jim Brandstatter — played for Schembechler at Michigan
“Talking in the press box before games, that, to me, was such a kick. He’d hide behind the riser so nobody would see he was there, and I’d walk up front and peer over and he’d say, ‘Brandstatter! Come over here! Jim, we’re not ready to play. I swear to God we’re going to get our (butt) kicked. We don’t know how to warm up!’ Those are the moments I absolutely loved. Those are the moments I think about and remember the most. I miss that.
“After he retired, and we had an opportunity to be guys and buddies, his personality and his way, when he let you into the inner circle, he was such a delight. I learned so much from him. Those moments are what I miss the most. Talking to him in the office and before games, and sitting up in the press box and watching him rail about how we weren’t warming up properly, and we’d beat them 52-6.
“I talk to Cathy every year on the day he died and on his birthday. Sitting in his office at Schembechler after he retired talking about everything, I’d love to have those days back. Just give me a half hour with him. We’d talk football, onion rings, basketball, and he loved to talk about the Lions. I would take that in a minute.”
Bruce Madej — former Michigan sports information director
“I always maintained I was the first human being Bo had to talk to after a game, after his coaches and players. They beat Kansas, 21-7, and I’m going into the old locker room. Bo takes his hat, I don’t see him, he doesn’t see him, he takes his hat, flings it at the lockers. He was mad that we didn’t play that well. I’m telling you I ducked, it hit the locker and it dented, with the bill of the hat. I thought, ‘Holy Moses, this is like a James Bond movie.’
“The three people that meant the most to me, my father, Wayne DeNeff, sports editor at that Ann Arbor News, and Bo. All three were different. You could talk about life things with them. There was no preaching from Bo or Wayne or even my dad. You just talked about it. You didn’t have to get upset. You listened to things. What was great about Bo and Wayne, they were not your father, and Bo would talk about issues he had. We would talk about things. They weren’t big things, but we would talk about them.
“This one time, Nick Lachey was coming and Bo’s going to teach him how to sing ‘Hail to the Victors.’ He’s a big Michigan fan. He comes in and Bo’s retired then, the band is there, and Bo says to me, ‘Hey, who is this Nick Lachey guy?’ I told him he sang for a boy band, but he’s a big football fan and on top of that he was married to Jessica Simpson. I introduce them and Bo says, “Good to meet you. You were married to Jessica Simpson. That must have been something.’ Nick Lachey just started laughing.
“In one hour, you could have an argument, he’d want to kick you out, and then he’d be telling a joke. He was just absolutely hilarious. He had a charisma about him. He was fun, and I had the utmost respect for him. His one-liners were absolutely classic.
“We played golf together when he retired. We were closer when he retired than when he was the football coach. He and I, I’m telling you, oh, my, you thought we’d never talk to each other again. It’s kind of funny, if you had that (type of relationship) today, I always wonder how people would react to that. You can’t swear, you can’t yell, I’ve got news for you, with Bo, I swear he fired me 2,000 times.”
Tom Lewand — student manager for Schembechler from 1988-89
“I’ll never forget when I first met him. The guy who lived across the hall from me (at Michigan) was the head manager, and he and I would sit up late at night talking football. He told me we have one opening, and he brought me down to the old football building and introduced me to big Jon (Falk). I sheepishly went into the old coach’s locker room and he introduced me to Bo. He walked in and was very intimidating to a freshman in college. He turns to me, asks where I went to high school and I said, ‘Royal Oak Shrine, sir.’ He said, ‘Nothing’s worth a (damn) that has come out of Royal Oak Shrine since John Wangler.’ He turned around and that was the end of it. That was the beginning of a long relationship.
“I ended up really developing a longer relationship with him. He was instrumental in helping me with my career choice. I was a summer associate in law school and I came up to watch practice in camp. He asked what I was doing and I told him I got an offer from a law firm investment bank. He said, ‘Why aren’t you working in sports?’ I told him that’s not why I went to school. He said, ‘You were working for me for free for 10 years, you might as well get paid for it.’ He introduced me to people in sports and I had no idea of getting a job. At his prompting I started to look into it and got the job with the Lions in ’95.
“I grew up with him in my life at certain points and certain stages, from a student manager to doing more grad assistant stuff to being more of a grown-up, more of a colleague than a runt manager. He was a special, special guy. I miss him a lot. He was extremely insightful about a lot of things, about people. He had a tremendous insight into what motivates people, how to get them to work together. I always valued that perspective. It was original and it was different. He had an authentic way of interacting with people, and I miss him every time I get back to Ann Arbor. It’s even more acute now.”
Jon Falk — former Michigan equipment manager
“I’ll never forget that last week that Bo was alive. On Monday he came in and he was having a tough time getting around, and he didn’t have a car. He came in the equipment room, and said, ‘Hey, Falk, can you give me a ride home?’ Sure, Bo, I’ll help you. All the way home, all we did was talk about Ohio State and Michigan games. By the time we got to Bo’s house, we figured out we could have won another six games from Ohio State. I went to the passenger side of the car to help get him out. When I lifted him up, he looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing to me, Falk?’ He took his index finger and he could always separate your ribs with his index finger. I said, ‘I’m helping you out of the car and into the house.’ He said, ‘I’ll walk in that house.’ Well, he got out and he stumbled so I put my arm around him. He put his finger in my ribs again, ‘Falk, I know what you’re doing to me.’ What are you talking about, Bo? He said, ‘If something happens tonight, you’re going to tell everybody, I got him in the house, he was OK when I left.’ He looked at me and laughed and I laughed.
“He talked to the team Thursday night (before the 2006 Michigan-Ohio State game). He talked to them about Jim Mandich, he talked to them about Tom Slade, he talked to them about how important the Ohio State game is to Michigan. It was a great talk. After the speech I went into Bo’s office with Fred Jackson and Mike Gittleson, and I shook his hand. ‘Bo, what a great talk. Great talk.’ Bo said, ‘Are you kidding me? You telling me the truth?’ I said, ‘Bo that was one of your best talks ever.’ And Bo said, ‘Good. Good.’ I left and had to go to Columbus that night. Little did I know that would be the last time I shook Bo’s hand.
“Friday morning I got the phone call Bo had passed away. I looked around, and I started crying. I thought about all the great games Bo had at Ohio State. How lucky was I to stay here. I’ve had two jobs in my life. Miami of Ohio and the University of Michigan. Think about that. I look back and think of all the things that Bo did for me.”
All about Bo
News staff writer Angelique S. Chengelis, who has been covering Michigan football since 1992, talks about legendary coach Bo Schembechler on the 10th anniversary of his death:
“On the nights I leave Schembechler Hall late, I stop and look at Bo’s statue, think about him, and I always smile. I think about that time I drove there looking just for him. We were reporting on the Michigan basketball program flirting with Rick Pitino but his salary would be greater than then-football coach Lloyd Carr’s. I headed out to Ann Arbor and when I reached the parking lot, Bo was walking out. I leaned out the window told Bo about all of this. He stopped. I told him about Pitino potentially being paid more than Carr if he were to come to Michigan. His blood boiled in zero to five. He leaned toward me and in that great Bo voice told me that would never happen. Why? “You KNOW what this place is built on!” I remember laughing because he was fired up and on a rant. It was pure Bo.
“I will never, ever forget the Rose Bowl trip when Michigan practiced at that huge facility in Orange County. I arrived early, stopped at practice, the team was to the right and to the left, Bo was sitting on a bench reading the paper, and Jon Falk was next to him. Bo looked up, saw me and waved me over. The three of us sat on the bench and chatted away. Jon mentioned to Bo that it’s amazing how you can’t tell he had a defibrillator placed in his chest. I was like, ‘Wow, really Bo?’ He assured that Jon was being accurate and asked if I wanted to see it. Uh, no, but thanks. Bo got up, started to untuck his shirt, sat back down with his chest exposed. I was standing there and was marveling at how you couldn’t tell! Next thing I knew, with his encouragement, I poked his chest with my index finger and couldn’t feel a thing. And then I was mortified I was poking Bo in the chest and was sure we all would be thrown out of practice.
“Ten years have passed quickly. Much has changed in the Michigan football program, but Bo still looms large. That, to me, is what a legacy is all about.”