About 4 p.m. that winter Wednesday afternoon, an office phone rang.
On the other end, a man’s voice. Urgent. Convincing.
“Bo Schembechler’s headed for Texas A&M. You better get on it.”
Click. No identification. No other words.
By sundown on Jan. 13, 1982, it was coast-to-coast news. If a deal in fact wasn’t already in place, the courtship was on, high-temperature, with the University of Michigan’s football life now staring at radical, Richter-scale-rocking tumult.
Joe Falls and I headed for Ann Arbor. Falls was the News’ white-haired columnist and Schembechler confidant who was the best breaking-news sports reporter in Detroit.
We were about to spend the next 60 hours in Ann Arbor with sleep, and not a lot of it, the only break.
Regular protocol ruled: There had been instant calls to Schembechler (fat chance) and to Don Canham, UM’s athletic director who always, always was good about getting back.
But everyone was chasing Canham. Most likely, he was tucked into his part-time office south of campus at School-Tech, Inc., the sports-supply business Canham had birthed in the 1950s and turned into a bonanza.
What had been learned, as much as early leaks could be deduced in the pre-Internet era, was essentially solid:
Schembechler was being offered record money, for 10 years to make A&M king of Texas college football. H.R. "Bum" Bright was a 60-year-old Board of Regents chairman at Texas A&M, owner of a gray-tinged crewcut and one of the fattest bank accounts in Texas thanks to oil, real estate, and other investments that had turned to gold.
Bright wanted supremacy over the University of Texas. And he had decided, by way of Dallas Cowboys front-office kingpin and NFL Hall of Famer Gil Brandt’s expertise, that there were two men the Aggies should hunt: Schembechler, and if Schembechler couldn’t be coaxed from Ann Arbor, then Jackie Sherrill at Pitt.
Brandt had been talking with Schembechler since October, when Brandt flew in to drop by Schembechler’s office and take in the Oct. 17 game against Iowa at Michigan Stadium, which UM was about to lose, 9-7, setting up Iowa’s first Rose Bowl trip in 23 years.
After the earlier night’s practice, Brandt had been invited for dinner with the Schembechlers. Millie cooked. Brandt was serious.
If the money — already hinted at as being staggering — security and details were right, would he consider Texas A&M?
Brandt asked Schembechler to give him numbers. Make them ideal. What would he want?
Down the list went Schembechler, like a kid forming some crazy, endless gift-pleas Santa Claus couldn’t possibly deliver completely: 10 years, with title of athletic director as well as head coach. There would need to be lofty money, heavy pay for assistants and staff, facilities financing, recruiting, expenses — the works.
“If they do that,” Brand answered, “do we have a deal?”
Schembechler laughed, a staccato, you-know-better-than-that chuckle. In his mind, a coach might as well have asked for Fort Knox.
“Sure,” Bo said, signing off with another rat-ta-tat-tat giggle that said to Brandt: There’s no way.
Let's make a deal
It was Friday after Thanksgiving, six days after Ohio State had beaten Michigan at home. Schembechler’s gang had begun the season ranked No. 1. They now were 8-3 and headed for Houston and for the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl.
Brandt called from Dallas. Texas A&M wanted Schembechler. It was all in writing, to be forwarded that day by Brandt’s secretary. The relevant numbers: a 10-year contract for millions of dollars — the fattest contract owned by any college coach in America.
Schembechler’s laugh, customary when he was talking about this supposed A&M nonsense, softened. He would think about it. He had business in a month at Houston, where he hoped to put it to UCLA in the Bluebonnet Bowl, as much because he loathed Bruins coach Terry Donahue, mostly due to some recruiting duels Michigan’s coach didn’t appreciate.
And then he needed to fly to San Francisco and help at the East-West Shrine game on Jan. 9. Also on the coaching staff there: Bear Bryant of Alabama, and, coincidentally, Sherrill.
Bryant knew what was brewing.
“You can’t pass up that kind of money,” Schembechler was told by a man who had coached at A&M before heading for Alabama and six national championships.
“It’s a hard job,” Bear said. “But it’s a good job.”
Schembechler was making $60,000 in base salary as he moved into his 14th season at Ann Arbor. With his TV show and extras, he was pulling about $100,000 a year, tops in the Big Ten.
But there was little in the way of extras. If he were having a postgame party at the house, with plenty of who’s-who figures on hand, the entertainment was coming out of his and Millie’s account.
With this offer from Bright, which he hadn’t bothered to share with either the university president or the athletic director, A&M was going for the moon. There would, beyond record paychecks, be cars and country-club memberships and as many perks as Aggie tycoons could make a worshiped new coach feel at home.
The offer was millions beyond anything Bo stood to make in Ann Arbor. His assistants also would get nice bumps if they came aboard.
Schembechler no longer was laughing.
He was going to College Station.
“It was the most clandestine thing you’ve ever seen,” Brandt recalled during a conversation this week, still stunned by the secrecy and enormity of those talks 39 years ago.
Nothing could be signed. Not yet. Schembechler needed to tell his boss, he explained to Brandt as a move, almost incomprehensible, swung closer to reality. He owed it to Don.
On a cold Wednesday in January, it was in Canham’s hands to stave off a poaching posse from College Station, Texas.
A&M's deep pockets
Falls and I headed that evening for Canham’s home in Ann Arbor. Joe had a bond with Canham almost as strong as Falls had with Bo. If anyone was going to get the story, in detail, from the men most central as this drama unfurled, it was going to be Falls.
We rang the doorbell. Canham’s wife, Bunny, an unfailingly cordial woman, answered and invited us in. Don was at School-Tech. Yes, things were happening.
There was no sense for when a man no doubt glued to his phone would be home. Everyone in UM’s football cosmos was hunting Canham, wanting answers, offering thoughts — and in boosters’ cases, ample money — as the notion of Schembechler heading to Texas crashed Michigan’s consciousness.
It was snowing hard as we headed for Falls’ Buick and for a 10-minute trip to Canham’s office.
“What kind of car is Don driving?” I asked Bunny.
“A blue Datsun,” she said.
Falls and I steered onto Washtenaw Avenue, headed west, when a car coming from the opposite direction pulled into the left-turn lane, it’s blinker on.
It was a blue Datsun.
“There’s Canham,” I said.
We wheeled around and caught him at the door. Canham waved us downstairs. We would get a clue, anyway, where Michigan football’s empire stood as this Texas talent-raid threatened to rip apart a colossus Schembechler, and by way of the man who had hired him had together built.
We got a quick read on timeline and basics.
Schembechler had stayed in Texas two weeks earlier after the Wolverines had bludgeoned UCLA and Donahue, 33-14, in the Astro-Bluebonnet finale.
Brandt and Bright had talked him into a visit. He, Millie, and son Schemy would meet Brandt in Dallas on Jan. 2 for a Cowboys playoff game against Tampa Bay and then head for A&M to see if a man from Ohio, who had coached only in Ohio and at Michigan, could handle Texas and be as happy as 10 years of record cash might ensure.
Canham was blunt, sitting on a sofa in his basement quarters.
“We can’t match Texas oil money,” he said.
Canham hoped, maybe sensed, that with Schembechler it wouldn’t be all about cash. Not entirely, not definitively. Michigan for Schembechler had been, fundamentally, about players, about his assistants – about a university and its culture.
His comfort level counted. His roots mattered. And his boss was a factor, for sure.
Not that it was impossible for Canham or Schembechler to part.
Although local lore portrayed them as hand-in-glove, yin-and-yang partners glued at the soul in their joint quest to keep Michigan football dynastic, they were human beings.
They didn’t always jibe. Contrary to romance that Canham gave Schembechler everything he wanted, there were always limits — on salaries, on facilities, on personnel.
There were ceilings set that weren’t necessarily going to be an issue at College Station, especially during a long, lavish honeymoon for the Aggies and Schembechler.
Canham talked, and mulled, and conceded Michigan and A&M might as well have been Mars and Earth when it came to distance and dollars.
He had gone at Schembechler with all Canham had, which an AD and even sharper businessman knew had to be something more than money.
You’re a Michigan man, Canham insisted. You can’t leave this. This is your heart. Your soul. Your mind. You’re thoroughly, eternally invested here.
And then Canham said he would do what he could on the money end, realizing he was offering pocket change against A&M’s bank vault.
Schembechler was holed up at home, on Arlington in Ann Arbor, not far from Canham’s place, as Wednesday night bled into Thursday.
Bo’s assistants were with him. They were going to move if Schembechler wanted them at College Station. Their raises were going to be heavy, $20,000 on average, in some cases double what they were getting at UM.
But already, Schembechler had begun wavering. He called Brandt that night and said he doubted he could do it.
Brandt answered: “You agreed to do it.”
“But they need me at Michigan,” Bo said. “Canham says I’m Michigan.”
Schembechler hadn’t argued. He needed another day.
Thursday ticked away, the conversations with staff ongoing, the consultations between Schembechler and Canham steady. Canham was going to bump him from $60,000 to $85,000. The assistants would get a lift, also.
There were, as Schembechler’s basement conversations roiled, TV trucks and media jammed along streets outside Schembechler’s home. There were occasional updates, all ambiguous, all saying the same thing: Schembechler was weighing a life-changing move. He needed time.
Friday, and still nothing firm.
By that afternoon, Falls had waited long enough. We were going to the door.
One of Millie’s sons by her first marriage was on guard duty.
“Bo hasn’t decided anything,” he said, stepping to the porch. “We’ll let you know later.”
Joe wasn’t biting.
“We’ve got a major story here,” Falls said, “and we’ve been patient for two days. We need to see Bo.”
The son explained that his dad wouldn’t be sharing anything at this point with media because of “past experiences.”
Now, Falls was mad.
“Listen, young man,” he said, all but boiling, “I’ve been very fair to your father through the years …”
'I'm not coming'
We were told to wait at the athletic offices and that there would be a decision — soon. A hundred or so media tromped into what then were UM’s football headquarters, at the corner of State and Hoover, for a vigil that was about to last well into Friday night.
Schembechler had been on the phone with Brandt earlier Friday.
“I’m not coming,” Bo said. “So, don’t try and stop me on this. You can tell Bum I’m not coming.”
Schembechler showed up at 9:30 p.m., in a room jammed with media. He sat down at a table sagging with microphones.
He apologized for keeping everyone on hold for 48 hours. And then, his voice wobbling, he said, slowly:
“I debated, as you know, longer than I thought I would. I came to the conclusion there are things more important to me.
“And one of them is Michigan,” and he never quite fully got out the word “Michigan” as Schembechler’s throat tightened and his voice disappeared.
The next morning, Falls and Schembechler met in Bo’s office. They talked about the week, and the secretive weeks preceding Wednesday’s bomb blast. Schembechler told Falls that A&M would now move to hire Sherrill, which the Aggies did, setting ablaze debate nationally about big money and college football.
It might have been known then that neither dollars nor debate about football coaches had come close to peaking. The man who was to sit in Schembechler’s seat nearly four decades later, Jim Harbaugh, would be making $9 million a year.
Sherrill instead got the multi-millions from Bright and A&M. And he would make them happy in the immediate years: 52-28-1 record, three consecutive Southwest Conference championships. And best of all, most important of all, for Bright and the Aggies galaxy, five straight victories over the University of Texas.
It ranks as more than a footnote that in 1988, Texas A&M was handed two years of NCAA probation. Sherrill soon resigned. The money and the success and the giddiness had, it seemed, had a shelf life after all. It might or might not have been something a coach from Ann Arbor had known all along.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.