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25 years ago, Gary Moeller's bad night became a watershed moment for Michigan football

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Each week, The Detroit News will look back at events and people from past sports moments, enlarging on experiences that might have been forgotten with time, or revisiting behind-the-scenes drama that never made it into print or on airwaves.

Down on a field turned to slop from snow, rain, and freshly laid turf, winds blew at 50 mph and made this a November game Joe Roberson was happy to view from behind Michigan Stadium’s press-box glass.

But he was scared stiff by the scoreboard.

Michigan was leading Purdue, 5-0, in the fourth quarter. Six points, which could come quirkily on a day this evil, and the Boilermakers could steal a Big Ten game and ruin an athletic director’s plan to make Lloyd Carr more than the interim head coach he had been for the past six months.

Gary Moeller, with Bo Schembechler, is introduced as Michigan's new head coach in December 1989.

Roberson had given word to Carr earlier that week: Win just one of three remaining games – Purdue at home, at Penn State, or when second-ranked Ohio State visited for the usual grand finale – and we can dispense with the “interim” tag.

Carr’s status as quasi-coach had been grinding at him and had left Michigan’s football staff, players, and fans wondering how much more unrest lay ahead following events that already had toppled one man, Gary Moeller, and now threatened to send Carr and his assistants packing.

Purdue figured to be the best, and perhaps only, chance to soon settle Michigan’s football life during a year, 1995, that for a university in Ann Arbor had been seismic and sad.

“If we lose this game and announce Lloyd, we’re going to get beat up,” Roberson said, darkly, to Bruce Madej, a UM associate athletic director in charge of media relations, as the bizarre score and horrid day slogged on, finally giving way to a game clock that had seen enough.

A man who initially wanted no part of replacing his friend, Moeller, had, predictably, come to enjoy heading Michigan football. The Wolverines had been his life since Bo Schembechler hired him nearly 15 years earlier as an assistant. He had evolved, gradually melding with the university, and particularly with its football players, all while building a blood-brother bond with fellow UM coaches, none more than with Moeller.

And then life exploded.

One bad night

It was a Friday night, April 28. Spring football practice for the Wolverines had just wrapped up. Recruiting was in a lull. The typical schedule a football coach leads – ceaseless – had eased just enough to allow an evening out for he and his wife, Ann.

They would get away from Ann Arbor – the worst choice for a high-profile couple wanting time for themselves. They instead would hit a place Moeller knew about, in Southfield, 45 minutes away. It was a swank restaurant, bar and night spot known as Excalibur.

Gary Moeller poses for photos with quarterback Elvis Grbac in 1991.

Here, a 54-year-old coach and Ann could more easily blend in, perhaps because Excalibur’s crowd wasn’t overly impressed by celebrity.

Excalibur’s drinks were lusty. And, if you ordered an expensive crab salad it was going to be as much crab as salad. A tight, talented ensemble would soon be playing astride a cozy dance floor.

Perfect. Or so, it seemed to a pair from Ann Arbor who needed quality time.

Moeller on this spring evening was now five years into his stint as UM head coach. He had a 44-13-3 record with two Big Ten championships and a Rose Bowl triumph.

For those who knew him, what happened next as Friday night wore on was beyond comprehension.

Moeller was not a drinker. A beer, a single beer, now and then. He no doubt had a few more on a few occasions, but in the minds of those who knew him at Michigan his alcohol habits were certifiably benign.

But on this night, either because he felt overly free from the usual routine, or perhaps because he and Ann had work to do on their relationship – UM associates say it was the latter – he began keeping the cocktail waitress unduly busy. He was ordering hard stuff, whisky, becoming steadily drunk as events turned cataclysmic.

As detailed by police and published accounts, the sequence was incredulous for those who knew Gary Moeller to be your basic straight-arrow.

His alcohol overload became intolerable for both the waitress and then, for Ann, who, disgusted, left the bar to sit in their car.

By this time, police reports stated, Moeller was singing and making sultry comments to the waitress (“I love you, I love you … Hey, did you know you’re beautiful?”) as part of a drunken sojourn that also, to the guests’ irritation, involved other Excalibur patrons. He accidentally smashed two glasses, once cutting himself, and before long headed to the dance floor, staggering, attempting to dance, causing the band to cut short its set, all while verbally sparring with staff, managers, and even customers before landing at the bar.

With Ann now in the refuge of their car, Moeller drank coffee and Grand Marnier until the bartender and manager cut him off. He was asked to sign his check and leave. The report said Moeller answered by throwing a lamp shade at the manager’s head and challenging him to a fight.

Excalibur’s managers called for a cab and escorted him outside. There, Moeller refused a ride and headed for his car as a half-dozen Southfield police arrived.

The episode and its horrifying fallout were anything but over.

Moeller, police said, punched officer Vincent Maviglia in the chest, and continued to resist arrest as officers pulled him into a squad car and headed for the Oakland County Jail.

There it was determined he was too drunk to be admitted. He was taken to Providence Hospital in Southfield where doctors would decide any next steps.

Southfield police joined him at Providence, taping his words, which by this point had descended into a miasma of incoherence and emotional zig-zags.

“I don’t go out to get drunk,” Moeller was heard to say on the police audio. “My wife was with me. And all of a sudden, this big thing breaks out.

“No, I don’t want any mercy. I don’t want that. I understand why you can’t let me go. Do you know how embarrassing this is? I want to keep this thing from my kids. I don’t want my kids to see me that way.”

The audio was under police lock-and-key through Saturday when Moeller faced charges of disorderly conduct and assault and battery, both misdemeanors.

‘Devastating recording’

By early Saturday morning, word of Moeller’s meltdown had reached University of Michigan president Jim Duderstadt, Roberson, and associate ADs Keith Molin, Jeff Long, and Madej. The decision was obvious: Moeller would be suspended, immediately, as Molin headed an investigation in concert with UM campus police and Southfield police. Details and fallout would need to be amassed and assessed, although there was no overwhelming sentiment on April 29 that Moeller was finished as Wolverines coach.

His former boss no doubt would have agreed to give the whole ugly episode proper time. That is, if he had been in Ann Arbor. Or even reachable by phone.

Former Michigan coaches Gary Moeller, left, and Lloyd Carr, right, chat with new head coach Jim Harbaugh before the UM spring game in April 2015.

But his old mentor and friend, Bo Schembechler, who for one year took the empty athletic director’s job in 1989 specifically to make Moeller his follow-up act as Wolverines head coach, was in the Gulf of Mexico fishing. And that seemed to those in charge at Ann Arbor to be the best place for him – away from commotion and from interference they then didn’t need from a personality as protective and as turbo-charged as Schembechler’s.

Roberson called a Monday press conference announcing Moeller’s suspension from a job that, in base salary, paid $130,000. Carr was Wolverines defensive coordinator and now would work as interim head coach while the university probe ran its course. In Ann Arbor, and even among UM execs, there yet was a belief that one ugly night at a bar would not kill a head coach’s career when the man had a record as heretofore clean as Moeller’s.

Then came Wednesday.

The Friday-early-Saturday police audio found its way to local radio. Everything Moeller had said in his drunken binge, from the moment Southfield police arrived at Excalibur, to his emotional disintegration at Providence Hospital, was now on the airwaves.

“It was a devastating recording,” said Molin, who until the tape aired was of the mind Moeller would survive. “Now, this wasn’t only a matter of Gary Moeller – Michigan football coach. Rather, this was somebody representing the University of Michigan.

“How are you going to have that tape floating around in public, recruiting athletes, talking to their parents? He was dead at that point in time. It gave the president no choice.”

Known also was Moeller’s standing with bosses and even fans. Moeller, overall, was at Michigan’s usual elevation, as the 44-13-3 record affirmed. But in his last two seasons he and the Wolverines had done no better than 8-4. The same grousing that has marked Jim Harbaugh’s less-than-rousing stint in Ann Arbor was then often strafing Moeller.

Like most college head coaches, Moeller also liked his independence. Bosses could be cumbersome. Executives tended, in a coach’s mind, to meddle more than administer. If there weren’t serious strains between the camps, there was at least enough mutual frustration to make this a standard university football-execs relationship. It meant his bosses weren’t necessarily crestfallen that a new man would be in charge.

Molin disputes that and says the audio, solely, made Moeller’s time in Ann Arbor untenable. There had seemed to most of Michigan’s officialdom, in the early hours and days, that an appropriate suspension would be the best remedy, perhaps with treatment for alcohol abuse, and definitely with an immediate and fervent personal apology to an audience likely to forgive.

The tape, Molin repeated, ended any shot there.

Lloyd Carr speaks at a press conference as he is named Michigan's new head coach in May 1995

On May 5, a week after the worst and most inexplicable night of Moeller’s life, he resigned. Carr now was in charge. But for a man two months from turning 50 the appointment was a bitter blend of loss and even insult.

Carr was gashed to the soul by Moeller’s ouster, blaming, primarily, media that in his view had sensationalized the tape and ruined a man’s life in Ann Arbor. His response initially was one of loyalty to Moeller: He would not accept his friend’s job. Not under these circumstances.

He agreed later to help keep players and staff together. But he also chafed at a kind of condescension he took from Long, one of Roberson’s associates, who now is athletic director at the University of Kansas.

Long was informing Carr of a prevailing view that flowed from Duderstadt through Roberson – and, in fact, through Michigan’s fan base.

The Wolverines wanted a star head coach as Moeller’s replacement. They wanted a name. A dynamic name. Carr simply wasn’t of that stature.

The problem was timing.

May was not a month to be searching for new head coaches already intertwined with their own teams a bit more than 90 days from fall practice. Michigan would need to wait until at least late autumn to find the brand of coach a national showcase team ideally preferred.

Taking one for the team

Now living in Greenville, South Carolina, Carr talked this week about the trauma of Moeller’s ouster, his initial reluctance to replace even for a short time his friend, and the backhanded tribute he sensed from his bosses when they asked him to help as fill-in head coach but to not plan on anything permanent. The initial conversation, Carr said, about working as interim coach was with Roberson, who died in January of this year. A follow-up talk came by way of Long.

“I said the only way I would agree to be interim coach is that, once we began the process, I wanted their word that I’d be able to finish the season,” said Carr, who retired as Michigan coach at the end of the 2007 season, 10 years after he and the Wolverines won a national championship certified by the Associated Press poll.

From left, former head football coach Lloyd Carr, athletic director Jim Hackett, Jim Harbaugh, and former head football coach Gary Moeller at Harbaugh's introductory press conference in December 2014.

“And so, they said, that’s fine, we’ll announce you as interim head coach. But we want you to know you will not be a candidate for the head job after this season.”

Carr bit his lip, all but telling Long – he had been firm about the future, Carr says – that the stand-in coach was not chopped liver.

“There are a lot of ways to look at that, and I’ll guarantee you it was not an easy time,” Carr said this week, “mostly because of what this group of Michigan men felt about Coach Moeller. We all cared deeply about him. This was a very popular, outstanding man.

“I simply made up my mind that what I was going to do was keep that team together. But I’d be lying if I said that (Long’s and the executives’ sentiment) didn’t motivate me.”

He had company there, specifically Wolverines assistant coaches, not to mention players on UM’s 1995 roster who weren’t interested in a new culture.

“When that incident occurred, and they decided not to make a change, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, every player and every coach on that team knew Coach Carr was the perfect guy to lead that program,” said Scot Loeffler, then a backup quarterback at Michigan, and later a quarterback coach for the Wolverines and for the Detroit Lions, who now is head coach at Bowling Green State University.

“The way he handled it – I’ll tell you, that first address of his was priceless. Lloyd said there’d be no excuses, we weren’t going to feel sorry for ourselves. He did what Lloyd always did – he made sure there was an understanding. He even sounded like Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller combined.”

Giddiness, however, can come hard for a coach, his staff, and his players when they sense more tumult and a new man are but months away. The atmosphere can, perhaps at best, be akin to a lame-duck administration; at worse a death-row vigil.

 “But you never felt any panic,” Loeffler said. “Even though 99.9 percent of the players were close to Coach Moeller, Lloyd was able to create a confidence and an ease in that building, which was remarkable.

“He was still coaching us 1000 miles per hour, and he made us better. But he also brought a sense of calmness.”

‘I will never forget that’

It might have helped that 10 days after Carr was installed he welcomed a visitor known for personal persuasion. Carr acknowledges now that he probably needed the kind of pep talk only the man who first hired him could deliver.

“It was one of the most pivotal moments in my life, and certainly in my coaching career,” Carr said. “Bo knew they had told me I wouldn’t be permanent candidate for the job. And that really infuriated him. In his mind, there was no reason for them to say that.

Gary Moeller is pictured during the 1990 season.

“So, he comes into the office, sits on the edge of a chair, with his arms folded, and he points his finger at me and says:

“‘Listen, I want to tell you something. You’re going to have doubts this season about whether you’re good enough. You’re going to lose one, two games, and the fans will be on you.

“‘And I’m here to tell you to get rid of those thoughts. You don’t dwell on them. Because you’re a great coach and you’re going to do a great job here.’”

Carr had been forged by Schembechler during their years together at Michigan in the 1980s. Bo had hired him. Bo was now telling him that this promotion was natural and deserved.

“His words had an incredible impact on me,” Carr recalled this week. “That he had such confidence. And that I should have confidence and that I could handle this job.

“I never forgot that. I never will.”

Carr retired 12 years later. His record: 121-40, a .752 winning percentage, virtually tied with Moeller’s five-season .758 mark.

Moeller was out of coaching for all of six weeks. He joined the Cincinnati Bengals as tight ends coach, then, two years later, was back in range of Ann Arbor when he became linebackers coach for the Lions on Bobby Ross’ staff. Nine games into the 2000 season, it was Moeller who wore the “interim” badge after Ross abruptly quit.

Moeller looked as if he might stick. The Lions went 4-2 in their next six games and needed to beat the 5-10 Bears, at home, in the finale to win a wild-card playoff ticket. But the Lions blew an early lead and, with two seconds to play, Paul Edinger slammed a 54-yard field goal that gave Chicago the game, 23-20. Moeller now was another victim on a Lions timeline that was about to welcome Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg.

Moeller spent the next year as Jaguars defensive coordinator and two more years on the Bears staff before calling it a career after the 2003 season.

He still lives in Lima, Ohio, with Ann, and for the past 25 years has maintained steadfast silence about his exit from Michigan and about one night’s events, both tragic and bewildering.