“Rob, at the University of Michigan we have six halfbacks. If you come here, you’ll be number seven. Whatever you do with that is up to you.”
So went Bo Schembechler’s recruiting pitch to my dad. Bo made no promises of yards or possible awards. He offered only a chance to compete, and his words enticed my football-junkie father. For a 17-year old kid who played every snap trying to prove his worth, this challenge was too daunting to refuse.
Dad and Bo grew close from these beginnings, much closer than even I realized. Their relationship began during Bo’s recruiting jaunts to Fremont, Ohio, when he would join my grandparents and my dad for dinner and spend his meal complaining about the slivery bone pieces lurking in every bite of his perch sandwich. “Deal with it,” my formidable German grandmother liked to respond. “That’s how it’s made.”
During Dad’s four years in Ann Arbor in the early to mid-1970’s, he and Bo strengthened their bond. Bo asked Dad to move from tailback to fullback to bolster the team’s offense. This move likely cost Dad carries and yards, but he obliged without question—anything to help the team win football games. Years later, Bo would remark that Dad was the toughest player he ever coached.
Later in life, although they didn’t speak or see each other as often as either one would have liked, their mutual admiration never weakened. On November 17, 2006, the day before #1 Ohio played #2 Michigan in another “Game of the Century,” the Michigan family lost its coach and leader. I lived in Manhattan then and phoned Dad the minute I heard the news. I couldn’t see my dad’s face, but I felt his tears and pain in the sighs and silences of our talk. Dad respected Bo for his integrity, courage, the work ethic he demanded, and the deep respect he showed people. I knew he admired his old coach, but I’ll never forget the words he spoke that day: “Kelly, I just lost a father.” He didn’t say, “I lost someone I loved like a father;” he said simply, “I just lost a father,” and that subtle difference impressed upon me just how much Bo Schembechler meant to my dad.
Late last year, I finished Bo’s Lasting Lessons by John Bacon and Bo Schembechler. I first read this book shortly after its release in 2007, but I chose to revisit it hoping to learn more about one of the men who shaped my father. I knew the lessons that Dad taught me, now I wanted to understand who taught him. Over the course of several weeks, I underlined, tagged, flagged, scribbled margin notes, and wrote rambling passages in the front and back covers of Mr. Bacon’s book. In the process, the similarities between Bo and my dad startled me.
Need an example? In the final chapter titled, “If I Could Have One More Week,” Coach Schembechler says, “give me one more week of coaching in preparation for the Ohio State game…just give me a week…from our film session on Sunday to my pre-game speech on Saturday…That would be it. The game would just be icing for me.” (My emphasis on icing).
Now, watch this clip from 1976, and listen for any similarities in the choice of words? I swear that I heard the phrase “that would just be icing on the cake” approximately 500 times as a kid. Thanks, Bo.
Bo’s Lasting Lessons is neither a comedy nor a tear-jerker. It’s a collection of inspiring thoughts and teachings from a great football coach and an even better man. Somehow, though, I both laughed and cried as I scrawled notes on most pages. I sensed Dad’s words jabbing me across the face, as if he hoped I would finally accept that much of his preaching originated from one of college football’s most revered figures and not just from the whimsical musings that originated from his own head.
It was 1990, I was 8-years old, and I wore a hot pink shirt the last time I shook Coach Schembechler’s hand. What I couldn’t realize then, and what I didn’t realize on the November afternoon in 2006 when he passed, was how much he influenced me. If Bo’s greatest achievement as Michigan’s coach is the lessons he instilled in his players, then his most important legacy might be that his impact persists with the families whose lives he touched.
His message, as I will discuss in my next few posts, will persist for generations.