Bo Schembechler

A real Ohio State – Michigan story

Rob Lytle made his final commitment to the University of Michigan and Bo Schembechler while staring into the angry eyes of famed Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. During Dad’s recruitment, he and Woody bonded while dissecting battles from the Civil War as if they were defenses from a future opponent. But now that Dad had made his decision to attend Michigan, Woody sat in the living room at my grandparents demanding to know why. That day, Dad summoned the courage to tell Coach Hayes that he thought Michigan “was a better fit” for him. The two men never spoke again, their relationship another casualty of being on opposite sides of the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State.

Except things weren’t that simple. And, as my dad learned a decade later, Woody Hayes was too good a man with too much character for the story to end there.

The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State is one of the most fierce in sports. However, as the following story from Jim Brandstatter’s Tales From Michigan Stadium shows, the respect between the competitors on each side is what allows it to persist as the greatest rivalry in sports (photos courtesy of Lytle family and not part of original story).

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What Bear Bryant and Bo Schembechler Thought About Water

On day one of camp, nearly 100 football players pressed their cleats into hard dirt that refused to yield. Sharp rocks gashed their bodies; cacti pierced their skin; crunched noses spilled blood onto ragged jerseys. During the day, players suffocated in the 110-degree heat, fluids exhausted from their worn bodies. At night, they bunked in metal huts “hotter than a breakfast griddle,” sweat running off foreheads and eyelids and dripping from behind knees. By day ten, the team numbered less than 40. This was 1954 in Junction, Texas, a sparse cow town wasted by a years-long drought. This was Coach Paul Bryant’s first training camp at Texas A&M. This was hell at the hands of a man remembered simply as “Bear.”

Bear BryantThis was a different era for football. Toughness mattered more than talent. “Sacrifice. Work. Self-discipline,” as Coach Bryant said, “I teach these things, and my boys don’t forget when they leave.” During this camp, one player cracked multiple ribs at morning practice. He returned in the afternoon – wheezing, wobbling, and vomiting – but still practiced. Injuries needed dirt rubbed on them, not medical attention. Missing practice to heal was not smart it was weakness. And water, well in Coach Bryant’s mind, water was something wasted on the weak.

Bryant believed the fastest way to whip a team into shape was to deny the boys water, even in the brutal heat. He had withheld water during practices at Kentucky and Maryland, and those teams seemed to grow stronger in the fourth quarter. The team doctor even agreed with Bryant’s harsh methods. Back in College Station, Dr. R.H. Harrison had told him, ‘A stomach that is full of water can cause the blood flow to increase to the spleen. That, in turn, could cause a ruptured spleen.’ Smokey Harper (the A&M trainer) summed it up in a manner that pleased Bryant: ‘Hell, you never pour ice water into a car’s hot radiator. So why pour ice water into a hot boy?’

Jim Dent’s Junction Boys offers a glimpse into the harsh sacrifices made to appease the tyrant most players grew to love (or at least respect). Junction Boys is a football book about hard men built by an even harder man. Its stories are hard-nosed and without bullshit, as if also shaped in Coach Bryant’s image. I appreciated the entire read, but loved the point about water because it reminded me of one I heard as a kid.JB

At Michigan, Dad played for an equally determined and driven coach in Bo Schembechler. Though Dad’s nature was not to share many stories about his days playing, he did tell one about a particularly memorable practice. I’ve done my best to paraphrase him:

I don’t know who it was. The NCAA maybe, or the University. But someone mandated to Bo that we needed a certain amount of water at practice. So Bo agreed. ‘Fine, they’ll have their water.’ Next thing, we’re at practice and right at midfield is an oasis of long folding tables stocked with water jugs, cups of cold water, relief from misery. So we’re out smashing into one another for hours, wonderin’ when Bo was gonna let us taste that water. We’re whispering, angling to figure how we could sneak a sip and soothe our damn sandpaper tongues. Finally, one of the guys asked Bo when we’d get a water break. So Bo stopped practice and gave the poor kid an all day stare. Then he said, ‘they told me we needed to have water at practice. Nobody said I had to let you drink it.’

As I said, a different era.

Lessons from a Coaching Legend: The Team

 

As a brash nine-year old, I attended an end-of-the-season soccer banquet with my teammates, their parents, the coaches, and mounds of cake, ice cream, hamburgers, and hot dogs. Before the party commenced, I noticed that the cake decorators wrote each player’s name on the cake in icing, and my name had landed at the top of the list. I found this to be the perfect opportunity to announce my soccer superiority so I shouted that my name belonged first because I was the best player on the team.

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Lessons from a Coaching Legend: Be Prepared to Work

“Every day you either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.”

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

From Michiganensian/Wikimedia Commons

If you played for Bo Schembechler, you grasped the meaning of work. Bo’s first winter at Michigan consisted of running, running, and more running. Players ran everywhere, inside the football stadium, around the basketball gym, and through the chilly halls of the hockey arena. As Bo said when describing the efforts of his initial Michigan football team: “No one else in the Big Ten knew we were doing crazy drills in the bowels of dark, cold gyms, and running the world’s ugliest laps in the morning fog, but we knew what we were doing. We were getting somewhere” (Schembechler/Bacon, 41).

For those players who survived winter conditioning, Bo had a treasure waiting for them in spring practice: hitting. The practices, so grueling that they exhausted the team physically and mentally, caused many players to quit and spawned Coach Schembechler’s famous quote, “Those who stay will be champions” (Schembechler/Bacon, 38). Bo promised the team that he would reward them if they toughed it out.

That reward arrived on November 22, 1969, when Michigan upset Ohio and ended their run towards a second consecutive national championship. This game kick-started The Ten Year War between Bo and Ohio coach Woody Hayes.

I didn’t grow up listening to any fatherly talks advocating the importance of one’s work ethic. It was just a fact of life, the price of admission paid for setting a goal. The work (especially when it came to school, playing sports, or my knee rehabs in high school) started early and ended late. Get better or get worse because you aren’t staying the same.

Talent means nothing without the desire to work, and having a goal is useless without the willingness to sacrifice. The price of success is desperation, the moments when it seems as if one more repetition (or edit or draft) will suck all your remaining energy and leave you wasted on the sidelines, unable to return to the game. “Getting somewhere” only happens if you have the guts to spend your early mornings and late evenings conquering frustrations and spilling sweat onto a gym floor or into the development of an idea. Inspiration isn’t possible without effort.

If you want to improve then work your ass off when your eyes are the only ones watching.

I didn’t always listen to this advice. Lord knows I took my share of shortcuts along the way. But I knew the choice to work belonged to me and nobody else. And I’ll take having learned that lesson any day.

Prior Lessons from a Coaching Legend: Introduction, Respect and Equality, Do Your Job.

Lessons from a Coaching Legend: Respect and Equality

It’s evident from some of the stories I heard growing up and those I read in Bo’s Lasting Lessons, that Coach Schembechler believed in treating everyone equally. When describing his players, Bo said, “I’m going to treat you all the same. Like dogs!” (Schembechler/Bacon, 31). Behind that comment, though, breathed a coach who respected his players and required that they in turn respect the trainers, managers, secretaries, and building professionals that made the Wolverines success possible. As Bo stated, “they’re all important or they wouldn’t be working for Michigan football…they owe you nothing. You owe them your gratitude” (Schembechler/Bacon, 73).

Bo motivated and offered others a sense of belonging.

I asked my mom recently if Dad’s preference for inclusion over exclusion stemmed from Bo, or if the old coach merely sharpened it. We failed at reaching a consensus. Regardless, these quotes from Bo remind me of many moments from my youth, particularly the softball games that Dad organized for the neighborhood kids.

We played on a weathered field at the elementary school across the street from my grandparent’s house. A paint splattered blue-gray slide and rusting merry-go-round loomed in the not too distant outfield. We had no fence, so a home run meant the ball rolled to the wood chip area near the black and metal swing set or the splintering jungle gym. Our games had all the organization of an unattended cattle drive, but everyone had the chance to play. We had players with emotional handicaps, minor intellectual disabilities, and other physical shortcomings that we could have easily kept on the game’s fringes. Not in these contests, though.

Everyone bat, everyone played the field, and everyone took their shots at smacking a home run off a Levi-Garrett spitting ex-NFL running back playing all-time pitcher. At the risk of sounding cliché, I can say that winning and losing didn’t matter. The only score that counted was the fun had as part of the game.

As I compared what I read to the memories of these games, I felt a simple message shared by Bo and my dad develop inside my head: respect each person you meet, care about their well-being, and elevate nobody while appreciating everyone.

Sounds pretty good to me.

The introduction to Lessons from a Coaching Legend can be found here.

Lessons from a Coaching Legend: Introduction

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Photo courtesy of Missy Caulk and Flickr.

“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.

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I Thought the World of Him…

My dad made his final commitment to the University of Michigan and Bo Schembechler while staring into the angry eyes of famed Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. During Dad’s recruitment, he and Woody bonded while spending hours together dissecting battles from the Civil War as if they were defenses from a future opponent in the Big Ten. Now that Dad had made his decision to attend Michigan, Woody sat in the living room of my grandma and grandpa’s house demanding to know why. That day, Dad told Coach Hayes that he thought Michigan “was a better fit” for him and the two men never spoke again, their relationship another casualty of being on opposite sides of the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State.

Except things weren’t that simple. And, as my dad learned a decade later, Woody Hayes was too good a man with too much character for the story to end there.

The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State is one of the most fierce in sports. However, as the following story from Jim Brandstatter’s Tales From Michigan Stadium shows, the respect between the competitors on each side is what allows it to persist as the greatest rivalry in sports.

(more…)