Michigan

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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Celebrating Rob Lytle with the University of Michigan

On September 25 and 26, the University of Michigan honored my father, the late Rob Lytle, for his election to the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame. Friends, family, former teammates, and school administrators celebrated on Friday evening at Michigan’s Towsley Museum inside Schembechler Hall. We heard from Jim Hackett (Michigan’s Interim Athletic Director), Calvin O’Neal (co-captain with Dad on Michigan’s 1976 Big 10 championship team), directors from program sponsor Fidelity, and the National Football Foundation. Former Wolverine linebacker Steve Strinko read an “Ode to Rob Lytle.” The words shared this evening inspired laughs, tears, smiles, and warm reflections of a well-loved Wolverine.

The special moments continued on Saturday with an on-field tribute. The lasting image of Mom holding a plaque that recognized Dad’s accomplishments above her head while more than 100,000 fans roared is a moment to hold close forever. The fact that a foul, 1970s-era mustache covers Dad’s face in the image on the plaque somehow also seems fitting.

Michigan AD Jim Hackett, Michigan-Great Calvin O’Neal, and our Family at Halftime

Michigan AD Jim Hackett, Michigan-Great Calvin O’Neal, and our Family at Halftime

Our entire family is grateful for Michigan’s celebration, and our debt of gratitude to everyone involved in coordinating the weekend is steep. I’ll do my best to honor the entirety of the weekend in a future post that I hope captures the specialness – and emotions – of the celebration.

For now, though, I want to share the unofficial transcript of the speech I gave remembering Dad at the Towsley Museum.

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So, before I start I need to warn everyone if I seem a little nervous. My fiancée and I were engaged three weeks ago and tonight is actually the first time our families have met. Please bear with me.

First, I want to say thank you. Thank you to the University of Michigan and Mr. Jim Hackett for this celebration; I cannot begin to express how thankful we are; thank you to the National Football Foundation and Fidelity for your support; thank you to all our friends and family who are here tonight. Last, Dad always said that football is the greatest team game there is. So it’s unbelievable – and humbling – to see this many former teammates. Thank you – this weekend is a celebration of everything the team accomplished.

In the early 70’s, Bo Schembechler traveled to Fremont, Ohio. “Rob,” Bo said in his traditionally gruff style, “at Michigan we have 6 halfbacks. If you come here, you’ll be number 7. Whatever happens after that is up to you.”

Not your typical recruiting pitch. But SNAP!….Dad was hooked.

Hooked on this fiery coach whose integrity oozed from him.

Hooked on the chance to compete with the best team in the country and against the best players every day in practice.

Hooked on the Victors – the greatest fight song in college football – and on those maize wings that make Michigan’s helmet so iconic.

And once Dad visited campus – hooked on Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.

So it is with deep pride that we are here to celebrate this moment and the specialness of the school, the sport of football, and the team for Dad.

Rob Lytle Memorabilia, Courtesy of Michigan Photography, Copyright

God – Dad loved Michigan football.

I remember November 1996 – during the Ohio State – Michigan game. Mom and I huddled in our kitchen watching the game on a TV smaller than most computer monitors are now. Dad paced outside – raking leaves, mowing the grass, gardening. Anything to stay busy. Every few minutes he’d rush up to the window, intensity burning through his eyes. He’d look for the score then dart back into the yard. He was so proud when Michigan won that day.

Dad bled maize and blue.

When I think about Dad and Michigan football, the games never come to mind. It wasn’t in his nature to discuss yards or touchdown or any individual plays. In fact, the only one he ever talked about was the Purdue game from 1976, when he claimed he lost the game and a shot at a national championship for Michigan because of his 4th quarter fumble – always ignoring that he gained 150 yards and averaged more than 7 yards per carry that day.

Michigan football meant so much to Dad not only because of the games but because of what surrounded it…because of what happened outside the white lines on the field.

Michigan football mattered because of what it required of him. The sacrifice…the work ethic…the toughness…the commitment to a team – to being part of something greater than himself.

It was about standing on the sideline inside Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, and looking up at a scoreboard that read Michigan 22 – Ohio State 0. Dad always said that his favorite football memory was being able to “hear a pin drop” inside the Horseshoe that afternoon.

It was about standing in the dark in the tunnel inside Michigan stadium. Hearing the snap of chin straps… knowing the M-Club banner was stretched across midfield… and exploding into the gameday sun while more than 100,000 fans cheered.

It was about learning not just how to play a game but about life.

How deeply do you care? Will you sacrifice for others? Put their needs ahead of your own? All to be part of the team?

Will you accept the challenge of not being satisfied every morning when you wake? Of getting better every day?

These words aren’t just a cliché meant to motivate a football team. They’re values that show how to be a good person. And they can last forever… I know they did for Dad.

Kelly Lytle Remembering his Late Father, Courtesy of Michigan Photography, Copyright

The more I think about Michigan – and football – and Dad, I can’t avoid thinking about my own childhood. I remember being 10 years old again. And it’s Sunday afternoon and my friends and I are gearing up for our afternoon football game. The anticipation is accelerating. We’ve waited all week for these games and for Dad to play all-time quarterback.

We pile into Dad’s jeep and chug toward the park. We spill out onto the field and the cool October air chills our skin. Red and orange and yellow leaves blow along the ground. The grass is wet and cold and seeps into our shoes and against our hands. Maybe we can see the smoke from our breaths.

As kids, we’re carefree, having the time of our lives.

I remember Dad against this backdrop. He’s wearing ill-fitting, short shorts. He has a wad of tobacco bulging from his cheek and a pouch of Levi Garrett dangling from his pocket. He’s talking smack…Coaching…Teaching.

And of course his face wears that big shit-eating grin that everyone remembers.

Dad’s at home here. He’s a part of the team, playing the game he loved.

I think that tonight is such a tremendous honor because it lets us remember what is special, right?

We get a chance to laugh, as Mom and I did remembering the story of Dad passing out face down in a Whopper at Burger King after celebrating the Ohio State victory a little too much.

We get to cry as we remember those who aren’t here. And I think these are good tears…because they remind us of those we’ve loved and lost.

And we get to smile because of this game that is in our blood. For what it meant to be part of the team at the University of Michigan. And for how special that is.

Thank you and go blue.

Rose Bowl touchdown celebration, Photo courtesy of Curt Stephenson

Rose Bowl touchdown celebration, Photo courtesy of Curt Stephenson

To Dad, From Kelly

To Dad, From Kelly - Final Cover

When Rob Lytle died at age 56, three decades after his football stardom at the University of Michigan ended and his professional career with the Denver Broncos began, his son Kelly Lytle poured his mix of grief, adulation, regret, gratitude, and even criticism into a series of letters to the man he considered his best friend. What began as catharsis evolved into a memoir that starts strong and gains steam the way Rob Lytle did in his dashes down the football field.

To Dad, From Kelly adds dimensions as the author has the insight and candor to peel away the cachet of having a celebrity father and reveal the underside of an all-consuming devotion to a sport. Along the way, Kelly shares his difficulties with keeping sports competition in perspective.

This reflection on an unusually close and complicated father-son bond will be entertaining, poignant, and inspiring for readers who love sports and those who don’t because—although football provides a backdrop—the book is really about family, zeal, and character.

You can purchase your copy of To Dad, From Kelly at any of these locations:

Amazon Barnes & Noble Kobo Apple

The Most Important Letter I Ever Wrote

To Dad, From Kelly began with a single letter I wrote to my father in fall 2011, one year after he died. The words in that letter are the most important I’ve put on paper. With my memoir published, I decided to write another letter to reflect on my three-year writing journey. The twist: I’ve addressed this one to the 2011 version of me. As today is the 4th anniversary of Dad’s death, I’ve decided to share that letter.

Dear Kelly,

You’re pale. And plump in the midsection. You love writing because it makes you see the world more imaginatively. You think that writing makes you a more caring person.

Just wait. In three years, after hours spent writing in your basement, snow will have more color than your skin. And that slight bulge will become a noticeable belly. It’s OK, writing will have become more fun and important than exercising. Still, avoid the once-a-week 2,000-calorie Taco Bell orders when you can.

Soon, you won’t just love writing. You’ll need it. The creative release will sustain you. Writing will transform you into a deeper, more invested person. Writing will offer you an outlet for the emotions you cannot otherwise form.

Around a year after your dad’s death, a friend will ask you to write a letter to him. The decision to write it will launch the most harrowing, rewarding, and introspective journey of your life. Buckle up because the ride ain’t easy.

You think you can write well. You can’t. But you’ll improve.

You think you’ve cried before. You haven’t. Noah’s Ark might capsize in the torrent of tears you’re about to shed.

You think you understand hard work. You don’t. But you will.

On most mornings you’ll feel exhausted as you stare into a blank computer screen, its flashing cursor seeming like a giant middle finger flicking up and down—taunting—howling that you don’t have the heart to finish. Words will flee. Paragraphs will evaporate. “Why the fuck can’t I write?” You’ll wail. But fight. Listen to your dad’s voice and force yourself into the dark hurt of hearing him speak. Slice the scars protecting your deepest wounds and stitch yourself together by unleashing raw fury into the writing.

You’ll eviscerate you’re mind, body, and spirit. But you’ll survive. And heal.

Don’t fight your changing music tastes. From folk and bluegrass to soul, gospel, and even Negro Spirituals—all forms will carry a tune you need to hear.

And don’t fret when you spend the last 6 months of writing listening to only Jodeci and 2Pac. The journey, in all its forms, will be unexpected.

You’re impatient so you think you need to finish the manuscript now. When your bosses ask you to finish the work for which they are paying you, remember this: They are not sabotaging you’re writing career. Quit complaining and do the work.

That 3rd draft you finish and declare the publish-ready manuscript is shit. Friends and family will be supportive, but you can (and will) do better.

The open mic night you believe you’re attending on a random Tuesday evening in May 2013 isn’t actually an open mic night. The community theater hangout that you stumble into will cascade into a leading role in a play you are unqualified to act in, and the challenges of rehearsing and performing over the next 4 weeks will become some of the most rewarding moments of your adult life.

Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Most are better. Steal from them. Learn from them. Be as good as you can be.

Believe in the value of your story. It’s the only one that nobody can replicate.

A fall Friday will arrive when you are weary from work and writing. Get off your ass, grab The Power of One, stuff a notebook and pen into your pocket, and sit in the corner of an old world bar sipping IPAs and eating stuffed cabbage.

Your life is about to change.

When a spirited, dark-haired girl sits on the barstool to your left, announces (loudly) to the bartenders that she’s searching for a mid-century modern couch, and orders a glass of red wine, don’t wait 60 minutes to introduce yourself. She’s the one.

Love strikes unexpectedly – especially for those who spend their Fridays reading, writing, eating, and drinking by themselves at bars.

Never confuse being alone with being lonely.

You’ll read this quote from Neil Gaiman about writing: “The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.”

Print the quote and stuff it in your pocket. You’ll need the words to persevere through the gut punches of honest emotion you are writing.

The stories you write will cause your family pain. The writing is too truthful. Appreciate their sorrow, but continue on your journey.

As you write, you’ll want more from your father. More time. More conversations. Answers. You’ll be frustrated, angry at missed opportunities. And that’s OK. Because when the final period is typed, you’ll be thankful for every crooked grin, bit of sarcasm, and wisdom he shared.

Three years from now everything will be worth it. The scribbled-in moleskins. The writer’s block. The smashed computer parts. The edits. The Red ink. The Revisions. The underlined books full of margin notes. The reflection, introspection, and desperation. When you finally hold To Dad, From Kelly in your hands, everything will be worth it.

Good luck my friend,

Kelly

What Do You Remember

A curious thing happened last week when The Dave Matthews Band song Say Goodbye played on one of my Spotify playlists. Now, before anyone mocks the song, (or my general taste in music on Spotify) I do have a point to make.

As the intro played, I remembered all the times I heard that song and every other DMB song in late high school and college (and if I’m being honest a little after college). I said to myself, this intro lasts 1 minute and 22 seconds before Dave sings. Turns out, I was wrong.

The musical intro lasts 1 minute and 25 seconds – not a shabby memory considering the years and beers that have passed since I paid attention to this tune.

This moment then made me think about the other things I can remember with unusual detail.

For instance, I know I saw a ~7:30 showing of Rudy in Fremont’s Paramount Cinemas on November 20, 1993. I wore navy wind pants with a large Michigan block “M” on the left leg, a navy Michigan #21 jersey, and a white Michigan undershirt. Why? Because earlier that day my Grandpa, Dad, and I traveled to Ann Arbor, sat in Section 43 of Michigan Stadium, and watched the Wolverines upset the #5 Ohio State Buckeyes 28-0. We returned home in time to catch the end of Boston College’s stunning victory over then #1 Notre Dame before Mom, Dad, and I went to the movie.

Oh, Glenn Foley was the quarterback of that Boston College team. Notre Dame’s was Kevin McDougal.

Not enough? Well, in winter 1993, I learned this quote by George Washington Carver: “Take what you have, make the most of it, and never be satisfied.” I scribbled it on a napkin and kept it in my desk drawer for many years. I can also tell you that I learned the quote during a speech at my church by former Bowling Green State University coach Gary Blackney, sat at a long, rectangular table just left of the center of the stage, and they served steamed carrots as part of the meal. That was the first time I ever ate carrots prepared that way.

The first time I saw My Girl was on December 19, 1992. I watched the game alone in my basement while flipping the channel between the movie and the Fab Five’s basketball game versus Iowa State. My sister had three friends over and at some point I played the game Mall Madness with them. This is all true.

I find this fascinating because besides the day I first watched Rudy, the other memories are not extraordinary. In fact, they are completely unremarkable moments that should melt into all the other memories of my youth. For some reason, though, I’ll never forget them.

It occurs to me that it’s impossible to anticipate the moments that stick in our brain – the moments that form who we are. We have no idea what words will leave a lasting impression on our children or our students. Just like we never know if a compliment, thank you, or offer to help will leave a positive impression with our friends and family long after the occasion itself passes. Who knows, maybe a joke or a laugh given to a stranger while waiting in line for coffee is exactly what he or she needs to have a better day?

Although we can’t choose if, or when, others will remember our actions, we can choose how they’ll remember them. By treating others with respect and kindness, fairness and appreciation, we can ensure that the memories that do last are ones that will make us proud.

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

P1030966

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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Did Rob Lytle Invent the Zone Read?

It has taken twenty years, but the NFL appears poised to finally realize the offensive revolution that my 4th grade flag football team experienced when my dad assumed the coaching whistle for our team.

Debate currently rages throughout football circles over whether spread offenses (particularly “spread option” offenses) will ever flourish in the NFL the way they have in high schools and colleges across the country. As I write this post, spread offense maverick Chip Kelly is playing hardball with several NFL teams to become their next head coach. In football circles, Kelly’s name, along with individuals such as Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer, and Chris Ault, is synonymous with an offensive system that uses option principles in a spread setting to score points in bunches. If (and when) Chip Kelly is hired to run an NFL team, we might have a definitive answer to whether this type of offense can succeed at football’s highest level, or if it will only exist as one package incorporated into a more diverse offensive setting (see the Redskins, Seahawks, and Panthers).

The spread option craze ignited when Northwestern upset mighty Michigan 54 to 51 in 2000. Schools raced to replicate Northwestern’s approach and soon names such as those mentioned above rose to prominence by competing for conference and national championships using spread-based running schemes. But the success of the spread option offense doesn’t begin here. In fact, it dates back to 1992, when my dad decided to coach my flag football team.

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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.

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