RIP Bo Schembechler, 1929-2006

I interviewed Bo Schembechler 10 years ago for Blitz, Slam’s football publication ,which was really good while it lasted.

A few things to note: I did not like Bo’s politics and his handling of the Tigers was a disgrace. But he was Michigan football and as far as I could ever tell was a man of integrity while there. Also, you’ll see where he calls Title IX absurd. At the time, my cousin Amy Cohen’s Supreme Court case had just been decided and I told him about her and that she was related. He was very interested in hearing about her and said,”Good for her. She shouldn’t have taken that lying down.” I thought that was interesting and admirable considering the damage he felt the law had done.

It’s just bizarre that he died on the eve of the biggest game in Michigan-OSU history. Stevie G. believes he martyred himself for the cause. Not sure I buy that. But anyhow, let’s all tip our hats to Bo.


Bo Schembechler, who retired in 1990 after 21 years as the University of Michigan football coach, still has an office at the U.–in Schembechler Hall. And why shouldn’t Bo have a building named after himself? As coach, he awakened a sleeping giant–returning Michigan to football prominence–posted a record of 194-48-5, and retired as the fifth-winnengest coach in NCAA history. As the following conversation illustrates, he remains a straight-shooting, fiercely opinionated observor of college sports.

AP: When you came here in 1969, the football program had fallen on hard times.
BO: I came in and instituted an extremely rigorous summer training program–there had been none–and everyone told me it wouldn’t work, that people wouldn’t go for that in Ann Arbor. The team had a reputation for having good talent, but being soft. I did have some attrition, but the real football players stayed. I was harder on that first Michigan team–which included Dan Dierdorf–than I ever was on any other group, partly because I was so driven by my own ambition. I killed them. I ran them into the ground.

AP: And it must have worked–that year, you defeated Ohio State, a game many credit with really turning around the program, not to mention reigniting a dormant rivalry. And, of course, OSU was coached by your mentor, Woody Hayes. It’s almost mythical…
BO: And you have to realize that was Woody’s best team ever. They were riding a 22-game winning streak and were referred to as “the greatest team of the century.” So it was just a huge win, and every game we played aganst them while Woody was still the coach [a series referred to as the 10-year war] had that type of atmosphere. It was a lot of fun.

AP: Many people think that college athletes are exploited–universities are making big money off of their skills–so they should be paid. What do you think of that?
BO: First of all, you can’t pay them because the athletic departments are strapped for cash. Especially at an institution like this that is totally dedicated to gender equality. Even with all the money that our footall and basketball teams bring in and with all the licensing and the multi-millions from Nike, we can’t pay the bills. So the concept that there is all this money floating around is just not true: all the revenue from football and basketball goes to subsidizing the other sports, which don’t generate any revenue.

The other problem is, how would you set the pay scale? Do you pay a starter more? Does someone who scores a touchdown or makes an interception in the Rose Bowl get a bonus? Athletes are paid by receiving full scholarships and getting the chance to get a damned fine education.

AP: So you think the concept of the student-athlete is alive and well?
BO: Of course it is, for a vast majority of college athletes. But as we have put more pressure on the football and basketball teams to win and added more showbiz to the mix so we can make more money, we have in a way made a farce of the student-athlete concept. We’re coming close to making the phrase a joke.

You hear the college presidents and administrators complaining about athletes not getting degrees and they’re resonsible for it. They made freshman eligible and they cut the grants-in-aid [scholarships], so you had to play them. And then they milk every dollar they can get from football and basketball. And they make every single decision based on money–not on what’s right for those kids. You want to see football done the way it should be done, it’s simple: increase the grants-in-aid, which have been cut from 135 to 95, and make freshman ineligible. Basketball is almost absurd by now–they only have 13 grants-in-aid.

AP: Why does that make such a difference?
BO: It ratchets up the pressure on every kid and on every coach. It makes recruiting, which is a horrible process, even worse, because there is less margin for error. It puts pressure on coaches to take away the scholarships from kids who don’t pan out, which is totally wrong. And by having freshman play, kids don’t have any time to adjust to being students before they become athletes–which is essential if you’re serious about this issue. I went over to summer practice the other day and I saw two freshman–who had not yet suited up in a game here, had not taken a class, were not really students yet–being interviewed by 12 media people. It’s absurd.

Eliminating freshman eligibility will not solve all of our problems, but it is the fairest thing for the student-athlete, because right now they are thrown out there and told to be students without being shown how to do it. We need to give them a year to just be students. In order to do that, we are going to have to get rid of that ridiculous gender-equity rule. It just can’t work.

BLITZ: How does that law, which states that a university has to have an equal number of male and female athletes, affect this issue?
BO: It’s forced us to cut back the grants-in aid, which makes all of the other reforms impossible. Right now, men’s basketball has 13 and women’s has 15. Of course, none of these things that they we are talking about will ever happen because the NCAA won’t let them happen.

AP: And who controls the NCAA?
BO: The university presidents. The athletic directors have no real control over anything. In fact, Penn State came into the Big Ten and not a single athletic director knew a thing about it before it was announced. And that was the end of my career as an athletic director.

AP: The most famous thing you did as atheltic director was fire Bill Frieder as basketball coach when he announced on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament that he was leaving to go to Arizona State, but would coach U-M through the tournament. You said, “I want a Michigan man coaching Michigan.” And then you made assistant coach Steve Fisher the interim coach–and he won the national chamionship.
BO: Well that quote which everyone knows was incorrect and simplified. I said, “We will have a man who works for Michigan coaching Michigan.” I wasn’t going to have the Arizona State basketball coach coaching Michigan. That was no big thing. Anyone would have done the same thing I did. Imagine being the athletic director and getting a call from a newspaper reporter at 11:00 at night telling you that your basketball coach had signed a contract with someone else.

He did not tell his players. He did not tell his coaches and he did not tell me. Plus, the Athletic Director down there never called me to ask for permission to speak with Frieder. That whole thing was totally unethical. He finally called the next day and said, “Bo, it’s no problem. They have a jet waiting for me. I’ll fly up and coach the team through the tournament.” I said, “Like hell you will. You’re finished here.” I made Fisher the coach that minute. I wasn’t trying to win a national championship; I was just doing what was right, and I’ve gotten too much credit for it. It was a simple decision.

AP: After leaving Michigan, you were general manager of the Detroit Tigers for two years. How did you enjoy your brief sojourn into baseball?
BO: It was great if you like trying to rebuild a bad team with no money. [laughs] Actually, I was frustrated because I came up with a plan that I thought couldn’t miss and it missed. Baseball recruits against the colleges, and I suggested that we discontinue doing that, that if a high school player says he wants to go to college, instead of trying to talk him out of it, we should say, “Great, but we’re going to retain the draft rights to you and we want you to play in our summer league program with our coaches.” This is essentially what hockey does and it serves everyone better–the kid gets a shot at an education and he gets better coaching than in the low minors, which helps the team. I went to the NCAA and got this approved.

You know who nixed the plan? The player’s union. They have absolutely no control over these kids and do nothing to directly benefit them, but they didn’t like it because the agents–who run that union–would lose power and money. So it was nixed and the system remained in place where a kid has to choose between going pro and going to college and if they go pro and don’t make it, that’s it, they’re done.

AP: There’s a quote in your book that says of your infamous tantrums, “it’s not temper, it’s coaching.” Please explain.
BO: I really think that every great coach I’ve ever known has been a great actor. Sure you’re really mad when you’re throwing a tantrum but you’re in control, you know what you’re doing–you have to know when to turn it on and when to pull it back. I hate to see these coaches standing on the sidelines with their arms folded over their chest looking so calm and removed during a game. Some of these guys never even call a play; they just delegate everything and their coordinators call the plays. All they do is decide when to punt and when to kick a field goal. All of the fun of coaching would be gone if you didn’t actually coach during the games.

AP: What do you think of the new bowl alliance, which will lead to a national champion being officially crowned?
BO: I think it stinks for a variety of reasons. For one thing, they prostituted the Rose Bowl to do it. I’m waiting for the day when the number one and two teams in the country are from the Big Ten and the Pac 10 and they play in the Sugar Bowl. It’s absurd. We had something that everyone else wanted to be a part of and we just threw it away. In fact, Paterno wanted to become a part of the Big 10 specifically because of the Rose Bowl.

AP: How do you feel about the licensing agreement Nike has with the University of Michigan, which seems to place swoops on everything–including the sign on the street for Schembecler Hall.
BO: That doesn’t bother me. It’s all part of the program. At least it takes some of the pressure off of football and basketball to generate enough revenues to float the whole department.

AP: Do you miss being a coach?
BO: I don’t miss fighting these battles we’re talking about. I don’t miss recruiting–which is just a horrible, demeaning process. But I miss the staff meeting, the games, the practices, and, most of all, the players. I think we built something really special and had a heck of a good time. In 1989, we had a big banquet celebrating my 20th year with the team and out of 650 players who had suited up for me, 400 came. I think that tells you something. I liked all the players, and I treated every third-string player or walk-on the same way I treated the stars. In fact, I had a personal feeling of tremendous respect for a guy who would come out here every day and challenge all the great players without the benefit of a grant-in-aid. They were very, very important to the success of Michigan football. I believe that all of the guys who went through here learned a lot.

I believe that I taught them how to work hard; how to be honest; how to be disciplined. I believe I taught them how to win. I believe I taught them some loyalty. And I believe those things are important. If you want to call me old-fashioned, that’s fine with me.

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