Giant larger than his record

Published November 18, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio - They say Bo Schembechler's heart gave out Friday morning. I say they can believe what they want.

For if you followed his career, if you understood his passion, if you ever cared more than you should about a college football game, then you know the truth.

That he had already given his heart to Michigan long ago.

You will see it today in the Horseshoe. In the faces of some in the bleachers. In the manner of coach Lloyd Carr on the sideline. In the talent and devotion of the players wearing the uniform of the Wolverines.

The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry existed long before Schembechler, and it will continue to go on now that he has passed. But understand that he helped make this game what it is today. He helped college football grow to the phenomenon it has become.

He was Paterno. He was Bryant. He was one of a handful of coaches whose names are larger than records or titles.

He was McKay. He was Bowden. He was an iconic figure in his stadium, and the source of frustration on campuses everywhere else.

The fact that he won fewer games than some is incidental. That his 21-year reign at Michigan ended without a national championship is not the issue.

Schembechler brought more than numbers or trophies to the party. He was a symbol for loyalty. A preacher of teamwork and trust. In this era of slick talkers and self-promoters, Schembechler's minimalist style seems trite and outdated.

And that's a shame.

You see, the memory of Schembechler should not be reduced to a stock image of a grumpy old man. He could be gruff, and he was certainly argumentative. He ruled the football program with the benevolence of a dictator, and never bypassed a battle. He was known all around as the meanest man in Michigan.

Yet, Schembechler was never a caricature of himself. Unlike Bob Knight, he did not treat the program as if it were a trough to feed his own enormous ego. Unlike Woody Hayes, his anger never grew unhinged.

For Schembechler, it was all accomplished in the name of Michigan.

You may recall when Schembechler was the athletic director and he dismissed basketball coach Bill Frieder, who had the audacity to accept a job at Arizona State before the start of the 1989 NCAA Tournament. Frieder had planned on remaining for the tournament, but Schembechler thought otherwise.

"I don't want someone from Arizona State coaching the Michigan team," Schembechler growled. "A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan."

Assistant coach Steve Fisher was put in charge, and the Wolverines went on to win the NCAA title.

It is, in a way, the perfect story of Schembechler. Tough. Cantankerous. Devoted to Michigan. And, as it turns out, smarter than we knew.

Schembechler was younger than both Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno but retired 17 years ago, in part because of failing health.

He suffered a heart attack the day before the 1970 Rose Bowl, and had lived for decades with various heart issues and diabetes.

Schembechler attended a news conference earlier in the week to talk about today's game, but acknowledged his health would prevent him from attending.

"The medical people here will tell you it's a miracle I'm alive," Schembechler told the Columbus Dispatch 13 days ago. "How many guys you know had a heart attack 36 years ago and are still alive? Name one."

He was honored Friday night in an unlikely setting by an unlikely crowd of Ohio State fans. The Dead Schembechlers, a punk rock band whose members dress in the image of Woody Hayes, had been previously scheduled to headline a pep rally.

The group, which has grown in prominence in recent weeks, had even come to the attention of Schembechler himself. He chuckled about the absurdity of the group's shtick when talking to a reporter this month.

When news of Schembechler's death spread on Friday, the band announced on its Web site that it would disband after Friday night's show, and that proceeds from the concert would be donated to a charity chosen by the Schembechler family.

"The band is crushed to learn of the death of Bo Schembechler," read a statement on the Web site. "We named this band after Coach Schembechler to honor him as the face of Wolverine football. ... We believe that he took the band's name as the compliment that it was meant as and that he was flattered by it."

By midday, the show had changed its name from a Hate Michigan rally to a Beat Michigan rally. And, on the marquee of the Newport Music Hall, the Dead Schembechlers' name had been removed.

Instead, at this theater across the street from the Ohio State campus, the marquee read:

God Bless Bo.