I'm Just The Guy With The Whistle: Remembering Bo Schembechler
17 min read

I'm Just The Guy With The Whistle: Remembering Bo Schembechler

If the measure of a coach is how much he affects his players, then there is no doubt in my mind that Bo is amongst the greatest ever. His effect, I believe, is close to everlasting.
I'm Just The Guy With The Whistle: Remembering Bo Schembechler

With two seconds left in the game, my Iowa Hawkeyes trailed 10-9. This was one of the defining moments of my childhood- #2 Michigan versus #1 Iowa, in Kinnick Stadium in 1985.  It was a 2:30 PM kickoff, nationally televised game on CBS, with a young Brent Musburger on the call. I grew up an Iowa Hawkeye fan during the Hayden Fry era. I attended Iowa football games with my dad from the time I was eight-years-old until I went off to college. No Iowa Football experience was bigger than this game versus Michigan.

To a 9-year-old kid, Bo Schembechler was simply the fiery coach of the Wolverines, constantly working the officials. I didn't care about the quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, or Schembechler. My world revolved around Chuck Long, Ronnie Harmon, and Coach Fry. But, as someone who loves to study great coaches and great leaders, I have the utmost respect for Bo- what he accomplished and what he stood for. College athletics needs more men and women like Bo. He never won a national championship, but he impacted generations of young men and left a mark on Big Ten Football. If you want to talk about leaving a legacy, look at Bo. He passed away over 13 years ago, yet he remains the most iconic figure in the history of Michigan athletics.

To learn more about Bo Schembechler, read anything by John U. Bacon. Anything Bacon writes about Michigan Football is definitely worth reading. His book called "Bo's Lasting Lessons" is outstanding. The legendary coach teamed up with Bacon to teach the timeless fundamentals of leadership. Schembechler was a phenomenal leader of young men, a coach of coaches, and a leader of leaders. Buy this book for yourself. Buy this book as a graduation present. Reviewers write about passing this book along to somebody younger so they can learn how to lead people, so they can learn how to work. Mitch Albom's book, "Bo," would be another great resource. I commend those two books to anyone wanting a deeper study of Bo Schembechler.  

There's no doubt in my mind that Bo Schembechler would be successful coaching today. He could have succeeded as a head coach in any sport. He proved himself an outstanding athletic director. He would have been an extremely successful CEO. He could have advised your small business or startup venture. Bo Schembechler knew how to connect with people, he knew how to challenge people, and he knew how to lead.

In the forward to his book, Mitch Albom provides a great starting point to studying Bo Schembechler. Albom writes, "He is a thousand things on the outside, and deep down, he is a very simple man. He truly does not think of himself as anything more than a football coach, and he doesn't need anything more than a field, decent kids to work with and a good hamburger now and then. He has dedicated his life to molding young men, giving them a purpose and an experience that they will treasure for a lifetime. I was struck in the interviews with his former players by how many said Michigan football was the best time of their lives, and by how many couldn't stop smiling whenever his name was mentioned. If the measure of a coach is how much he affects his players, then there is no doubt in my mind that Bo is amongst the greatest ever. His effect, I believe, is close to everlasting. Some of that comes through yelling, some through fear, some through intimidation, but most of it comes through a genuine concern, a fatherly kind of thing, a piece of the heart you can bank on like a gold coin, to be there years from now. Wherever you are, you can always call Bo."

Number one versus number two match-ups were rare in college football. The entire nation watched the Iowa-Michigan battle in October of 1985. From Rose Bowls and nationally televised games to battles versus Woody Hayes, Bo definitely coached on the biggest stage. Bo was a larger than life character, but he worried about college football. In 1989, he talked about the state of college football, how it had exploded into a big business. He was a man who valued what college athletics was supposed to be about.

"I've given a lot of thought to the career I've had and the people who taught me about football and life," Bo said in Albom's book. "Men like Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant. They're gone now. And so is their style of coaching: brash, loud, get down in the mud and fight with your players. Today's coach is more often a 'face man.' He looks good on TV, speaks nicely to alumni, plays in the celebrity golf tournaments- and stands on the sidelines with his arms crossed during a game. Which makes me a Neanderthal, I guess: the old way of thinking stuck in the new era of coaching. I can't stand with my arms crossed- not during a game, nor during a practice. I feel a little discouraged when I see these young guys looking pretty for the cameras, jumping from job to job, and ignoring the recruiting, academic, and drug scandals that are soiling our sport. The game has exploded. It's big money. It's big pressure. It's out of control."

Big money. Big pressure. Jumping from job to job. Bo Schembechler would be appalled to see the coaching profession and the state of Division I football in 2020. Bo said, "But it's still football, and as long as I'm here, I'll coach it my way, thank you. I'll still scream at a freshmen who fumbles the ball during practice. I'll still suspend a kid who misses classes. And I'll still defend what I think is the most important element: not championships, not TV contracts, but that every kid come out of the program with a diploma and a feeling he was a part of something special. And the knowledge that his coach is now a friend forever." That passage should hang in the office of every head coach who works in Division I athletics. Bo won at a high level. He preached academics and the value of a college degree. And he believed that some things were more valuable than championships and TV contracts.

Iowa had the number offense in the country in 1985. Michigan had the top defense in the country. They had allowed only one touchdown in five games and only 4.2 points per game. "We're just an old-fashioned kind of football team," Bo said back in 1985. Few will remember, that Michigan entered that season coming off of a 6-6 record the year before. It was Bo's worst record in 16 years. They began the 1985 season unranked and quickly rose to their #2 ranking. Bo Schembechler knows about hard work, tough defense, and turnarounds. He was the definition of an old-fashioned kind of coach.

For Bo Schembechler, leadership started with mentorship. He spent 12 years working for three hall of fame coaches: Doyt Perry, Ara Parseghian, and Woody Hayes. Bo appreciated his mentors. He used John U. Bacon's book to pass along leadership lessons he learned along the way. Bo said, "You need to know what to do from the day you become a leader to the day you step down. How to pick the right mentors, and how to lay down your laws when it's your turn at the top. How to hire your people- and fire them, when you have to. How to train them, motivate them, and mold them into a team. How to get them to execute what you want perfectly, every time. How to handle conflicts and crisis and troublemakers and guys who just aren't getting it. How to keep outsiders from meddling with your program, and insiders from undermining it. How to handle sudden setbacks, crushing pressure, and constant criticism. How to handle failure- and how to handle success. Even when to call it quits, and how to do it the right way."

Thought-leader Seth Godin talked about two skills that are rare and valuable in today's world. First, how to solve interesting problems. How to fix something or teach something that cannot be accomplished through a google search. Second, how to lead. How to take a group and say, follow me. "If you want to become a great leader," Schembechler said, "you need to prepare yourself to become a great leader, and the best way to do that is to study great leaders."  I look back at the life and career of Bo Schembechler and I see a rare example of great leadership that we can all learn from today.

He valued his mentors in the coaching profession. He did not rush to climb the ladder. He spent 12 years patiently learning from three Hall of Fame coaches. Prepare yourself to be a great leader. How do you do that? Bo Schembechler said seek mentors, not money. Wait for the right opportunity.

You're never too old to seek mentors. If you're trying to learn and grow and advance, then wait for the right opportunity. Bo said, "I have never applied for a job in my entire life. I have never, not once, prepared a resume. I just figured if I worked hard and got really good at this, someone's going to say, 'This guy is good,' and I'd get plenty of opportunities. And I was right. Don't worry about marketing yourself. Just be good at what you're doing now and enjoy it and things will take care of themselves."

Seek mentors. Don't worry about marketing yourself. Forget resumes and just focus on being great at what you do. Wait for the right opportunity. In his last years as an assistant coach, Schembechler learned one final lesson that he passed on in John U. Bacon's book. He said, "Don't waste your time and energy looking for the next job. If you're good at what you're doing now, they'll find you. Trust me, word will get out there and they will find you." In our current world where self-promotion is the norm, Bo's advice is counter-cultural. Many creators and startup founders will talk about being so good at your craft that they cannot ignore you. Be undeniably good. Sounds like what Bo Schembechler advised years ago. Quit worrying about marketing yourself. If you're good, they'll find you.

Before Michigan, he served as the Head Coach at Miami of Ohio. In case you were wondering, he did wait for the right opportunity. Bo turned down other head coaching offers, while at Miami. Bob Knight and Bo Schembechler both famously turned down offers to be head coaches at the University of Wisconsin. Bo didn't think Wisconsin provided the administrative support he needed. But when Michigan came calling, he took the job and went to work creating his own program and setting the expectations from day one. Bo said, "Whatever your philosophy, whatever standards, whatever your expectations, you establish those on Day One. Don't waste a second. Let them adjust to you, not the other way around. You can always soften up if you need to, but you can't get tougher later on. It's a lot better to throw a bucket of cold water on them on your first day than it is to try to coax them into the cold water toe by toe."

He was old-school. He had some Woody Hayes in him. He famously told the players that he's going to treat them all the same- like dogs. The players said that they ran more than the track team. It was hard. So many players left the Michigan program during Bo's first year that he finally posted a sign in the locker room. The sign said, "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions." Players would quit in the middle of practice. They would run to the locker room, shedding their clothes and equipment along the way, never to be seen again. As the numbers dwindled, Bo posted the sign to encourage the players. In case you are wondering, those who stayed did experience a Big Ten Championship.

At Michigan, it was not about the stars. It was not about the individual. Everything came down to the team, the team, the team. "No man is more important than the team," Bo said. "No coach is more important than the team. The team, the team, the team." It was a lesson the coach learned during his high school days.

Mitch Albom's book shared a story about a young Bo Schembechler who just finished his freshman year playing high school football. He's a typical high school boy who lived in Ohio. He loved listening to the Cleveland Indians on radio. He's a gym rat and he loved football. In the book, Bo talked about entering his sophomore year of football. He said: By my sophomore year, I was a wingback on my high school football team. One day I watched the incoming freshmen workout, and I saw that they were all faster than me. Never one to warm the bench, I went straight to my coach, Karl Harder.

"Coach," I said, "where do you need help the most?"

"Offensive guard," he said. "Why?"

"I want to switch to offensive guard."

As a young high school athlete, Bo Schembechler learned the importance of selflessness and putting the team first. Even at a young age, Bo was all about the team, the team, the team. He wanted to play, but he was also willing to move positions for the sake of team. Bo moved to the offensive line and went on to earn a college scholarship to play offensive line in college. I hope young people read this and follow Bo's lead. I want parents to raise kids with this approach to team sports. I want coaches to mold young people to think about the team first. To the club volleyball player, I say forget being a six-rotation outside hitter and ask where the team needs you. To the young softball player who thinks she is a shortstop. If the team is best with you at centerfield, embrace the challenge. Become the best outfielder at your level. To the basketball player who says that he is a scorer not a screener. Embrace the offense your coach is teaching. Screen, rebound, move without the ball. Make your teammates better. Set them up with looks.

He was a master motivator. He kept the best players in line. He worked to keep the middle guys motivated. And he made sure the players at the bottom felt like they were contributing. They all received coaching, the top players, the middle players, and the bottom players. Bo and his staff coached them all.

Long before Carol Dweck wrote her book, Bo Schembechler was talking about a growth mindset. If you are not familiar with the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, read her book titled, "Growth Mindset." The education world has been talking about the growth mindset for many years. Karch Kiraly and USA Volleyball preach the growth mindset concept. You see growth mindset seeping into Major League Baseball. Brad Stevens, Head Coach of the Boston Celtics, has brought the growth mindset idea to the NBA. But Bo talked about growth mindset back in the 1980s. "Everyone thinks talent is fixed," he said. "That this guy's got it and that guy doesn't- but it's just not true. Talent is elastic, and particularly so in team sports." Talent is not fixed. Develop your players. Train them. Teach them. Coach them all.

Bo also served as the athletic director at Michigan. He was fiercely loyal to Michigan, and he believed in investing in- and developing- your own people. He said,"It's much cheaper and much better to develop your own people from the ground floor up than to steal stars from other organizations at top dollar. Even if the hired guns do perform, they'll have no loyalty to you and they'll go for the next big contract first chance they get."

Back in 1989, word leaked out that Michigan Head Basketball Coach Bill Frieder had verbally agreed to take the Arizona State job. This news came out as Michigan was set to enter the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Michigan Athletic Director/Head Football Coach Bo Schembechler famously fired Bill Frieder and said, "A Michigan man will coach Michigan!" Bo looked to assistant coach Steve Fisher to lead the team. Michigan went on a historic run, winning six straight games in the tournament and being crowned National Champions in Seattle. Fisher went on to lead Michigan Basketball for many years, bringing in the most heralded recruiting class in the history of college basketball- The Fab Five. Bo didn't look for a hired gun to lead the team. He believed in building and developing your own people, and Bo believed in loyalty. Another bold leadership lesson from Bo Schembechler.

Bo Schembachler was a tough, demanding coach. But he cared about his players. He played for Woody Hayes; he coached with Woody Hayes. And I think he learned how to care about his players by watching Woody. No matter what you think about Woody Hayes, he loved his players. Bo shared the following story about his coach, Woody Hayes.

After a 5-4 season with Woody Hayes, Bo talked about the Miami of Ohio team in 1950 finally seeing results. The team suffered only one loss and ripped through everybody and won the Mid-American Conference. In typical Woody Hayes fashion, they hit hard, ran the ball well, and made as few mistakes as possible. The defense was sharp and they were led on offense by quarterback Nobby Wirkowski and "Boxcar" Jim Bailey- their fullback and the only black player on the team.

Miami of Ohio ended their regular season beating Sid Gilman's Cincinnati team. I'll let Bo tell the rest of the story as it appears in Mitch Albom's book:

By that point, Woody had loosened up enough to show us another side. On the field, he was still terrifying. But off the field he was a marvelous conversationalist, and we began to stop by his apartment just to talk, first one or two of us, then five or six. He would ramble on about military history, his favorite subject. He was so passionate when he spoke. You watched his eyes and you were just mesmerized. Of course, winning the conference helped his popularity with us. We felt sort of like Marines, I guess, who had survived basic training and become proud soldiers.

In December, we flew out to play Arizona State in the Salad Bowl and won, completing our successful season. On the flight back, we got caught in a heavy storm and had to land in Nashville, Tennessee, around 2:00 AM. It was late and we were hungry.

Woody went to the man in charge of the airport cafeteria. "We've got to get these guys something to eat," he said.

The guy looked at our team. Then he pointed to Boxcar Bailey, who, as I mentioned, was our only black player.

"That guy isn't going to eat here," he said.

Woody stared at him. "What do you mean he isn't?"

"We don't serve his kind."

Woody replied, "That guy don't eat here, none of us eat here."

"Well, he can't eat right here," the man stammered. "He'll have to eat upstairs."

"Fine. Then we'll all eat upstairs."

"There's not enough room up there for all of you."

"Then Boxcar and I," Woody said slowly, clenching his teeth,"will eat...upstairs...together!"

And that's what happened. Woody and Boxcar ate in that little room while we all ate down below. A white coach. A black player. In the middle of a Southern airport.

We fell in love with Woody that night, this same guy we had hated so much during his first few days. We realized then he might kill you, break your spirit, scream until your ears were bleeding, but Woody Hayes was always for his players, rich or poor, black or white. All the time.

On the field, Coach Schembechler was all about the team, the team, the team. Like his mentor Woody Hayes, Bo loved all his players- rich, poor, black, or white. The hard-nosed, old-fashioned coach had a soft spot for the men who played for him. John U. Bacon tells the story of a Schembechler team that just came off of a big win. They won a game 34-3 and were headed into the Ohio State game. Michigan sat 11-0, ranked second  in the nation.

On that Sunday evening, Tom Slade, one of Bo's old quarterbacks died of cancer at the age of 54. John U Bacon writes, "As a sophomore, Slade had led the 1971 Wolverines to an 11-1 season, losing only to Stanford in the Rose Bowl 13-12 on a last second field goal. Despite his virtually spotless record, Slade spent his last two years backing up Dennis Franklin and Larry Cipa. Another man might have become bitter. Another coach might have forgotten him. Neither happened.

"Slade became a well known dentist whose clients included his former coach. They grew close, and stayed that way to the end. When Slade needed a bone marrow transplant, Bo organized fundraisers and mass testings for a match, but none could be found. Slade's body began to deteriorate. During a particularly difficult day in the hospital, Slade woke up to see his former coach sitting in a chair against the wall. They looked at each other but said nothing, and Slade fell back to sleep. When he awoke again five hours later, Bo was sitting in the same chair, looking right at him."

Sadly, we live in a time when success as a coach is solely defined by championships won. Yet, we know true success shows up in many ways. Bacon wrote that Bo Schembechler never introduced any eye-popping innovations like Fielding Yost's forward pass or Crisler's platoon system. And Bo never won a national title. But, as Bacon writes, "He burnished Michigan's reputation for excellence, winning 13 Big 10 titles in 21 years, while doing it the right way. He proved to be the modern embodiment of the Michigan man."

He never wanted to be anything but a coach. He wouldn't want the fame and fortune that comes with coaching Division I college football today. For a man so revered and so respected, you have to admire Bo's humility and his loyalty to his school and his players. Loyalty that could not be bought. In 1982, Bo declined Texas A&M's offer of $3 million for 10 years, which would have quadrupled his salary, and made him the highest paid coach in the country. Despite an offer four times larger than his current contract, he does something we seldom find in today's world of coaching carousels and moving on to supposedly greener pastures. Bo turned them down. In Bacon's book, Schembechler said, "Frankly, I've come to the conclusion that there are things more important in this world than money. For that reason, I've decided to stay at Michigan."

He didn't want to be a celebrity. He just wanted to be a coach. He didn't want to be a celebrity coach. He just wanted to be the guy with the whistle. For Bo Schembechler, walking off the practice field on a nice cool day and seeing his players engaged and enjoying the sport was enough for him. "Football and laughter and a bunch of good kids," he said in Albom's book. "That's what it's all about. You know, the kids, the memories, the wonder of growing up. Me, I'm just the guy with the whistle and that's all I ever wanted to be."

My 1985 Hawkeyes beat Michigan on a field goal by Rob Houghtlin as time expired. The game drew the largest crowd ever to see a sporting event in Iowa. The Hawkeyes went to the Rose Bowl that year. Chuck Long would lose the Heisman Trophy vote to a man named Bo Jackson. Hayden Fry went on to be a legend with an impressive coaching tree that included Stoops, Snyder, Alvarez, Ferentz, and many more. But at the age of 9, I didn't quite appreciate the Michigan coach who stormed the sidelines. Now, I do. To Bo Schembechler, it was more than just football. Despite 13 Big Ten championships in 21 years, he never let football get too big. He succeeded, but he did it the right way. Michigan football was a model of excellence. He believed in the academic mission of his university, and he realized that college athletics was about life lessons, capturing memories, having the time of your life.

We close with the story of a banquet. Every player who played for Bo since 1969 was invited to a Saturday night banquet for players and coaches. It was a celebration of Bo Schembechler's 20 years at Michigan. They invited 640 players. Almost 400 came. The banquet started around 6:00 PM and lasted until the wee hours of the morning. As told in Albom's book, Schembechler looked around the room and said, "It was laughter and insults and bad jokes and cigars. And it was more. It was doctors and lawyers and businessmen and fathers with sons in college. It was good men with decent values- not all but most- who were reliving some great years not because those years were the only highlights of their lives, but because those years prepared for the years that followed, taught them how to work hard, to endure adversity, to keep plugging away even if an old man with a whistle or an old man called 'the boss' was making life miserable. None of these guys ever won a national championship or a Heisman trophy. But you should have heard them talk, and laugh, and cry, and throw their arms around each other as if they were all related, blood to blood. I think that that's what some of these other coaches are missing when they focus on themselves, their money, their fame."

"Time of my life," the guys said over and over that night."Time of my life."

That's what college football should be. That's what all college sports should be. Thank you Coach.

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