When Bo Schembechler came to Ann Arbor from Miami (Ohio) before the 1969 season, he was an unknown commodity. His players didn’t know what to expect, and neither did Michigan’s fan base.
“Nobody knew who we were,” said Jerry Hanlon, the offensive line coach who came to Michigan with Schembechler. “They didn’t know, ‘Who is this? Where are these hicks coming from?’ ”
The circumstances could not have been more different from the events of the past offseason, when Jim Harbaugh’s return to Michigan singlehandedly revitalized a fan base and a university. In a way, Harbaugh is the chosen one, the former quarterback returning home to bring the Wolverines back to their glory days.
As has been well documented, Michigan is coming off a 5-7 season in which little went right. The Wolverines became a punching bag, as Dan Dierdorf, a member of Schembechler’s first team at Michigan, said.
The 1968 Wolverines felt similar punches. They had been dealt a series of blows in the final game of the season, a 50-14 loss to Ohio State. The knockout came when Ohio State coach Woody Hayes decided to go for two with the score already 48-14, “because he couldn’t go for three.” To Michigan’s Pete Newell, a Michigan defensive lineman from 1968 to 1970, it felt like Hayes was sticking a knife into his side, twisting it until the blade could do no further harm.
Making matters worse, the Wolverines knew Ohio State would be back the next season. The names of Buckeye stars like Rex Kern and Jim Stillwagon had been seared into their brains. In college football’s 100th year of existence, some touted the 1969 Ohio State team as the greatest ever.
Schembechler had less than a year to change things, to turn the sighs of defeat into cries for victory. He had to convince his team it could beat the Buckeyes in the game that defines seasons, in the months following a shellacking for the ages.
Now, all these years later, Harbaugh’s first eight months on the job could not have been more different from Schembechler’s.
But now, as he begins his first season having already visited the Supreme Court, run around shirtless at a satellite camp and saved women from a car crash, Harbaugh will be charged with a task similar to what Schembechler’s was in his first season: convincing his team that it can compete with anyone after a season in which that was not the case.
Last season’s 42-28 Ohio State victory against Michigan was no rout, but it helped set the tone for the Buckeyes’ national championship run. Ohio State returns most of its key contributors and is the first unanimous preseason No. 1 in the history of the Associated Press poll. Few think the Wolverines can make a play for the Big Ten title this season. Gathering the momentum to even think about a run at the Buckeyes could currently be classified as a pipe dream.
Even in the year before Schembechler’s arrival, Michigan maintained an 8-2 record, respectable by most standards. This year’s team has more ground to make up. But Schembechler’s methods of reducing the gap between his team and his chief rival, Ohio State, could provide a blueprint for Harbaugh, his former pupil.
Harbaugh has said he thinks about his former coach every single day. He works in a building that bears Schembechler’s name, and he lives on the same street his former coach once did. He considers Schembechler one of the most influential men in his life. The lessons he learned playing for Schembechler helped mold him into a coach who has turned around his teams at every stop.
Schembechler’s approach in his first season might be nearly impossible to replicate, but for Harbaugh’s mentor, it resulted in the ultimate success.
To holdovers from the Bump Elliott era, the first thing that stood out about Schembechler was his tenacity.
The players on the 1969 team worked like they had never worked in their lives in their first few months under Schembechler, and like they never have since. They had been recruited by Elliott, and bought into his program. Now they had a new coach, coming in to tell them everything had to be done precisely in his way. He changed some of their positions and made them work until they felt like they could hardly muster another step. When it became difficult for some players to stick with the program, he hung up the famous “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions” sign.
“That wasn’t just some catchy little phrase that Bo came up with, ‘Those Who Stay Will Be Champions,’ ” Dierdorf said. “Staying was hard. And it’s supposed to be hard.”
Frank Maloney was one of two coaches Schembechler retained from Elliott’s staff, and he noticed the differences between the two immediately. In all of the time he spent with Elliott, whether as a player years before or as one of his assistants, Maloney had hardly seen him lose his cool.
That was not the case with Schembechler. Players sometimes approached Maloney, a familiar face among the new coaching staff, to gripe about Schembechler and everything he put them through. He told them to persevere.
“He coached the only way he knew how to coach,” Maloney said. “That’s the way his background was, that’s the way his personality was.”
Schembechler had learned from Hayes, his own college coach whom he later worked for. In 1969, they were rivals. Just like Schembechler coached the only way he knew how, he also built his team the only way he knew how. Michigan would play hard-nosed football, smashing its opponents in the mouth.
The hard work of the offseason did not provide immediate results. The Wolverines started the season with a 3-2 record.
The players still weren’t all that convinced that Schembechler was the right man for the job. Ohio State might as well have been in a different universe.
But all along, Schembechler was plotting.
Michigan’s fortunes began to turn after a defeat at the hands of Michigan State. The Wolverines won their next four straight games by at least 26 points.
Success bred belief, and the belief was contagious. After the Wolverines pounded Iowa, 51-6, in the week before the game against the Buckeyes, the entire team — to a man, they swear — felt ready for revenge against their chief rivals.
“We’d have liked to have played them that afternoon, played a doubleheader,” said Dick Caldarazzo, an offensive lineman on the 1969 team.
The Michigan locker room was whipped into a frenzy, the doors ready to burst open. The players felt ready for the next one.
The coaches did, too. They had noticed the way the team had been practicing in recent weeks, with all of the intensity Schembechler had come to expect. Years later, Schembechler told some of his former players that the only question in his mind was whether he needed to calm his players down the week before they played Ohio State to make sure they didn’t peak too early.
“The only thing we had to do in practice that week was keep them from hurting each other,” Hanlon said.
In the days that followed, the team turned its attention fully to Ohio State. But part of Schembechler’s attention had already been on the Buckeyes, ever since the season started.
Each week at practice, he told players years later, he had been implementing plays he planned to use against Ohio State, often spending a few minutes per week on each. His assistants say he wasn’t looking past his opponents, just making sure that his team was ready for the biggest opponent of them all.
Some even considered that year’s Ohio State team to be the greatest college football team of all time.
“When we came here, we knew one thing,” Hanlon said. “Having come from Ohio and having known Woody and been exposed to Ohio State football at that time, Ohio State was dominating the Big Ten, not just that year, but every year. So the idea was, if you can beat Ohio State, you can beat anybody in the league. So the idea was, we were going to prepare to beat Ohio State.”
Because Schembechler had learned from Hayes, Michigan emulated the Buckeyes on offense and defense. The game, already personal after the previous year’s dismantling, became all about each player being better than his Ohio State counterpart, because his counterpart was likely charged with the exact same task Michigan’s player was.
Newell remembers Schembechler going around the locker room in his pregame speech against Ohio State, asking certain players if they would be better than the Ohio State player who played their position. It was the only time Newell remembers Schembechler singling players out in that manner.
“You could take a player from Ohio State, bring him to Ann Arbor, and he could have assimilated into our playbook in two days, and the same, someone going from Ann Arbor to Columbus,” Dierdorf said. “Bo did that on purpose.”
The week of the game, Schembechler plastered the number 50 seemingly everywhere the players looked, one more reminder of what Ohio State had done to them the previous year. They hardly needed more motivation, but the sight of the number itself was further inspiration.
What followed was a game that turned into a central part of Michigan football lore, even though the players did not realize its significance at the time. The Wolverines outplayed the Buckeyes in every aspect of the game in what is considered one of the greatest upsets of all time, 24-12.
The victory was thorough, a fitting payback for 1968. The Wolverines were in a state of euphoria, Big Ten champions and heading to the Rose Bowl, in a year when nobody thought they had a chance.
“It’s one of the great thrills of your life and one of the great highlights of your career,” Hanlon said. “That’s for sure.”
On the eve of his first season as the Michigan football team’s head coach, the popular opinion is that Jim Harbaugh will eventually forge the program into one of the nation’s elite.
What lies ahead in the coming weeks is viewed as less of a certainty. Multiple contributors from last year’s team have left the program, choosing to go in a different direction. In some ways, the offseason has reminded the 1969 players of their own experiences. Harbaugh’s fall camp was rigorous to the point that offensive lineman Kyle Kalis said he plans to tell his children about the camp, something many of the 1969 players have done.
The Wolverines spent the entirety of fall camp in the South Quad dormitory, not in local hotels as has been done in the past. They focused on football and little else. Fifth-year senior linebacker Desmond Morgan’s father was unsure whether he was even allowed to communicate with his son.
Not all of the team’s players survived Harbaugh’s first offseason. Some left for greener pastures, just like the many who didn’t survive Schembecher’s first offseason. The new coach even added a line to Schembechler’s famous saying, tweeting in May, “Those Who Try Hard Will Stay & Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.”
But the differences between Schembechler’s and Harbaugh’s first seasons are plenty, too. Whereas most of Schembechler’s players had no idea who he was, Harbaugh is a celebrity of sorts, the most followed college football coach on Twitter and a man whose every move makes a splash in the media. That pedigree made it easier for the players who stayed to buy in to the program — Michigan’s fans were immediately enraptured.
“I just hope that they don’t expect that just because his name’s Harbaugh, that’s going to win a football game. It’s not,” Hanlon said. “His team is going to win the football games, and he’s going to have to coach the heck out of them to get them to play well enough to win — that’s what I want people to remember.”
The team at the end of the schedule will make the task more difficult. Ohio State has a coach who has won three national championships, and, until Braxton Miller switched to wide receiver, three quarterbacks who could start for nearly any team in the country. Defensive end Joey Bosa is projected to be a top pick in nearly every early NFL mock draft, and professional prospects litter the Buckeyes’ offense and defense.
Schembechler’s first team will be watching to see if maybe, just maybe, history can repeat itself. Caldarazzo plans to be at every home game this season. So does Hanlon. Dierdorf will be in the broadcast booth.
Don Moorhead, the quarterback of the 1969 team, has tickets to two Michigan games this season: Michigan State and Ohio State. Twice, he will be rooting for the Wolverines to do what now seems nearly impossible.
He knows it’s been done before.