Last week, Mark Donahue thought back to his days with Bo Schembechler, a man who established the program he played for at Michigan, a man he once carried off the field on his shoulders and one he will join in the Athletic Department’s Hall of Honor this weekend.
“He was always engaged,” Donahue said. “Every practice, he ran the offensive huddle, called every single play for the first team. … He was in the thick of it, every play, every moment. High energy level.”
His comments could just as easily have come from one of Michigan’s current players about Jim Harbaugh.
Three days after he spoke, the current Wolverines polished off a 49-10 trouncing of Penn State, in which they overpowered their opponent on both sides of the field, pounded the ball on the ground for 6.7 yards per carry and stifled the opposing offense to the tune of six sacks.
The win could just as easily have come from one of Michigan’s former teams.
The past and present intersect often around the winningest program in college football, and they will again this weekend. The Athletic Department will induct four members into its Hall of Honor this weekend, one being Donahue, who played offensive guard at Michigan from 1974 to 1977. At the game, Jim Harbaugh will coach the team, his father Jack will be an observer and Bo Schembechler will be watching from somewhere.
Donahue remembers the days of 40 years ago, when the roles were reversed — Schembechler coached the team, Jack assisted him and Jim was an observer. Schembechler’s Wolverines had lost to Ohio State in 1974, 12-10, and at home in 1975, 21-14, both to cede at least a share of the Big Ten championship to their archrival.
Finally, in 1976, they went down to Columbus and knocked off the Buckeyes, 22-0. After the game, Donahue and fellow offensive lineman Walt Downing carried Schembechler off the field on their shoulders. “I still remember the moment,” Donahue said.
Last month, 40 years after that day, Donahue received a call from Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel. The call was about returning to his alma mater, joining Schembechler in the Hall of Honor and watching Harbaugh, the man who once watched him.
Manuel said someone would call back to follow up with more details, and then a few weeks went by, and Donahue thought to himself: “Did I dream this up?”
“It is almost hard to express in terms of the realization that you’re in such a select group of athletes and representatives of the university,” Donahue said. “I’m proud of the fact to be associated with a group of people that I think represent the university well, both while they were attending there and after also.”
He will be back this weekend to remember his days playing for Schembechler and see the new coach built in his mold. Donahue was an All-American guard in 1976 and 1977 and then an NFL Draft pick in 1978. Schembechler called Donahue one of the best offensive linemen he ever coached. Michigan never lost more than two games in a season during his career.
“From the time you’re a freshman there, it’s a great winning tradition,” Donahue said. “You sort of get inculturated, and it hits you when you get there. Even back in the ’70s, you felt like you were doing something special.”
People feel like that again around Ann Arbor these days. The Wolverines are ranked fourth in the country, their highest since 2006. They have started 4-0 and outscored their opponents by more than 38 points per game. And they host No. 8 Wisconsin in a huge matchup Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
And their head coach is eerily similar to Schembechler from 40 years ago as well. In those days, Harbaugh was 12, an eager apprentice to all of the coaches on Michigan’s staff, including his father and Schembechler. Now Harbaugh is back as the coach, but the same mentors still influence him. (He also, of course, borrowed his first remarks from Schembechler: “A lesser athlete would have gone down.”)
Just as Donahue’s comments about Schembechler could describe Harbaugh, his comments about Harbaugh could describe Schembechler.
“Seems like a very charismatic guy for the team, and is more focused on the team than external, so I think that’s always important — good leader.”
And now offensive line from one era will be welcomed back into another, a sign of the tradition carried on through the years. The program has endured rough patches in the meantime, but the ceremony this weekend could be another symbol of rebirth.
One of Schembechler’s players will return to find a team similar to his from the 1970s after seven years of disappointment. One of the best offensive linemen in program history will return to find a revamped offensive line that was the team’s weakness in 2013 and 2014. Donahue, like all former players, spoke about how he enjoys seeing Michigan back on the upswing.
Donahue’s name isn’t discussed today on the same level as others like Howard and Woodson and Brady. But four decades later, he serves as a reminder of a past the Wolverines cherish so deeply.
Perhaps Donahue’s name will even come up this week as part of that tradition in the Wolverines’ game preparation. The offensive lineman remembers similar stories from when he was a player. Upon his return 40 years later, he might just find that he still fits in.
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jakelourim.