When Mark Bihl watched his teammates go away for Spring Break last season, he knew most were headed off to escape for a week and have some fun.
Bihl’s destination? His family’s farm in Washington Court House, Ohio.
The fifth-year senior’s trip home wasn’t a punishment for him. He was doing exactly what he loves to do.
“I get the night checks, the midnight checks, to go and check cows,” Bihl said. “That’s always fun for me: Watching cows have calves and getting to see all of the baby calves.
“My dad is like ‘Relax,’ but I want to do work; it’s something I just enjoy doing. It’s something that I see myself doing for the rest of my life,” Bihl said.
Bihl’s farming habits are more than just a hobby, they’re part of the reason for his success on the football field.
“I really credit my great work ethic to my parents,” Bihl said. “My dad and my grandparents were always giving my brother and I chores so we’d always have something to do.”
Bihl said the joke around his hometown was that his family had to buy a $15,000 bailing machine just to keep up with the productivity lost when Bihl and his brother left for college.
Along with his work ethic, Bihl also had to display a great deal of patience to get where he is today.
That’s because Bihl, now the Michigan football team’s starting center, has experienced quite the rollercoaster ride since coming to Ann Arbor as a three-star recruit in 2002.
“He had some very difficult times when he was here as a sophomore, because he thought he was ready to play, but he wasn’t big and strong enough,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “He really had to make a decision on whether or not he wanted to fight through all of the discomfort and the unhappiness he had. I’m glad he did.”
Bihl did see time in his first season of eligibility (2003), but just as a fill-in, playing primarily on special teams. In his last two seasons, he finally got to play more than just mop-up action at center, but could never maintain a starting job. He finally gained momentum late last season, starting the team’s final three games and showing noticeable progress.
“I always remained positive,” Bihl said. “Everybody has a role on this team. Everybody has to be ready when it’s your time to step up. Last year, Adam (Kraus) went down, and I had started the Eastern Michigan game and played in a couple of games here and there when his shoe fell off or something. I think he played the first eight snaps against Northwestern, and I went in there and played a great game. You just need to be ready when your time comes.”
If the confidence gained from seeing significant time late last season wasn’t enough, Carr and his staff decided to revamp the blocking system for this season. The team switched to a zone-blocking scheme, a system that Carr says caters to Bihl’s strengths perfectly.
“I think what we’re doing up front is a tremendous thing for him,” Carr said. “He’s a very athletic guy and a very smart guy.”
Through two games, the line combination and new blocking schemes have worked better than expected for the Michigan running game. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in rushing after posting back-to-back 240-yard plus games.
Bihl knows his collegiate football career has a shelf life of less than a dozen games remaining. Because of this, he’s already thinking of life after college, in case the NFL doesn’t come calling.
Bihl recently bought a farm back in Ohio, and said he would love to go back to his roots and return to farming some day.
He’s also kept another option open by majoring in history. Bihl said he has hopes to get a teacher’s certificate so he can teach, possibly at his high school, where he graduated from a class of about 120 students.
“I’d like to teach in my school and maybe someday even coach,” Bihl said. “My high school coach said I’ve always had an open invitation to coach, so we’ll see what happens.”
And if football or teaching doesn’t work out for Bihl, he already has a farm hand lined up to help out with his new investment.
“I’m going to go down and farm for him,” Carr joked.