When someone like Bo Schembechler dies, it’s more than just the man or his legacy that we lose. Gone with that giant of an era is a bit of that era itself, a bit of everything that happened to Michigan football, college football and college in general since he first donned the block M in 1969. The University didn’t just lose its greatest coach. As the icons of college football’s golden age continue to leave us, we lost perhaps the last remaining consummate Michigan Man.
Schembechler only took over the Wolverines in 1969, which is recent considering that other coaching giants, like Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg, were long dead by then, and Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant were already well into building their legacies. Though Schembechler does crack the top 10 in all-time coaching victories for Division I-A college football, his greatness isn’t in those 234 wins.
Like only a handful before him, and perhaps none since, Schembechler understood the role of the head football coach in a college community. The coach wasn’t just the man leading the troops every Saturday – he was often the most visible face of the University. Bryant used that influence to hasten the lagging winds of integration in Alabama athletics by offering scholarships to black players. Similarly, Joe Paterno recognized and stressed the importance of academics and the holistic college experience for athletes – leading to especially high graduation rates among his players.
And Schembechler, for his part, was always a willing, active voice at the University. Not only was he athletic director from 1988 to 1990 and a mentor to current players and coaches. Bo also maintained his office at Schembechler Hall and – as anecdotes we heard after his passing attest – continued to reach out students at large. His appreciation for the University, not just its football team, was unmatched, as shown by his involvement in raising funds for cancer research at the University and his regular attendance of a class in the School of Public Policy this semester.
That kind of involvement is hard to fathom today when coaches like Lloyd Carr – compassionate and dedicated as they are – matter to campus only on game days and, from about mid-January to late August, essentially disappear from our consciousness. Sure, Paterno and Bobby Bowden trudge on stubbornly, and there are occasional aesthetic throwbacks – Barry Alverez and the sterling suit-and-tie years at Wisconsin, Jim Tressel’s sweater-vested tribute to the old ball coach at Ohio State – but the era when a football coach was a representative of a university is largely over.
In the old days, the coach was more than just a coach to his team. In the time of slow rail travel, it took a lot more to recruit a kid from one coast to come play on the other. When you came cross-country to play for Paterno or Schembechler, it was because you saw a man who loved you, and you trusted him to mold your life. Players today may say they went to USC to play for Pete Carroll or to Texas for Mack Brown, but they don’t really mean it. Not in the same way. Not when hundreds have left school early to cash in at the National Football League.
Most football players and many coaches today see their commitment as pertaining to their sport alone. The university community, the college experience, the distinction of student-athlete: These are just words to most big-name football players. There are exceptions – Peyton Manning, our own Braylon Edwards – guys who stay longer than they need to, defer the millions awaiting them in endorsements and the NFL and return to finish up an experience they appreciate and pick up a diploma. Much like Bo, these are shadows of a bygone era.
And it isn’t just coaches and players who have changed. The game itself has evolved. With our age’s over-commercialization looming, there have been all sorts of nominal efforts to protect the sanctity of the game and the purity of the Michigan (Notre Dame, Ohio State, etc.) brand. The University can try to preserve symbols of the old game (keeping the stadium an ad/alcohol/skybox-free zone, for example), but as Michigan and Ohio State dueled in a nail-biter last Saturday, you didn’t have to look too hard to see how much has changed since Bo first took helm in 1969. Nike swooshes, multi-million-dollar television deals – and who can forget that the game almost became the “SBC Michigan-Ohio State Classic” a couple of years ago?
These changes show us that college football today ain’t the game in which Hayes and Schembechler waged their famed “Ten Years War.” Commercialization and fragmentation have left us today with a brand of football that is fiercely contemporary. As icons like Schembechler continue to leave us, those good old days will soon be a mere memory.
There may never be another Michigan Man.
Imran Syed is a Daily associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.