I attended the University of Michigan from September 1973 through December 1976 and during those years, I had the privilege of being a student manager for the Michigan Football Team for those 4 seasons and spring practice. The win-loss record was 38-5-3 — three Big Ten Championships, one Orange Bowl and one Rose Bowl.
Those statistics capture only a small part of why those years were so special and made such a major impact on me. I had the opportunity to work for, observe and learn from Bo Schembechler, someone who exemplified the finest in character, leadership and integrity.
I was a part of the first team meeting of the 1973 season in the summer before classes began. At that meeting and the subsequent team meetings before each season, Bo made clear the priorities and expectations that he had for every member of the team, whether an All-American, walk-on, manager or trainer. He stated that while football may be the most satisfying experience during the four-year term, our most important accomplishment would be obtaining a degree — and without that achievement, the four years of football would be wasted. He would do everything he could to ensure that that would not be the case.
I remember walking into the Football Building one October with a player who was not on the depth chart and would not play a game. Bo spotted and told him in no uncertain terms that if the player did not attend all his classes, he would cease to be a member of the team. This commitment to education did not end when a player finished his last game.
In 1980, I was at Ohio State for one of the biggest wins in Bo’s coaching career and after the game, I walked into the locker room with several of my friends who had played years earlier. One was a star running back who had launched a successful business career. Bo took one look at him — and in the midst of the euphoria of the victory that sent Michigan to the Rose Bowl and Bo’s first bowl victory — told him in that he needed to come back and complete the two credits that would give him his degree and if needed financial assistance, it would be provided.
Bo contacted numerous law, medical, dental and business schools on behalf of former players who were applying to further their educations and was very persistent in doing everything he could to assist his players with obtaining career opportunities. I was a beneficiary of that assistance.
In 2006, I called Bo and left him a voicemail to tell him that I was changing careers. A few weeks later, Bo was at a Detroit Lions practice when a friend who is a member of the media approached him and referenced me. Bo promptly asked about my new career and whether the owners of the company I was working for were good people who would treat me fairly.
Around the same time, Bo had been visiting and working to find a bone marrow donor for Tom Slade, a former quarterback who was suffering from terminal leukemia. On November 16, Bo attended Slade’s funeral and eulogized him when he spoke to the team that night before the Michigan-Ohio State game. Bo passed away the next day.
Bo also had former players who had legal problems after they left school. A star running back fell on hard times a year after leaving Michigan; following his failed bid to play in the NFL, he robbed a bank in his hometown. Despite the protests of many of his teammates and roommates who felt that he had let all of them down, Bo took an active role in his legal proceedings, advocating for him to serve time in a minimum security facility so that he could then return to school. He finished his undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees, followed by a successful career in higher education for the last 40 years.
On another occasion, a former player was caught up in drug transactions which in Michigan, were subject to mandatory life imprisonment. Bo organized his teammates to assist with legal fees and, through his testimony, helped him secure parole and a job working for a former teammate.
This compassionate side of Bo Schembechler coexisted with his demanding approach to coaching and leadership. He pushed everyone to their limits in being the best they could be and to make the maximum contribution to the team’s success. Players who would later become some of Bo’s best friends did not walk off the practice field singing his praises, including two players who recently retired as Michigan radio announcers. He demanded excellence and 100% percent effort. A sign in the locker room read:
Every day, you either get better or get worse, you never stay the same.
There was no detail left to chance and if anyone failed to fulfill their responsibilities to the fullest extent, Bo would let them know they did not live up to his expectations. In 2000, I bumped into Bo at a Tony Bennett concert and told him that being a manager for him for four years was the greatest blessing and curse. He asked what I meant and I told him that I learned more about leadership, management, teamwork, character and integrity from him than I could have learned anywhere else. The curse? That I expect those standards to be upheld wherever I go and have very little patience for anything less.
Earlier this year, the University of Michigan released its Report of Independent Investigation: Allegations of Sexual Misconduct Against Robert E. Anderson. The details of Dr. Anderson’s abuse are horrific. It is understandable for people to wonder whether Bo was aware of this unconscionable and criminal behavior.
Based on my experiences, observations and a 33-year relationship with Bo Schembechler, it is inconceivable that he would have permitted anyone to mistreat any of his players or personnel. I am confident that he would have taken clear and decisive action to remove anyone who tried.
Bo cared about people more than he cared about winning. I know that, if he were here today, he would be fighting for justice and advocating for victims. Bo isn’t here to defend himself against allegations that he would have somehow tolerated abuse. But for decades, he never hesitated to show us or tell us what mattered to him:
Deep down, your players must know you care about them. This is the most important thing. I could never get away with what I do if the players feel I didn't care for them. They know, in the long run, I'm in their corner.