Friday, November 17, 2006


"Bo Schembechler reduces me to tears."

-My throwaway line in a post from Monday.

Some of my friends occasionally point out that I didn't care very much about Michigan football until after I left college. It always stings a little.

On the day of Michigan's win against Penn State in 1997, I had what would, in other circumstances, be known as a come-to-Jesus moment. Like a lost soul who wandered into a revival tent, I immediately converted. We shouted in the Law Library and packed into the president's house. We got drunk at the Brown Jug and went home happy.

I still had time at Michigan. Enough to celebrate the 1997 Ohio State win and spend that night wandering Ann Arbor. Enough to be there on that night in November '97 when a friend -- a freshman at the time -- made a poorly timed jump, cut his head, and went to the hospital for stitches.

Enough to get season tickets for the next year.
"I debated it, as you know, longer than I thought I would, and I came to the conclusion, that there are things that are more important to me, and one of them's Michigan. With that in mind I'm staying where I belong, right here"

--Bo, when offered a then-unprecedented $1 million contract from Texas A&M.
When I left Ann Arbor it started to mean something different. I lived in a city that I didn't like. A few good friends were around, but I was away from Ann Arbor and everything I loved so much. Unlike college, the Michigan games weren't just about scores. Instead, you knew that everyone you missed, all over the country, was sitting in bars with strangers doing the same thing that you were. It stopped being a game and became a touchstone.

That first year away, one of my roommates was a college friend. On game days she would cook up huge breakfasts and we would spend the afternoon watching football. That first fall, I looked forward to every Saturday, because I knew that it would remind me of what it was like in Ann Arbor.

This is part of why I hate to talk trash about other teams or other schools. You don't want to step on something that might mean as much to them as it does to you.
Well, you could be one of those people who went to Tufts or Bryn Mawr or Williams or something. And tonight you'd feed the baby, pay some bills, maybe watch some TV, and then spend your Saturday shopping or running errands or maybe getting in some crocheting.
Instead, there's revenge in your heart and blood in your eyes. Sure, this isn't easier, but it lets you know you're alive.

--An e-mail that co-blogger "Flop" wrote to a friend earlier this week
On September 8, 2001, I was in Seattle with about 15 of my college friends. We were there to watch Michigan lose to Washington. We had great seats, low and near mid-field. Lee Bollinger was president of Michigan at the time. He walked past us and said hello. For my friend Erin and I, it was like a brush with celebrity.

I'm not going to get too maudlin about what happened three days later, but I remember thinking about how we'd all been on cross-country flights right before it happened. I promised that I'd abstain from my favorite post-Michigan loss outburst -- "I hate my life!" -- and that I'd take these things less seriously.

None of that happened, of course. Shortly thereafter we had the Spartan Bob game, an event so agonizing that twice that week I woke up with nightmares about that last second. Michigan football never felt so good.
Think of all the glorious victories this team has given us (and the defeats, too). Then think of all the people you shared those moments with over the course of your lifetimes.....

I think it's safe to say that without Bo, Michigan football would have been "less than." As a result, our lives would have somehow been "less than."

Thanks, Bo...just... thanks for everything, I guess....

--Comment left on MGoBlog
It's true that, in college, I didn't spend a lot of time on football. There were approximately 8,456 other things that I loved. It's possible that if I started my years in Ann Arbor as a football nut, that list would be shorter, and that my life would be blander. That's not an overstatement.

But I also grew up in a Michigan family. A now-deceased great uncle was a fan. He wore Michigan ballcaps. Sometimes we watched games at his house.

A cousin 13 years older than me went to Michigan and got an engineering degree. I must have been 9 or 10 when I made my first trips to Ann Arbor for his graduation and later to go to his wedding at a church on campus. (When I was in college, I probably walked past that church on the corner of State and William more than a thousand times.)

It was all enough influence that, as a little kid, I liked Michigan the way that I liked the Tigers, even though I didn't understand either. I remember crying in rage before a Rose Bowl -- the Michigan-UCLA game in 1983 -- because the pre-game pundits predicted a Michigan loss.

And I knew about Bo Schembechler. I knew that Bo coached Michigan football and was to be taken seriously. People talked about him like they knew him, and it's funny when I think about it now, but I always had this vague assumption that my grandparents and people of their generation were friends with the famous people their age. Later, I wore a shirt that had a cartoon Bo face on the front and assorted Michigan bragging rights on the back.

What did I know about Bo? You know what you know about any distant authority figure. From roughly age three to nine, he was as omnipresent and respected as the president or Sparky Anderson. You didn't know anything about him, but you knew enough to venerate.
When your team is winning, be ready to be tough, because winning can make you soft. On the other hand, when your team is losing, stick by them. Keep believing.

-Bo Schembechler
I ended up in New York at least in part because so many of my college friends live here. Now I watch the games with people I've known for 10 years. There's still the fondness of knowing that my parents are sitting in a house on a lake watching the game, or driving around Michigan with the game on the radio. I think about friends in Ann Arbor, Chicago and L.A., and like the idea that they're all doing the same thing that I am.

Still, the games are different now. I work a brutal job. I don't congratulate myself when things go right because I don't want to get lazy; I don't worry when something goes wrong because, like a relief pitcher or a quarterback, chastising yourself over screw-ups will take you someplace bad. I'm not going to get emotional over work, so it comes out in these games instead. I can celebrate without being self-conscious, or brood without worrying that it's going to carry over tomorrow.
It occurs that at some point the Michigan program acquired the traits you hold dear -- loyalty, honesty, tradition, victory. And you wonder: if you were a different person who valued other things would you care so much? It occurs that at some point the Michigan program acquired other traits you share but do not hold particularly dear -- cantankerousness, stubbornness, an inability to suffer fools gladly. And you wonder: do I like Michigan because of the way I am, or am I the way I am because I like Michigan?

The answer seems clear.

Now the man who took that rudderless program and gave it -- gave you -- all the things you like and don't like is dead. In 1969, it all started with a victory over #1 Ohio State.

--Brian from
I was in the office this morning when news came that Bo had been rushed to the hospital because he collapsed before a television interview.

He'd had a scare like this about a month ago. Really, it was a miracle that he lived this long. Famously, at age 40, he had a heart attack on the eve of Michigan's 1970 Rose Bowl game.

With the upcoming Michigan-Ohio State game, he'd been in the media all this week. Every quote was fierce and principled. At a Monday press conference, he brought up an incident two years ago when Buckeye security -- under the guise of anti-terrorism precautions -- inspected the Michigan team's bags: "If they embarrass the Michigan team like they did two years ago, somebody ought to do something about it," Schembechler said. "They didn't do it to any other team, and they haven't done it to any other team this year. By God, they better not do it to Michigan -- and you can take that back to them."

I savored every quote from him this week. This was my man. My chest and my eyes swelled with pride. He was the living embodiment of the University of Michigan; he was sport itself.

He was dead by noon today.

It didn't feel as much like losing a beloved coach as it did like losing the patriarch. It was the passing of generations: of being a little kid who didn't know any better, of the pre-ESPN, regional, parochial sports world, where the post-War generation of Bear and Woody and Bo never had to worry about sportstalk radio or vile message boards.

I closed the door to my office and left it that way most of the day because I found myself choking up at odd moments. Nobody needed to see that.

Walking down the street to pick up a sandwich for lunch, I passed a stranger my age in a Michigan cap. "Go Blue!" I said to him. A few steps later, I turned around and said, "Did you hear Bo died this morning?"

Bo dying on the eve of this year's Michigan-Ohio State game: the best comparison I could think of was John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on July 4, 1826.

What happens tomorrow changed completely.

Before, I would have been content with an 11-1 season. A victory would have been a nice ending to a miraculous year. This old-fashioned team -- this Bo-like team -- with its sturdy, relentless running game and a defense that leaves shattered quarterbacks in its wake had given me so much joy that I couldn't feel disappointed.

I don't care about the BCS or any other ranking.

I don't care about being undefeated for the sake of being undefeated.

All I want is this last win -- for Bo and for everything else.


Flop said...

See? It's a good thing we didn't close up shop after the mascots post.

This is great.

surplusj said...

I've been really enjoying all the game lead-up posts so far, mostly because it's all so foreign to me - I'm much more of a baseball girl, where a single game never means so much, and though I didn't go to Williams or anything, college sports has never been my thing. Not that I can't understand why someone would enjoy it. Or I thought I could. But now I really do. That's a beautiful tribute, to the man and to everything the game means to you. Thanks so much for writing that.

Jaime said...

(and for some reason it had the wrong log-in name for me up there.)

winston said...

cn, that was beautiful -- thanks. bo would have been proud that his boys fought so hard today.

CrimeNotes said...

Thanks Jaime. It was a big week. I sort of wondered whether all the football posts would alienate people who aren't into these games, so I'm glad that you enjoyed them.

Winston, you would've enjoy last night's post-game festivities.