What Schembechler Accomplished
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
Because of its vast importance, for quite awhile now this blogger has found himself writing continuously about the same general subject: George the Incompetent, his misbegotten war, or some variation on this theme. There are other things that would have been fun to write about, perhaps would even have been fun for readers to read about. But as every significant war inevitably does because of the human and economic disasters war causes, the George-Dick-Don war always obtruded.
There is much to comment on today about the war (as there will continue to be), but for once the hell with it. For once let me write about something that is almost pure fun, as was done in a posting about half a year ago that compared the great Oscar Robertson with the aspiring, and perhaps rapidly closing, Lebron James.
What this piece in effect begins with, however, is emphatically not fun to write of: the death of Bo Schembechler last Friday, the day before what must have been the most ballyhooed Michigan-Ohio State game over. The game itself largely lived up to the hype, which often does not happen: it likely will take a place in the lore of this series that equals the “snow bowl” of 1950 when Michigan beat Ohio in a blizzard -- Chuck Ortman versus Vic Janowitz, and about 40 or 45 punts, I believe -- and equal to Michigan’s truly astonishing victory over an Ohio State superteam in 1969. Schembechler’s death was, of course, a major part of the story of the game from the very moment it occurred on Friday. However, nobody in the media that I read or viewed seems to have noticed the possible consequences of the fact that on Thursday, the day before he died, Schembechler cancelled a doctor’s appointment in order to make a speech to the Michigan football team. I gather that he thought it was important that he make the speech. Since his pacemaker apparently was in a period of continually being adjusted, one has to wonder what if any effect the cancellation of the doctor’s appointment had. Would the doctor have detected that some further adjustment of the pacemaker was needed? Would it have mattered if he did? Is it possible that, unknowingly, Schembechler literally gave up his life trying to spur a victory over Ohio?
As said, his death is not fun to write about. But the history of what he did for Michigan football is fun to write about. In all the articles I’ve read about his death so far, and of all the talk I’ve heard about it on the tube, only one piece touched on what could be considered the cornerstone of what he did. This occurred in two paragraphs of The New York Times’ lengthy Saturday obit on Schembechler. Let me quote:
When Schembechler became Michigan’s coach in 1969, its glory years under Fielding Yost and Fritz Crisler were long gone. The 107,501-seat Michigan Stadium had seldom been filled in recent seasons, and the Michigan band was finding fewer occasions to hail the maize and blue with the marching song “The Victors.” The Wolverines had gone to the Rose Bowl only once in the previous 18 years.
But on November 22, 1969, Schembechler put his stamp on a new day for Michigan with a 24-12 victory against top-ranked and undefeated Ohio State and Coach Woody Hayes, his former mentor.
Today, when Michigan has been a perennial football power for over 35 years, not many people remember that for about twelve years or so it was usually in the football doldrums. From roughly the late 1890s or so until about the early to mid 1950s, Michigan was often a powerhouse, with a storied football history. One remembers the wooden plaques on the wall of a now departed bar, called The Pretzel Bell, which each listed all the scores of a particular year of Fielding Yost’s so-called point-a-minute teams of the first years of the 20th Century. It was phenomenal to see. Each year the list of scores would run something like 50 to nothing, 60 to nothing, 65 to nothing, etc., with the total for the year being something in the neighborhood of 450 or 500 to nothing or, in the year of the fantastic 2 to nothing upset by a Chicago team coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg, something like 500 to 2). (I hereby warn the reader about something. For various reasons, everything in this posting except the quote from The Times is being written from memory. So there is a possibility of mistakes. But I do think that most of what is being said is either exactly right or, at minimum, roughly right).
But from roughly the mid 1950s until Schembechler started at Michigan in 1969, Michigan could hardly win for losing. It did win one Big Ten championship, in 1964 I think, but it was often pretty mediocre, even bad. Indeed, those of us who were in Ann Arbor during the late 1950s and early 1960s (a seven year period for myself and lots of my friends) lived through the worst period ever in Michigan football history.
Over that period, championship caliber in Big 10 football got spread around. Michigan State, under Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty had some great teams in the early and mid 1950s and again in the middle ’60s. (The 1966 ten to ten tie game between unbeaten Michigan State and Ara Parseghian’s unbeaten Notre Dame team is still thought by some to be the greatest game of the 20th Century. In the middle of last Saturday’s telecast of the Michigan-Ohio game one of the announcers commented that it was 40 years to the day since that game. Others pick the 1935 Ohio State-Notre Dame game as the college game of the century, and I’ve often wondered why nobody ever seems to have picked the 1946 Army-Notre Dame game -- but that’s a whole ’nother story, as they say.) Iowa, under Tommy Harmon’s blocking back, Forrest Evashevski, had some great teams in the late 1950s, when, I believe, it had Alex Karras, an All-American quarterback named Randy something or other, a couple of great halfbacks, and a few other great ball players. Minnesota had a good year in 1960 or so when the now-recently-deceased Sandy Stephens, the first black quarterback of a major college team I believe, was its quarterback. Wisconsin was good one year, with Ron Vanderkellen at quarterback and its recent Athletic Director, Pat Richter, an All-American, at end. And then there was, of course, Ohio under Woody Hayes. It had a great team in, I think, 1955 with Hopalong Cassady, and again in 1957 I believe, with an All-American halfback named Don Clark, if memory serves. It had a fantastic team in the early 1960s, with, I think, the great Paul Warfield, who later played for the Browns. (I also think one of the linemen on that team was Gary Moeller, who succeeded Schembechler at Michigan and lasted until he got caught being drunk, or driving while drunk, or something like that.) When that Ohio team came to Ann Arbor to play Michigan one year, on the opening kickoff it shattered the cheekbone of Michigan’s captain, which was symptomatic, I’m afraid, especially since Ohio went on to score 50 points or so. Then, in 1968, Hayes had a team heavily comprised of sophomores that won the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl, and was probably the greatest college football team of mainly first year players that ever existed. (Freshmen couldn’t play then, so sophomores were first year players.) That fantastic Ohio team -- it was the team of, among others, the Oakland Raiders’ Jack Tatum -- was initially thought likely to eventually be called the greatest team ever, but it got derailed by Schembechler’s first Michigan team in 1969, and then somehow lost the Rose Bowl after its undefeated 1970 season. (And all of this Ohio success was, of course, before its fantastic early to mid 1970s Archie Griffin team.)
In those days, before Schembechler, when Michigan was usually mediocre, not only was success spread around the Big Ten to some degree, but the Big Ten, after World War II until the beginning of the 1960s (and Southern Cal’s great 1960 team) was far and away the strongest conference in the country. Teams like UCLA and Duke (which weren’t bad then -- these were around the days of Sonny Jurgenson, you know), used to come to Ann Arbor early in the season, would get whomped, and would then be powers in or win their league, while Michigan would end up about 7th or 8th in the Big Ten.
Why was the Big Ten so strong in those days? One can only speculate. I would guess there were two reasons. One was that the Midwest was still immensely heavily populated compared to the rest of the country. The nation had not yet tilted west and south, though the movement to the west was in progress. So the Midwest was still a huge storehouse of talent compared to the rest of the country, and lots of that talent was comprised of big strong kids from families that led hard lives in factories and mills, not to mention on farms.
The other reason was southern segregation, which was, I think, the South’s gift to Big Ten football. Black kids who were great ballplayers but who were not allowed into Southern universities, let alone on Southern football teams, came to the Big Ten, where they set the world on fire. In 1955, ’56 and ’57, for example, Illinois had the fantastic Bobby Mitchell, who went on to play with the Browns and Redskins and is now, I think, in the pro football Hall of Fame, and Michigan had the equally great Jim Pace, who beat out Mitchell for first team All-American, I believe, in 1957. (Pace’s knee got wrecked in training camp with the New York Giants before the 1958 season, so he was never much as a pro and didn’t last long there.) The thing that makes the tremendous duo of Mitchell and Pace emblematic is that they not only played in the Big Ten at the same time, but, if memory serves, they grew up only about 15 or 20 miles from each other in Arkansas. They were practically neighbors, and both had to come north to play college football. So the South lost two great players, the Big Ten gained them, and this was, as I say, emblematic of the period. I suppose those of us who were Big Ten fans should have gotten down on our knees and thanked the racist Southern bastards of the post reconstruction 19th Century and the first 60 years of the 20th Century for helping to make the Big Ten dominant in the nation in football in the 1950s.
But during this period of Big Ten dominance, Michigan was usually not among the dominating teams. In the late 1940s -- in ’47 and ’48 -- it had had fantastic teams, under Fritz Crisler in ’47 and his successor Bennie Oosterbaan in ’48. (Oosterbaan inherited pretty much the same team as Crisler had in ’47.) Its ’47 and ’48 teams were one of the two best in the country along with Frank Leahy’s phenomenal ’47 and ’48 teams at Notre Dame. (The level and depth of talent on those Notre Dame teams, which because of the war were stockpiled with six or seven years worth of talent, have perhaps never been equaled. They had third stringers who went on to be all pros. I think they may have been the best Notre Dame teams ever, notwithstanding all the success of Rockne and Parseghian, not to mention the lesser but still bright lights Devine and Holtz (with Weis now coming up).) Then, in the early and mid 1950s, Michigan was okay, sometimes in fact pretty good, with some great players like the ends Lowell Perry and Ron Kramer, and halfback Jim Pace. Despite all the fantastic players Michigan has had since the Schembechler era began in 1969, 37 years ago, Kramer, whose last year was 1956, is still thought by lots of people -- including knowledgeable ones -- to be the greatest football player Michigan ever had. Once, when he was a senior, Sports Illustrated had on its cover head shots, with their helmets on, of Michigan’s two ends, Kramer and Tom Maentz (I have the picture) because they were so good. Maentz would probably have been an All-American if he had played on any other team than Kramer’s. But though it was often decent, Michigan wasn’t of championship caliber, and Bennie Oosterbaan, who was widely thought the greatest Michigan football player before Kramer -- and this includes the legendary Tom Harmon, who won a Heisman, you know -- and who some still thought even better than Kramer, simply was not the coach that Yost and Crisler had been. So, amidst calls for his head after the ’58 season, I think it was, he was replaced by Chalmers “Bump” Elliot (whose brother Pete subsequently became the coach at Illinois). The two Elliots had played on the great ’47 and ’48 teams, but, like Oosterbaan, Bump Elliot was not the coach Yost and Crisler had been. So Michigan remained largely mediocre, except for winning the Big Ten in, I think, 1964. (I remember that, a year or two after I went to Lawrence, Kansas in 1966 to teach law, a game between Michigan and, I think, Missouri was broadcast on the radio and could be heard in Lawrence. I listened to it. If memory serves, Missouri scored over 40 points and just killed Michigan. (Can you imagine this happening today?) Michigan simply wasn’t very good then.)
Well, the calls went out for Elliot’s head because Michigan was mediocre. Even though Michigan had suffered roughly 10 to 12 years of general mediocrity, I gather that the job at Michigan was still regarded as highly desirable. When I was a professor at Kansas in the late ‘60s, one of my students was a really nice fellow who, after playing for Michigan State, had been an assistant at Missouri and had then, foolishly, taken the head coaching job at Kansas State, which for years was just awful most of the time. After being fired, he came to Lawrence to go to law school. (He later, I think, became the Athletic Director at Southern Illinois and then at Michigan State.) While in law school, he told me that the Michigan coaching job was still regarded in the coaching profession as the most desirable in the country. After years of losing, no less. Go figure.
Anyway, by some stroke of genius, Michigan hired Schembechler. I’m not at all sure, but this possibly could have been the work of a guy named Don Canham, who had been Michigan’s track coach, became its Athletic Director, and is generally regarded, I gather, as the father of modern college sports marketing -- the logoed Tshirts, sweatshirts, hats, etc., etc. Whoever was responsible for Schembechler’s hiring, it became a new era when he arrived, an era heralded by the amazing 1969 upset of Ohio State -- perhaps one of the greatest upsets in college football history because that Ohio team was on the road to becoming one of the greatest teams -- maybe even the greatest team -- in college football history until it got derailed by Michigan in ’69 and then lost in the Rose Bowl after the next season.
Schembechler rescued Michigan football. I think that is the only accurate way to put the matter, is the cornerstone of his accomplishment and is the only way to truly understand his accomplishment. Had there been another 10 to 15 years of mediocrity in Ann Arbor, Michigan likely would have become just another also ran in football, as has happened to other teams that once were powerhouses, (e.g. Army, Pittsburgh, Harvard, Yale). In the new era of Michigan football created by Schembechler, an era like that of Yost and Crisler, Michigan is again thought of as a perennial powerhouse. It gets talent like you wouldn’t believe, and frankly should rarely lose with the level of talent it has -- a subject I shall return to. There is a certain irony in the fact that this is the situation at a University that is intellectually elitist. As I’ve written in Misfits In America, Michigan constantly proclaims itself to be one of the world’s great universities, and has done so since long before I set foot on campus as a freshman in 1956. The psychological health of its people apparently depends on the academic sickness of always claiming to be elite, and the University’s deepest wish would be for it to be Harvard, because so many people think Harvard is in fact the best. But this academically elitist university makes a point of having a football team which truly is among the elite. Ah well, this keeps the alumni and fans happy, especially the Philistines like me. It also means that the football team, as a general matter albeit not always nor in every way, bears the stamp of competence which was inculcated into us in many other aspects of the University’s life, even if we were, as I was, a general effup.
There is, however, one cloud on the Michigan football horizon. The current coach, Lloyd Carr, seems pretty much unable to defeat the current Ohio State coach, Jim Tressel: Carr is 1-5 against Tressel. This is interesting in a number of ways. Carr has won somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of his games. He has won a national championship. He could still win one this year if Michigan plays Ohio again, and beats it, in the national championship game. Nevertheless, as idiotic as it may sound, this blogger -- a heretic, a rebel against conventional wisdom, and all the rest of it -- has never thought Carr is really a very good coach. (He was not, incidentally, the first choice from Schembechler’s staff to succeed Schembechler as head coach. Gary Moeller was, but he self destructed.) With the level of fantastic talent that Michigan gets year in and year out, it really should never lose a game, except about half the time to Ohio, which gets equally good talent. And it really should have a much better pass defense, instead of the porous pass offense it actually has -- and even usually had under Schembechler -- a defense which, if I may put it this way, often makes the game interesting when it is protecting a one or two touchdown lead near the end of a game. (The pass defense -- or lack of it -- sunk Michigan last Saturday.) But regardless of what should happen, Carr loses to Ohio all the time, and sometimes, like last year, he loses to several other teams too, loses to teams he should never lose to because the level of talent at Michigan is so high.
The question that comes to mind, then, is this. Despite all his success, will Michigan keep Carr if he keeps losing to Tressel in what now is and could become even more of a lopsided series between them. My guess is that the series could become even more lopsided because Tressel is, quite simply, one of the great college coaches ever and certainly, at this point, is the best, or one of the two or three best, in the country. The only way to insure against losing to him regularly would be for Michigan to hire him, which cannot possibly happen even if Leo Durocher did leave the Dodgers for the Giants. It is also my guess that Carr will be “allowed” a few more losses to Tressel, but that if the 1-5 record becomes something like 1-7 or 2-9, we might begin to hear a lot of yelling for a new coach no matter what Carr’s record is against other teams. This is pretty much what happened to the previous Ohio State coach, John Cooper, who had great teams, even national championship contenders, at Ohio, but seemed unable to beat Carr and Michigan. On the other hand, the Michigan people are not, one thinks, quite as football crazed as the Ohio Staters, and may be willing to cut Carr more slack than Cooper was cut, especially since Carr seems well liked as a person. Also, one can’t know in advance whether whoever were to replace Carr would be as successful as Carr has been in terms of sheer percentage of victories, or would himself beat Tressel. Yet, when all is said and done, one expects that there would be an outcry for Carr’s head if his record against Ohio were to go to 1-7 or 2-9. Lloyd had better hire some more really smart assistants -- maybe a great pass defense coach, for instance -- who will see to it that Michigan starts beating Tressel half the time -- like Bo and Woody each beat each other about half the time.
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