Jon Falk: Right-hand man for coaches

Jon Falk sits back in his chair in his small office outside of Oosterbaan Fieldhouse and folds his hands, already stained with ink at 8 in the morning. He was up before the sun, the small coffee drop on his white Michigan football polo a testament to that. Falk, the Wolverines' equipment manager, looks around his office and surveys the shelves lined with trinkets from a 37-year career at the university. Photos of former players are pinned to his bulletin board along with a typewritten white piece of paper.

"If you work for a man, in Heaven's name work for him," it reads. "If he pays you wages that supply you your bread and butter, work for him. Speak well of him, stand by him and stand by the institution he represents. I think if I worked for a man, I'd work for him. I would not work for him part time and the rest of the time against him. I would give him my undivided service or none. If put to the pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness."

It is an Elbert Hubbard quote, given to Falk by his mother when he left home in 1974 to come to Michigan. And it is the quote by which Falk lives his life.

Through 37 years he has worked for Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez and, now, Brady Hoke.

"I have always wanted to be able to say, at the end of the day, that I did the best I could for that coach," Falk said. "And I wanted that coach to be able to say, 'Jon Falk did everything he could to help me.' Because those are the things you'll remember."

For the first 15 years, he was beside Schembechler.

The two would sit in the locker room after games, when the players and press had left. They would talk for hours sometimes, and the conversations would move from the offense to the defense to the men's families. Schembechler would stand up and say he needed to get home before dinner started, and he would begin walking toward the door.

"You think I made the right call on that fourth-and-2?" he'd ask as he turned around.

And it would start all over again.

Even after Schembechler left coaching, the two remained close.

Falk would walk into Schembechler's office and say with a crooked smile, "Hey, Bo, remember that time we played Notre Dame and you let Raghib 'Rocket' Ismail return two kickoffs for 95 yards?"

Bo would sit back, laugh and say, "Yeah, that was pretty dumb wasn't it. Good thing we're old and wise now."

Falk will admit it was a side of Schembechler that few got to see. And even in the week of Schembechler's death, Falk was with him.

"I loved him," Falk said. "And he left me with a tremendous sense of loyalty."

If put to the pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.

Growing up, Falk had every intention of being a farm boy in his hometown of Oxford, Ohio. In eighth grade, Falk broke his nose during a football practice and promptly approached his coach, Marv Wilhelm. Falk didn't want to play football any longer, but he still wanted to help out. Wilhelm offered him the spot of team manager.

"A manager does whatever the football coach tells him," Wilhelm said.

It didn't sound so bad to Falk.

It was his first lesson on how to be a loyal football manager.

But his next big lesson didn't come until after his graduation from Miami University in 1971.

At the time, Bill Mallory was the coach at Miami, and Falk had recently accepted a job as an assistant equipment manager.

Mallory ran a tight ship and primarily used his "Dawn Patrol" as a punishment for any football player who failed to "keep his nose clean."

After a particularly difficult weekend for the team, several players were informed that they would be meeting Mallory on the track at 6 a.m. But first, they'd have to meet their team manager, Falk, at the equipment closet at 5:30 to retrieve all the necessary weights and equipment for their patrol.

When Mallory arrived at the track he saw the players and assistant coaches, but there was no sign of Falk or the equipment.

He jumped into his car and drove over to Falk's mother's house, where Falk was living at the time.

Mallory left his car running in the driveway as he pounded on the door.

"He knew who it was," Mallory said. "He knew I was out there."

He pounded again. Falk's mother answered the door, and Mallory asked where Falk was.

"You just missed him Coach Mallory," she said. "He ran out the back door and jumped in his car."

From that time on, Falk never made the same mistake again. And when the two met for the first time in the Big House, after Falk accepted the manager position with Schembechler in 1974 and Mallory the head coaching job at Colorado, Falk showed up extra early for that game.

Colorado beat Michigan 31-0 in a driving rainstorm, and after the game a Colorado manager approached Falk.

"Excuse me, Coach Mallory sent me over here to say that you need to give him your hat," the young man said.

Falk laughed.

"Tell Bill congratulations and good luck," he said, taking the hat off his head and tossing it to him.

Falk no longer worked for Mallory, but it was Mallory who had given him a start in the business that had become his career and taught him the foundation of what it would take to be successful.

I would not work for him part time and the rest of the time against him. I would give him my undivided service or none.

A few years later, in what would be Woody Hayes' final year as a Buckeye, Falk met an assistant coach at Ohio State named Glen Mason.

Mason was on the sidelines before the game and had just finished speaking with Schembechler when he walked up to Falk and introduced himself.

Falk was quiet for a moment.

"I know who you are," Falk said before walking away. "I know everything about Ohio State."

Mason became the head coach of Minnesota in 1997, which meant that one of Falk's responsibilities -- taking care of the Little Brown Jug Trophy -- now mattered to Mason.

After two close games in 2003 and 2004, Minnesota came into Ann Arbor and beat the Wolverines.

After the game, Mason was showering in the locker room when he heard a voice.

"Hey, Mase?" it came through the steam.

Mason, who was in the middle of shampooing his hair, asked, "Big Jon, is that you?"

"Nice game, Mase," Falk said. "I just wanted to congratulate you."

"Jon, you just walked in on my shower," Mason said. "The least you could do is give me that Michigan hat you're wearing."

Falk took it off his head and threw it to Mason before leaving.

That night, Mason returned to Minnesota with the team and was headed to meet his wife for dinner in downtown Minneapolis. He drove with the Brown Jug in the passenger seat and could almost hear Jon's voice over the radio.

"Dammit, Mason, I've taken care of that jug far longer than you have. If you break it I will never forgive you."

That is one of three years the jug hasn't spent in Ann Arbor during Falk's tenure.

Mason can still remember Falk roaming the sidelines with that flat-brimmed, maize block M hat on his head, which now sits in Mason's basement. He describes Falk as an "institution," the prototypical man you would think Schembechler would want on his side.

"The game of football is about a lot of things," Mason said. "But first and foremost it's about respect. You can't buy it. You can't ask for it. You have to earn it. Jon Falk stood for everything that Michigan football is. He just happened to be a manager."

In 2006, in what would be Mason's final season at Minnesota, Michigan reclaimed the Brown Jug in Minneapolis. Coach Lloyd Carr looked at Falk and said, "Arm in arm, you and I will retrieve that trophy together."

Speak well of him, stand by him and stand by the institution he represents.

For 37 years, he has been a tie that has held together the traditions and memories of Michigan football. The faces have changed, but Falk still sits in that office. He still teaches the same lessons to the players. He has seen boys mature into men and raise boys of their own.

And he tries to leave each player with a message of respect and loyalty. No, he is not their coach, but he is a part of their Michigan experience.

Falk points to the sheet of paper on his bulletin board.

"An ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness," he says. "My mom knew what that quote would mean to me someday."

It has been decades since she gave him that quote, but it's fresh in his mind, as though she gave it to him yesterday.

He has seen 454 games, 14 Rose Bowls, five head coaches, dozens of assistants and thousands of players.

For Jon Falk, an ounce of loyalty doesn't even begin to describe it.

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com.