Michigan lost way in wake of Bo's death
Athletic program moved away from his legacy but quickly saw error of its ways
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- About twice a week, as Brady Hoke walks past the offices he used to occupy as an assistant coach on the way to the one he now resides in as Michigan's head football coach, he'll pause.
There is no consistent trigger for it other than a random passing thought. When that thought does come, a small smile creases the face of the first-year Wolverines coach. Because it happened. Again.
He thought of Bo.
"I'll be walking down the hall and just think, you know, 'Bo,'" Hoke said. "I don't think I ever say, 'What would Bo do in this situation?' But he is just so great in everything that he did for Michigan that I still think of him."
He was the unifying force surrounding the Michigan athletic program, a constant presence inside the football headquarters bearing his name -- Schembechler Hall -- until his death five years ago at age 77. His presence, power and charisma held Michigan together.
And when he died, things changed.
Schembechler's death, combined with the retirement of Lloyd Carr in 2007 and the hiring of Rich Rodriguez in his place, left a fractured fan base, confusion among those inside the Michigan community and an athletic department and football program that seemed rudderless.
"There's no doubt in my mind that if Coach Schembechler was still alive that it never would've gone down that way," former Michigan star and Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard said. "That's the main thing that's different."
In Schembechler, Michigan lost its leader and its foundation. So much of how Michigan is viewed now comes from its iconic football coach. And now, half a decade after his death, the Wolverines finally are starting to return to a small semblance of what Schembechler built during his 20-year reign as Michigan's head football coach.
But it took a lot of twists and turns to get there.
"It lost, first of all, an identity, a stabilization of a winner," said current Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson, who has been on the Wolverines' staff since 1992. "A great man, a great ambassador to this program. I felt strong when I knew he was somewhere around. Just to know he was down the hall, you felt a presence of greatness.
Michigan started changing after Schembechler's death. The Wolverines lost the final two games of the 2006 season -- a year the Wolverines started 11-0. The next season, Carr's last as a coach, Michigan started the season ranked No. 5 and lost to FCS foe Appalachian State.
The Wolverines rebounded to finish 9-4 and beat Florida in the Capital One Bowl, but in the span of a calendar year, Michigan had lost Schembechler, and one of his protégés, Carr, had retired.
Michigan and former athletic director Bill Martin then hired Rodriguez, who never got his footing and was fired after three seasons -- in the process snapping a 33-year bowl-appearance streak and 40 consecutive years with winning records. He also ran a program that got the school placed on NCAA probation in football for the first time in its history.
"[Bo's] legacy is far greater than what people can know," said former Michigan defensive back Tony Gant, who played for Schembechler from 1982 to 1986. "To have an outsider come in and not know what that's about, Michigan took a little downfall."
As Michigan football went through its dip on the field, the athletic department tried to reverse the trend off it. After Martin retired in 2009, the school hired a former Schembechler player -- Dave Brandon -- to succeed him.
Brandon has credited much of his professional success -- he was the CEO at Domino's Pizza before taking the job -- to Schembechler. He fired Rodriguez within his first year on the job and replaced him with Hoke, who had direct lineage to the Schembechler-Carr coaching tree.
Brandon also did something else -- something ensuring the true legacy of Schembechler at Michigan.
In strategic planning meetings earlier in 2011 to provide direction to the athletic department's future, he created eight guiding principles. Some of them are simple and typical of most large businesses in the midst of developing a defined mission statement.
If there is anybody working in Michigan athletics who doesn't know who 'he' is ... then they don't deserve to work in Michigan athletics.” -- AD Dave Brandon
The eighth principle -- the final one -- had a different message: "Remember what he taught us. The team, the team, the team."
"The team, the team, the team" is forever linked to Schembechler, along with, "Those who stay will be champions." But there was something else in the statement that was equally important: Schembechler's name isn't mentioned.
"What we agreed with is that if there is anybody working in Michigan athletics who doesn't know who 'he' is, meaning who is the he who said that, if there is anybody who doesn't know that, then they don't deserve to work in Michigan athletics," Brandon said. "And so we think Bo has reached the status and importance in our department that we don't have to refer to him by name to identify how important he is.
"People know who he is just by what he taught us. It says a lot about how we revere Bo and continue to embrace every day some of the things he taught us."
To understand how Michigan dealt with Schembechler's death, started to heal from it and eventually continued living through the memory of the man who shaped an entire athletic culture, that's all one really needs to know.
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.