Commentary

Recounting Bo's final 24 hours

Last day included motivational speech to team just days before Ohio State game

Updated: November 17, 2011, 2:19 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On the final day of his life, Bo Schembechler attended a funeral.

One of his former players, quarterback Tom Slade, had died of cancer, and although it hurt to walk, the former coach had to say goodbye. He arrived at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor with his wife, Cathy, and sat in the last pew.

Who knows what Schembechler knew, whether he felt his own time was short. But on Nov. 16, 2006, the last full day of Bo Schembechler's life, he started there.

Ann Arbor was preparing for a massive football showdown: Undefeated No. 1 Ohio State facing undefeated No. 2 Michigan. It was the rivalry Schembechler lived for, the game most associated with both him and his school.

[+] EnlargeBo Schembechler and Woody Hayes
AP PhotoBo Schembechler died on the eve of a Michigan-Ohio State game, a rivalry of which he loved being part.
After attending the funeral, he watched his protege, Lloyd Carr, lead practice. Schembechler was supposed to make a rare post-practice speech to the team. His speeches enraptured audiences, and this -- Michigan-Ohio State -- was his favorite subject.

Yet Carr sensed his friend was in trouble.

"I remember Lloyd coming down and saying to him, 'Bo, you don't have to do this,' " said Mary Passink, Schembechler's longtime assistant. "And he said, 'No, I'm doing this. I'm talking to the team.' "

Schembechler got his way. Carr introduced his mentor. Most inside that room had never heard him give a motivational speech.

The result is Michigan legend.

Five years have passed since Schembechler's death, since Michigan last truly competed for a Big Ten and national championship. But that night, that speech, remains in the minds and hearts of those who were in the second floor team room in Schembechler Hall.

Even if the exact words have been somewhat forgotten.

He espoused on the importance of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, multiple players and coaches in the room said. He banged his hands on the podium at the front of the team room when he talked about the Buckeyes.

"When he first opened his mouth and started to speak, just the fire and the amount of passion he had," former Michigan wide receiver LaTerryal Savoy said. "Still with him. He approached us as we were just about to go out and play that single moment.

"He came very motivated."

According to various accounts, Schembechler pointed out at least two former players. The first was Jim Mandich, the captain of his first team in 1969. Mandich led the Wolverines to a win over Ohio State that year in what is considered one of the greatest games in the history of the rivalry.

The second was the man whose funeral he attended hours earlier. Schembechler spent time with Slade in his final days, where they discussed everything from family to his job as a dentist. In a book John U. Bacon wrote with Schembechler called "Bo's Lasting Lessons," Bacon recounted parts of the speech -- specifically about Slade and how those conversations toward the end of what would be both of their lives also drifted back to the same topic: Michigan football. And what that experience meant to the rest of their lives.

That message stuck.

"You knew right away when Lloyd came in and introduced Bo like, 'Oh, here it goes.' You knew there was something else about that game that was going to be special," former Michigan kicker Garrett Rivas said. "Looking back now, you start to wonder did he know he was going to go and wanted to have his last hurrah with the team? You look back on it, and it wasn't an every time thing that Bo spoke to the team. But that game, we were both undefeated, biggest rivalry in all sports, and there was so much built up about it.

"And Bo comes in and speaks. It was an incredible, incredible moment and feeling."

He mustered up as much vigor and passion as he could, Passink said. When he left the room and the meeting broke up, he returned to his office.

He asked his old friend, Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson, to come in. Jackson saw the pain Schembechler felt.

Speech over, team motivated, Schembechler asked Jackson about his performance.

"He said, 'Jackson, how'd I do?' I said, 'You did great, Bo.' He said 'Bull----. I don't feel good. I know I didn't do my best,' " Jackson said. "Then he said, how'd he put it, 'I even have trouble tying my shoes. So I know I didn't do a great job, don't lie.'

"I said 'You did a great job, Bo.' "

It was the last conversation between men who first met in 1974. But Jackson meant it. He called the speech and the man "unbelievable" four times, getting choked up at the memory of it.

Schembechler left the football offices. Passink said he went home, took a short nap and went to The Chop House -- a steakhouse on Main Street in Ann Arbor -- for a 3-hour dinner with Cathy and another old quarterback, Dave Brandon.

The group sat at a table in the front of the large windows at the front of the restaurant, which had been closed off for the private meal. Schembechler told Brandon he wasn't feeling well. How he struggled to make it across the restaurant because he was so weak.

"He was definitely ill, but he had been ill so many times before you just always believed he was going to bounce back," Brandon said. "Bo always bounced back. He defied the odds so many times that even that night, as hard as I could tell it was for him.

"I always had this feeling that he was bulletproof, that somehow he was going to start feeling better and doctors were going to come up with some new trick to keep him alive."

Brandon took the opportunity to tell Schembechler how much he meant to him. They discussed the future -- for Brandon, for Michigan football, for the Michigan athletic department. At the time, Brandon ran Domino's Pizza and was a University of Michigan regent.

Schembechler relaxed. He drank a glass of wine. He cracked jokes, told stories.

Then he brought up the speech.

"I got the distinct impression as I reflected back on all that that Bo had a very, very good idea that this could have been the last time he would have the honor and the opportunity to speak to a Michigan football team," Brandon said. "I just believe that. He spoke to me about it at dinner, and he said it was a big deal to him.

"He made it a point to share the experience and how much it meant to him, and how pleased he was that Lloyd had asked him to do that, and how sure he was that our team was going to go down there and win."

Dinner eventually ended. Schembechler was too weak to walk to the car, so Cathy brought it around.

On the final morning of his life, Schembechler drove to Southfield, Mich., to film his weekly television show, "Big Ten Ticket," at the WXYZ-TV studios. On the way, he called Passink to do his weekly radio interview on local station WTKA-AM.

As he prepared for the television show, he collapsed.

Back in Ann Arbor, Cathy ran errands, preparing for a trip to Ohio, where the Schembechlers were planning to watch the Michigan-Ohio State game with his longtime friend Bill Gunlock.

"She was headed back to her house," former Wolverines running back Jamie Morris said. "I followed her, and I picked her up, and I told her what was going on and we were racing out to Southfield. A friend called me and told me her friend was a nurse at the hospital, and they told me exactly what hospital Bo was taken to, so I took Cathy there."

On the ride, Morris told Cathy he'd be OK. Schembecher perpetually had heart problems and survived them before. He survived two heart attacks, two quadruple bypass surgeries and had diabetes, according to an Associated Press story about his death.

Morris dropped Cathy off at the emergency room entrance when they arrived at Providence Hospital. He parked the car, but before he made it into the hospital his cell phone rang. A friend delivered the sad news: Bo had passed. Morris sat in the car and cried.

[+] EnlargeFred Jackson
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIAssistant coach Fred Jackson said he was unable to function when he heard the news of Bo's passing.
Word spread. Those close to Schembechler almost refused to believe it. He always bounced back. This time, something was different.

"I had been downstairs working out, came upstairs, and Mary was at her desk," Jackson said. "Mary said, 'Fred, Bo passed out and they rushed him to the hospital and it's not good.' I just sat there. Somebody called and told her he passed away. She came in and got me, because my office was down there then.

"I just couldn't function. And that team couldn't function, either."

In a Regents meeting, Brandon had a note slipped in front of him. He read it and found out the man he had dinner with the night before, the man whom he credits for so much of his success, had collapsed after a massive heart attack.

For 10 minutes, he hoped the report was wrong. He sat in the meeting, distracted. Then someone whispered the news in his ear, and he left the meeting.

Schembechler had died of heart failure. He was 77.

News of his death traveled through the Michigan community. Then-freshman offensive lineman Stephen Schilling walked from a class to the Michigan Union when he overheard two girls in front of him talking.

"I was like, 'What?' So I pulled my phone out and looked it up," Schilling said. "That's how I found out; some girls who didn't understand or know who he was were talking about it."

Schilling, who was redshirting that season, didn't make the trip to Columbus. Those who did were told of Schembechler's death by Carr in an emotional team meeting before they boarded buses for Ohio State. A helicopter and a cadre of media followed the team for the trip.

"Everything had stopped," Rivas said. "Like, 'Did this really happen?' "

Rivas said Carr told them not to use Schembechler as a rallying point. Instead, he wanted them to play like Schembechler told them the night before.

A few hours south, another former Michigan coach sat in his office drawing up scout offense play cards for a Friday practice with the radio on. Startled by the news on the radio in Muncie, Ind., Brady Hoke stopped drawing schematics.

"Oh, I cried," Hoke said. "No doubt. No doubt. It was shocking, obviously. It was somebody you looked up to, somebody you enjoyed being with, and a guy who meant an awful lot to Michigan and still does [mean] an awful lot to those players he developed."

Two weeks earlier, he had a chance to see Schembechler, but he was in the midst of coaching his Ball State team against Michigan in Ann Arbor. Hoke was on the field. Like everyone else associated with Schembechler, he thought there would be more time. Schembechler was in the stadium, but the two never crossed paths.

"Would have loved to," Hoke said.

The last Michigan game Bo Schembechler saw in person, less than two weeks before his death, he ended up watching his team's future head coach. And had Schembechler survived to watch that Michigan-Ohio State game, he would have done it from Gunlock's home.

In Kettering, Ohio, the hometown of Brady Hoke.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.

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