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Thursday, November 17, 2011
Life after Bo Schembechler's death

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

Michigan held a news conference on the morning of Monday, Nov. 13, 2006, five days before the No. 2 Wolverines would travel to Columbus to play No. 1 Ohio State. Five days before the game, the fever pitch already looked as if it had been delivered by Justin Verlander.

Bo Schembechler
Bo Schembechler's presence loomed large at Michigan, even after he retired.

My memory is of a room in the Junge Family Champions Center packed with journalists and their gear, a recollection that coach Lloyd Carr, a few assistant coaches and several players spoke. I say that's my memory because I didn't write a word of what they said to the media. I just wanted to hear from Bo.

Three weeks earlier, former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler had suffered a "cardiac episode" that forced him to get a defibrillator implanted in his chest. No surprise -- Schembechler had suffered a heart attack when he was 40, shortly before the first of 10 Rose Bowls in which he coached.

There had been some question about whether he would feel up to attending the news conference. But Schembechler wouldn't have missed it for the world. Once he arrived, I lost interest in what anyone else had to say. When Schembechler spoke, you listened. At 77 years of age, his body might have slowed but the full force of his personality didn't waver. You could see it in his still-vibrant eyes.

He spoke from the podium. He told stories about the Ten-Year War between Michigan and Ohio State from 1969 to '78, when he did battle with his mentor, Woody Hayes, every November. He mentioned he still had an office in the football building, the one with his name on the wall. He razzed free safety Willis Barringer, who followed him to the podium, about how hard he practiced.

Afterward, Schembechler held court in the lobby as long as his stamina allowed. He still raged, 33 years later, about the 1973 decision by the Big Ten athletic directors to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl after a 10-all tie the day before left the bitter rivals tied atop the league.

Schembechler said that his health would not allow him to travel to Columbus but that he had a 50-inch plasma TV ready at home.

The last thing anyone thought was that he wouldn't live to watch the game.

I got the news Friday afternoon as I prepared to board a flight from New York to Columbus. Schembechler had died that morning, four days after I had stood enthralled by him. I got off the plane and sat in the airport, and wrote a column about the coach and his legacy.

What I didn't write -- what I didn't know at the time -- is the effect his death would have, 18 years after he retired as coach and 16 years after he retired as athletic director, on Michigan football.

It is no coincidence that the controversy and rifts that bedeviled Rich Rodriguez in his three-year tenure came after Schembechler's death. That is the inescapable conclusion of "Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football." John U. Bacon, a writer who was embedded with the Wolverines for Rodriguez's three seasons, paints a portrait of a family riven by factions that emerged once the patriarch left this world.

Rich Rodriguez
Rich Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan was short and controversial.

Bacon wrote that "Michigan Men" -- former players and coaches -- lashed out at each other and at Rodriguez in a way they never would have had Schembechler been alive, out of respect for him and fear that they would be called on his carpet.

The carping might have been an attempt to protect the brand of Michigan football as they knew it, as it had been handed down from Schembechler to Gary Moeller to Carr. But that style of football went out the door when Carr retired after the 2007 season and then-athletic director Bill Martin hired Rodriguez.

It seems logical that former players and alumni would fall in behind the new coach. Logical, perhaps, but not all of them did. The Michigan they profess to love paid a price. However, the Michigan Men now seem to have coalesced behind Brady Hoke, a former Wolverines assistant coach. They have reason to be satisfied. The Wolverines are 8-2 and No. 18 in the BCS ratings.

Schembechler put the program before himself or any other person. That's why he never would have chosen to die on that day five years ago, when all of college football was focused on the dynasty he had built. It is a cliché to say that when Schembechler died, a part of Michigan football died with him. Little did we know.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.