Saturday, November 18, 2006

Schembechler Raised both Michigan and Ohio State

As if the attention devoted to the Ohio State-Michigan game couldn't get any greater, the hype machine blew a gasket with the passing of the legendary former Wolverines' coach Bo Schembechler. In addition to being a one-of-a-kind coach, Schembechler was also by all accounts a classy and principled man. Out of all the stories I heard yesterday in the coverage of his death, my favorite was one that came not in his role as head football coach, but rather as the athletic director of the school. On the eve of the 1989 NCAA basketball tournament, coach Bill Frieder announced that he had accepted an offer to coach at Arizona State, effective at the end of the tournament. In retrospect, knowing the kind of man Schembechler was, Frieder might have been wise to put off negotiations until after the tournament. Schembechler dismissed Frieder before he got to coach a game in the tournament, saying, ""A Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man." As a result, Steve Fisher was installed as interim coach, and the Wolverines went on to win the title, beating Seton Hall in the final. How many athletic directors put in that situation, knowing how lucrative a deep run in the NCAA Tournament can be, would have made a principled move like that? I can bet that even if the Wolverines had been upset in the first round of the tournament, Schembechler would have been convinced that he had made the right move because loyalty and devotion to Michigan comes before all else.

That episode is indicative of why the school will miss him so much. The man bled Wolverine maize and blue, and was the greatest force behind carving out the identity of Michigan sports, as the powerhouse we know it as today. But lest you think that Ohio State is unaffected by this untimely death, think again. Schembechler started his career as an assistant to another legend, Ohio State's venerable Woody Hayes, and between them, formed a great personal rivalry that added significantly to the luster of the big game.

My feeling is that today, both schools will show the due respect and restraint that is owed to the passing of such a larger-than-life figure. Michigan of course, but I would argue that Ohio State needed Schembechler nearly as much as Michigan did.

The annual Ohio State-Michigan game is one of the truly special events in the pantheon of college sports. We toss around the word "rivalry" often, but with these two foes, the meaning of the word is taken to a whole different level . Every Ohio State and Michigan student is thankful that their two teams have built one of the handful of rivalries that stand out as annual holidays. It is the ultimate showcase for competition and school pride, but that wouldn't have materialized if there wasn't an equally worthy opponent on the opposite sideline. Through their rivalry, each of these schools has been lifted up in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. Any memorable character in literature needs a worthy foil to do battle with, and it's no different in this case. Hayes and Schembechler are the primary men responsible for lifting this game to the holy day of obligation it has become, and for that, every Buckeye and Wolverine should be grateful.

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