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HAIL TO THE GREATEST VICTOR

Nov. 17, 2006

It was just another beautiful sunny afternoon in Southern California. I hurried into the bleachers on the Citrus College football field, with a spring in my step.

Fresh out of college, in my first job as a professional journalist, I had scored a plum assignment of covering the Michigan Wolverines as they got ready to play in the Rose Bowl. Life was good.

And it was about to get better.

As I climbed into the bleacher seats, notepad in hand and excitement dancing in my head, I noticed an older gentleman sitting alone a few rows up. Could it be ...

I cozied up to the man, "Hi, Coach," I said. I introduced myself and before I could even work up the nerve to ask to sit next to him, he tapped the bench and insisted that I stick around.

For the rest of the afternoon, Bo Schembechler and I talked ... no, make that, Bo talked and I listened, about all things Michigan. There was no one else around -- as I would later brag to my editors and friends, "just me and Bo."

He had coached his last Michigan game two years before. At this time, he had the dual roles of president of the Detroit Tigers and television analyst for ABC Sports. His protege, Gary Moeller, was now coaching the Wolverines, with a roster still stocked with his recruits.

But Bo wasn't a meddler. He had too much integrity and respect for his former assistant. He was not going to do anything to take the spotlight away from Moeller. For the entire week, he shunned the media, turned down every request for an interview and was downright elusive.

So much so that the Los Angeles Times, the biggest paper in town, had to lift a couple of quotes from my story (without attribution, as my editor bitterly complained) -- because their guy never got to talk to Bo.

Why did Bo talk to me? I think because he saw me as a kid, young, innocent, earnest and respectful. For an old school coach like Bo, who's had his battles with the media, he just liked that.

"Sure, I miss the game and I miss the kids," I am now stealing my own Bo quotes. "But after 25 years, it was just a little too much. ... Besides, nobody could've done a better job with this team than what (Moeller) has done."

On that glorious afternoon, above the same field where Bo's first Rose Bowl team also practiced, our conversations covered about the entire history of Michigan football, a little bit about the Tigers and the television industry and advice on how I could get ahead in life.

"Sam," yes, he called me by my name. "You have to believe that you are the best at what you do. You have to believe that you can write sports better than the next guy. But you have to work at it. If you work as hard as you can, you'll go places. Don't worry about it."

I've been to a few places, a Super Bowl here, a Final Four there, a Masters or two, the World Cup, among other things. But when I think back to my career as a journalist, no event was quite comparable to that December afternoon in Glendora.

As I walked into my restaurant this afternoon, my eyes first came upon the bank of television sets above the bar. I saw Bruce Madej, the longtime Michigan SID on the screen, just above the text of "Bo Schembechler, dead at age 77."

My eyes welled up. My restaurant manager came up to me and asked me if everything was all right. I said no, and retreated to my office.

It's been at least seven years since I last spoke to Bo. Almost 15 years since I first met him in those bleachers. And I don't even write about sports anymore. But on this day, I felt compelled to write something.

Before I became sick of talking to forked-tongue agents, double-dealing general managers, whiney players and egomaniacal coaches, I bought into the romanticism of sport. There was a man who talked of only what he believed and worked for the love of the game, not the money and the glory.

That man is now gone, but not before leaving an indelible mark both as a sportsman and a gentleman.

And all the lives he touched, including this one. Thank you and goodbye ... Coach.

 


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