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Bo's lasting lesson #5: Respect your history
Bo Schembechler was much more than a football coach. He was a great leader, one who taught future CEOs, coaches, and military officers what value-driven leadership is all about. Before his death, Bo passed his secrets to writer John U. Bacon. The result: a new book with all the insight and power of the legendary coach. In this exclusive excerpt, Bo reveals a leadership value that should be a natural for any Michigan Man or Woman.
It's one thing, when you start in a new position, to throw a bucket of cold water on your people to let them know things are going to be different around here from now on. That's just smart.
But it's something completely different to do the same thing to the institution you're taking over. That's just stupid!
Let me explain. One of the most common mistakes new leaders make—and I just can't for the life of me understand this one—is to ignore the history of the organization they just took over, or even to disrespect it. That, to me, is the mark of a weak leader—and one who's probably not going to last very long.
Let me be as clear as I can be about this: When you become the leader, do not start your reign by dismantling or ignoring the contributions of those who came before. The history of your organization is one of your greatest strengths, and if you're new to the organization, it's your job to learn it, to respect it and to teach it to the people coming up in your company.
Sure, it's easy to appreciate Michigan's football history—the best, I'd say, in college football. But even if I had gone to Wisconsin, they have a good history, too. Ditto North Carolina. In fact, anywhere I might have gone had to have some history, or it wouldn't still exist! And that goes for any organization you might join, too.
When I arrived in Ann Arbor, I was an outsider—born and raised in Ohio, played at Miami, coached at Ohio State for Woody Hayes, for crying out loud—but I already knew a lot about Michigan. And after I got here, I made it my business to learn more, and fast.
When I was thirteen years old, my family drove to Michigan's Upper Peninsula for a fishing trip. It was mid-August, and we had to return a little early because I had to be back in Barberton for football practice. On the way back down, I made my dad stop in Ann Arbor so I could see Michigan's famous football team. Now, my dad wasn't a big football fan—he didn't know a thing about Fritz Crisler or his great teams—but he was willing to indulge me. So he parked on State Street, and I got out by myself and walked right up to the practice field—right where we built our first football building in the early 1970s, right where Schembechler Hall is today.
When I looked through that iron gate, those guys were huge, bigger than life! Even their practice uniforms looked shiny and special to me. The one guy who really impressed me was Lenny Ford. I already knew who he was—I'd read about him in the papers and heard his name on the radio—but seeing him right there, in front of me, was really something.
I can even remember exactly what I was thinking when I looked at all those players out there: Someday, that's going to be me! I was too shy to say anything then, but the rest of the way home I went on and on in the back seat about the great Michigan tradition, naming every All-American of theirs I knew. I probably drove my folks nuts, but I was in heaven.
I always wanted to go to Michigan. We had a Michigan alumnus down in Barberton talking to me, but I wasn't good enough to play for the Wolverines, and I knew it. I guess they knew it, too!
Twenty-seven years later, when I became Michigan's new football coach, the first person to visit me was William D. Revelli, the legendary band conductor. "Anything you need from me or the band," he said, "all you need to do is ask."
That impressed me. So when the freshmen arrived that August, I asked Dr. Revelli to teach them how to sing "The Victors." But brother, let me tell you: He didn't just teach them "The Victors." He taught them Michigan tradition!
I gathered the freshmen at Yost Field House, when in walks Dr. William D. Revelli, in full uniform. Marvelous man. Marvelous! I loved that guy.
"Gentlemen," I said, "you are now going to hear about the greatest college fight song from the greatest band director in the history of college football."
Now I'm sure the freshmen were thinking, What the hell is this? These are big, young, tough guys, after all, and Revelli's a lean, short, distinguished-looking older gentleman—a band director right out of central casting.
But when Revelli marched up to the front of that room, he commanded those football players exactly the way he commanded his band. In about five seconds, he had those big lugs in his back pocket! He rose to the podium, tapped his baton, looked right into their eyes and said, "JOHN PHILIP SOUSA CALLED THIS THE GREATEST FIGHT SONG EVER WRITTEN. AND YOU WILL SING IT WITH RESPECT!"
Wow! He had those guys out of their seats, and standing up STRAIGHT! And they sang that song right. I liked his speech so much, I invited Dr. Revelli back every year to teach the new guys what Michigan tradition was all about.
God, he was beautiful.
I also reached out to Bump Elliott, my predecessor, who was instrumental in my getting the job. He's a man of great class. How many former coaches go out of their way to make sure the guy taking over their job has everything he needs to succeed? That was Bump.
If he wanted to, Bump could have made life very difficult for me. Hell, he could have set me up for failure. His players loved him, really loved him—and remember, that first year I was coaching all his players. I was an outsider, they didn't owe me anything, and it wasn't like I was making life easy for them, either. Bump was a former Michigan All-American, and a whole lot nicer than I was! They could have complained to him—he was still working in the athletic office—and I bet some of them tried, but he would have none of it. He made it clear to everyone that he was on my side.
Bump showed me what he was made of a dozen times, never interfering, always supporting me, in public and in private. That was a great gift—one I remembered years later when it was my turn to pass the torch.
I made a lot of mistakes, but one thing I got right, after we started having some success, was never once claiming that I alone had put that team together—because I hadn't. And at no time did I ignore the guys who played here before I arrived, either. It was their tradition, not mine, that I was now in charge of, and I was going to show them I respected what they'd built here. That's why a lot of those guys are my friends today, great guys like Bob Timberlake and Ron Johnson, who kept Michigan tradition alive before I ever showed up.
I also went out of my way to get to know Fritz Crisler, who had been Michigan's coach from 1938 to 1947—he won a national title his last year—and the athletic director from 1941 to 1968, right before I got to Ann Arbor. He coached that Michigan team I saw when I was a kid peeking through the iron fence. Crisler invented Michigan's famous winged helmet, the modern field goal posts, and the platoon system, which created specialists for offense and defense. Without that, football as we know it today would not exist. This guy was a giant. I was pretty busy my first year in Ann Arbor, but I found time to go over to his house and sit in his basement, to listen to his theories and hear his stories.
I got to know the tradition that is Michigan. I studied it, I followed it, I got to know the people who created it, young and old. I don't think you can operate any other way. And I taught Michigan's tradition to my players, and to my coaches. Yost's Point-A-Minute teams, Crisler's Mad Magicians, the great players—Willie Heston, Bennie Oosterbaan, Bob Chappuis—the great stadium, the fight song, the rich history. I made it a point to learn about all of it, and pass it on.
Remember this: WHEN YOU ARE THE LEADER, YOU ARE THE ORGANIZATION. You are the company, the school, the team. You are it. Now if you want to act like some kind of jerk where guys who worked for the program and led the program and sacrificed for the program are not welcome to come back—well, you're not going to have much of a program. And you certainly won't have a family. But if you respect your history, you'll get a lot more in return.
When I coached at Ohio State and even at Miami, we had really good facilities. When I got here, I was shocked. Our locker room was on the second floor of Yost Field House. We sat in rusty, folding chairs and hung our clothes on nails hammered into a two-by-four bolted into the wall. Those were our "lockers"!
My coaches started complaining. "What the hell is this?" they said. "We had better stuff at Miami."
I cut that off right away. "No, we didn't," I said. "See this chair? Fielding Yost sat in this chair. See this nail? Fielding Yost hung his hat on this nail. And you're telling me we had better stuff at Miami? No, men, we didn't. We have tradition here, Michigan tradition, and that's something no one else has!"
Well, that settled that! And that's exactly what I taught our players.
After we knocked off the unbeatable Buckeyes in 1969, it was my duty to give away the game ball. I had a lot of good choices. There was Garvie Craw, who ran for two touchdowns. There was Barry Pierson, our senior defensive back, who grabbed three interceptions that day, ran back a punt to the Ohio State three-yard line, and turned in one of the single greatest performances I've ever seen.
But once everyone quieted down, I asked Bump Elliott to come up, and handed the game ball to him. Everyone got choked up, including Bump. Some guys were out and out crying—and I don't remember when I felt better about anything I've done in my entire life.
The night we won that game, Fritz Crisler was in a bed at U-M Hospital, watching on TV. As soon as the players and fans charged the field going crazy, Fritz grabbed a pen and paper and wrote me this letter.
SATURDAY NIGHT, 1969
MY DEAR BO,
I have had a lot of football thrills in my lifetime, but the masterpiece you and the Michigan team turned in this afternoon will stand prominently in the list. In game preparation against seemingly overwhelming odds, I have never seen a team better conditioned, technically, physically and mentally, to reach such a high inspirational peak, as you and your staff had those kids this afternoon. It was the greatest upset I have ever witnessed. The achievement will have a long life in the contribution to the richness of Michigan's enviable football history and tradition.
Even callous me shed a few uncontrolled tears from sheer pride and joy as the game ended. My very best to you and the team, always always.
How much does that letter mean to me?
I have it framed on the wall, right next to my TV, so whenever I'm watching a game, like Fritz was that night, it's right there. I've read it a thousand times.
You tell me how much that letter means to me.
John U. Bacon has written for Time, The New York Times, ESPN The Magazine, and Sports Illustrated, among others, earning national honors for his work. The author of five books on business and sports, he also teaches at the University of Michigan, delivers speeches across the country, and gives weekly commentary on Michigan Public Radio. His website is www.johnubacon.com