Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 30, 2007

The Tao of Bo

John Bacon tackles football icon Bo Schembechler's life lessons.

David Downs

Recent research indicates leaders are born rather than made. Brain scans of visionaries show abnormal activity in parts of the cortex handling meta-contextual organization and visuospatial information. Steve Jobs really does think different.

"Bo's message isn't complicated, but it's hard to hear."—John Bacon, on Bo Schembechler (pictured)

For those of us who weren't born with the deep structures to be the next Rupert Murdoch, a simple, concise guide to leadership has arisen from the football field, of all places. Bo Schembechler was once the winningest college football coach in history with an unimpeachable 194-48-5 record over 20 years at Michigan. And while his bullheadedness and temper produced lots of Jobs-ian headlines over the years, his collapse from heart failure in November 2006 brought out more than 20,000 mourners in Ann Arbor to celebrate the values that he taught them on and off the field.

Just 10 months later, 43-year-old fellow Ann Arbor resident and sportswriter John Bacon has become the most popular of Bo's disciples, as he travels the country promoting the September publication of his book Bo's Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership. (You can hear Bacon and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, October 3, in New York's Lower East Side.)

The book has nothing to do with brain retraining. Instead it emphasizes three deceptively simple life rules: Work hard, be loyal, and, above all else, be honest. As the book reveals, those precepts are easy to say, but hard to practice.

Bacon says he convinced Bo to do the book because America is moving away from Bo's values, not toward them. "I think as a culture we're losing it," Bacon tells Gelf. "One of the reasons I think it's so well-received is because we live in this era of Enron and most of this stuff. Bo's message isn't complicated, but it's hard to hear."

The chapter heads are pretty clear-cut: "You Better Start with Your Heart," "Throw A Bucket of Cold Water," and "Scrap the Script." The chapters are filled with Bo basically telling funny, inspiring stories that enforce such points, and Bacon exquisitely captures the tone and tenor of a Bo pep talk.

"Every time I left an interview, I left it jacked," says Bacon. "Bo has that effect on you. Obviously one big help is Bo's voice. It's very definitive and you're not expecting anything wishy-washy. He was a very clear character and I spent so much time with him. We talked once a month for 10 years and once a week for two. I probably had more time with the guy than any journalist ever."

Deft use of italics and exclamation points!!! replicates a militaristic football coach's delivery, and the chapters read a lot like an afternoon shooting the breeze with a gruff, sorta scary guy who had faith in his marrow. An excerpt reads: "You take a guy who has that much desire to be a Michigan Wolverine—who's willing to go through all those two-a-days without any guarantee of even getting in a game—well, we'll find a place for a guy like that. And we'll treat that guy exactly the same way we treat Dan Dierdorf, or Jim Harbaugh, or Jamie Morris. Like dogs, of course!"

Bacon says it took seven rewrites to nail Bo's fast and lean style. "I wanted lessons, stories and conclusions to every chapter," Bacon says. "If it has a great story but no lessons, it doesn't stay in. I didn't want just 'haha' memoir stuff; 89 percent of this book is stuff that hasn't been written about. This is the unknown Bo."

Which is why so many people have saw fit to ask Bacon what Bo might think about events in 2007, like the Iraq War, or the Wolverines' awful 0-2 start to this year's season (they've won three straight since).

Image Description

John Bacon/photo by John Shultz

"I would refer them to Chapter 5, 'Rebuild with the Basics.' Find the thing that's wrong in your program and fix just that," Bacon says, speaking on Friday, before the most-recent Michigan win. "Those first two games we didn't see Michigan football. There was no blocking, there was no tackling. But after the Notre Dame rout and the last win, we're on track to be a Big Ten team this year."

Bacon calls Schembechler a "bleeding-heart Republican," someone more populist than anything else. Bo didn't understand the avarice and misanthropy of America's tarnished political and business demigods. "He constantly read up and he was not impressed with our political, business, or educational leaders. With Enron he used to say, 'You mean to tell me those guys did know right from wrong?'" Bacon says. "We both felt American leaders are soft when they need to be hard, but they're also hard when they need to be soft."

Bacon relates a tale where even the president of the US had to take a number when Bo was dealing with his players. Those you lead need to know that they come first, says Bacon. "You can't lead people unless you like people. So, if you don't, get out."

Editing the book down to a quick 80,000 words proved hard, because Bo is an epic storyteller. One tale that got left out is the time Bo, from the passenger's seat, told one of his ex-players to speed down the Michigan interstate so they could make a speaking engagement in Lansing. Bacon relates it: " 'Dammit Doucet, mash it down,' Bo tells him. And Doucet says 'Dammit, Bo, I can't get a ticket. I sell insurance now.' Bo grabs him and says, 'Now you listen to me. I've been living here since '69 and I've been driving state highways since that time and I have never once received a ticket on the state highways. I say, 'Mash it down!'

"Bo never was sentimental, but it's hard not to get sentimental when you read about what Bo would do if he had one more week coaching Michigan."
"Doucet takes it up to 90 miles per hour and sure enough he sees the lights in his rear-view mirror. The cop pulls alongside him and points to the shoulder. 'Dammit!' Duocet slams his hand on the steering wheel. Then at the last minute, he decides, 'What the hell,' and he slides his seat back about a foot so the cop can get a good look at who is in the passenger seat. Bo leans forward and waves, and the trooper points down the road: 'Full speed ahead.' They got a police escort at 90 miles per hour all the way to Lansing."

The story doesn't have a direct lesson, says Bacon, except to illustrate how Bo's loyalty to Ann Arbor was returned many times over. Such loyalty to one employer is hard to practice in an age of outsourcing and LinkedIn, but the underlying lesson is valid, says Bacon.

"It's always tempting to think what's around the corner is better. Bo got offered four times as much to coach Texas A&M, but he stayed. He said, 'What am I supposed to do? Go in front of my guys and tell them I lied? That I was leaving?"

Ultimately, a softer side of the giant emerges. Bo mellowed later in life and reprioritized family and community service over career, says Bacon. Bo never was sentimental, but it's hard not to get sentimental when you read about what Bo would do if he had one more week coaching Michigan. "I found it fascinating that he didn't want to coach the game," says Bacon. "He wanted to coach the week leading up to the game against his archrivals: from the Sunday videos right through the Friday night room checks before the Saturday game. He believed a leader's job was to prepare his men, then credit them for any success."

And if you had one more day with Bo, Mr. Bacon? "We'd have the tape ready to go. We would sit and watch the '69 Ohio State game against his archrival and mentor Woody Hayes. This is some Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker-style stuff. We would break that thing down once and for all. He liked that one, since it was a 24-12 whooping. And after that, just sit down and pursue what we already pursued: What was it all about for you?"

Bo would probably say leadership is all about character, and it goes without saying that even in death, Bo Knows Leadership.

David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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- Sports
- posted on Feb 14, 09
Eugene Nunamaker

David could you tell me if Bo had a contract with Michigan when he was considering Texas A&M? Just curious. A friend of mine criticizes Rich Rodriquez for leaving WVU because he was under contract. I have told him that he had a clause that he could buy out of. Anyway if you know about the Bo situation I would truly appreciate some info.

Article by David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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