That Rose Don't Bloom in January
A few weeks ago Bo Schembechler loudly declared Michigan should stop playing Notre Dame. He said that the rivalry wasn't really there. He said it wasn't special anymore. That playing Notre Dame was like playing another conference team. He said Notre Dame was just clogging up the schedule when we could be playing someone like Texas or Georgia (actually, he didn't say Georgia, but I wish he did). He said we should be playing top teams instead. I disagree with him.
I realize going against Bo is somewhat taboo, as Bo is, well, Bo. He is a larger than life figure in Michigan athletics. He vanquished the armies to the south more often than not, and led us to the promised land (Pasadena) ten times. From 1969-1979 Bo's Wolverines had the third highest winning percentage in the country, trailing only Oklahoma and Alabama. He left Michigan as the school's winningest coach, surpassing the great Fielding Yost, with 195 wins. He captured or shared 13 Big Ten Titles in 20 years. Fittingly, his last game as Michigan head coach was in the Rose Bowl against Southern Cal. Today he's still a vocal supporter of all things Michigan. He was responsible for Gary Moeller's hiring and to a large extent for Lloyd taking over when Gary "left".
Despite all this Bo's statement came off, for some reason, as sour grapes. At the time of his statement, I had no clue how Bo performed against Notre Dame. I didn't know what his reasons were for the statement. However, it didn't seem right to call for another opponent in place of Notre Dame. Wasn't Notre Dame a top school again? Didn't we want to get back on the winning side of the equation before moving on? Why say Notre Dame needs the game more than we do, when in reality, neither team "needs" the other at all?
The last thing Michigan should do is call off a rivalry game when we've lost 3 of the last four in that rivalry. (That's something Notre Dame does. Boston College anyone?) The last four years we've played Notre Dame with more talent on our side of the ball, and thrice we've walked away with our tails between our legs. If you're going to walk away from a series, walk away with your head held high. Not when you've gone from a dominating record against to a merely mediocre one. It struck me as odd that Bo of all people would call for that. Hell, I've got a Bo bobble-head over my TV at home (drives my wife crazy). 4 yards and a cloud of dust. Grind it out and win. Never quit. However, his call for a new opponent didn't sound that way. It made me feel like he wanted us to walk away from unfinished business. And that's not how I remember him.
Because it struck me as odd, I did a little delving into the record book to get a better impression of the man that arguably shaped Michigan's football tradition during the latter half of the twentieth century.
Bo's Early Years at Michigan
When Bo took over at Michigan in 1969, the Wolverines had won ONE Big Ten title since 1950 (the longest drought in school history). The program was in shambles following 10 mediocre years under Bump Elliott. Mediocre doesn't cover it. Horrible. Michigan had five losing records during Elliott's tenure as head coach. Making matters worse, Michigan posted a 3-7 record against Ohio State during that time.
Despite all that, it didn't take Bo long to adjust to the Big Ten. In his first year Schembechler led Michigan to an 8-3 record and a conference co-championship. At that point Michigan had lost the last two meetings against OSU and Hayes was trying to repeat as National Champions. Michigan wouldn't oblige, thumping OSU 24-12. Bo's victory over OSU was the first win over OSU since 1966. The win ruined OSU's 22 game winning streak and ended their quest for a repeat National Championship. Woody Hayes later admitted that squad was his best football team ever. Michigan's season ended in Pasadena, with Michigan dropping the Rose Bowl to USC 10-3.
This was the start of something special at Michigan. In one season, Michigan was back. Two years removed from a 4-6 season, the Wolverines were back on the top of the Midwest football world.
In 1970 Bo piloted the Wolverines to a 9-1 record, including two lopsided blow-outs of Illinois and Iowa, yet dropping their season finale and national championship run in a 9-20 loss to OSU in Columbus. In 1971, Michigan avenged their loss, topping OSU 10-7 in Ann Arbor, capping a perfect regular season 10-0 and returning to Pasadena to play Stanford. Michigan dropped a heartbreaker to the Cardinal, 12-13, again ending Michigan's National Championship dreams the last game of the year.
Hayes spent the next few years ruining Michigan seasons. It wouldn't be until 1976 that Michigan would return to the Rose Bowl, or beat OSU. In 1972, 1973, and 1974 Michigan would be perfect heading into the regular season finale against OSU only to lose or tie the buckeyes. Michigan lost two of those games by a combined 5 points. As a result, Michigan stayed home for the holidays while someone else took their place in Pasadena. 1975 was rough on Michigan too. Two early season ties to Stanford and Baylor (in Ann Arbor) and losses to OSU and Oklahoma (Orange Bowl) soured Michigan's season.
1976 was a different story. Michigan cruised through the regular season, save a car wreck against Purdue. Michigan strode into Columbus 9-1, and demolished OSU 22-0, returning to the Rose Bowl to face Southern Cal. Again Michigan lost to Southern Cal, putting up only 6 points in Pasadena.
The next two years ran the same course as 1976. Dominating wins, a close loss to someone unexpected, followed by a whupping of OSU, and a Rose Bowl loss. In 1978, Michigan walked into South Bend and handled the Irish 28-14 on their way to a Conference Co-Championship.
Closing out his first decade as head coach at Michigan, Bo's Wolverines had a rough year. Michigan lost to Notre Dame in Ann Arbor, and dropped games to Purdue and OSU, before losing to North Carolina in the Gator Bowl.
At the end of his first decade Bo had amassed 96 wins in 115 games. Even with three ties, his winning percentage was .835. Michigan had its only "undefeated" season under Bo in 1973, going 10-0-1 with the tie coming against OSU. Michigan captured 2 outright Big Ten Titles and shared 6 more. During seven of those seasons Michigan had 10 or more wins. In five of those seasons Michigan had one loss or less. Michigan was a 5-5-1 against OSU from 1969-1979, a substantial improvement over the previous 3-7 record. Michigan was 1-1 against Notre Dame and only dropped a single game to MSU. Bo had 13 consensus All-Americans during that time.
Unfortunately, Michigan never won the last game of its season. Even during Michigan's amazing run from 1972-1974, Michigan could not get over the top against OSU to secure a Rose Bowl Bid and possible National Championship shot. During Michigan's first 5 Rose Bowls under Bo the Maize and Blue scored 51 points total. Michigan's highest point outputs were 20 (v. Washington 1978), 12 (v. Stanford 1972) and 10 (v. Southern Cal 1979). Michigan failed to win a post season game despite going to 7 bowl games during that time.
During that time the Big Ten truly was a two team conference. Michigan or Ohio State owned outright or shared the Big Ten title with one another ten of Bo's first eleven years. The only exception was in 1978 when Michigan and Michigan State split the Big Ten title.
The Second Decade
The 1980's got off to a somewhat precarious start when Michigan dropped games to Notre Dame and South Carolina, leaving it at 1-2 to start the season. However, the Maize and Blue rattled off 9 straight wins, including a 9-3 barnburner in Columbus, before finally capturing that elusive Rose Bowl crown against Washington (23-6). You may remember that Michigan team had some guy named Anthony Carter. He was good. This was Michigan's first Rose Bowl win since 1965.
The next four years were frustrating for Michigan fans. In 1981 Michigan finished 3rd in the Big Ten, and lost the regular season finale to OSU in Ann Arbor. However, Michigan beat Notre Dame and closed out the season with a win over UCLA in the Bluebonnet Bowl (yes, that was actually its name). In 1982 Michigan dropped games to Notre Dame, Ohio State, and UCLA (twice, regular and Rose Bowl). So despite winning the conference championship outright, the year ended sour. 1983, Michigan beat OSU but finished 9-3, losing to Washington, Illinois, and Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.
1984, Michigan had its worst season under Schembechler's care going 6-6 with losses to Washington, MSU, Iowa (shutout), Purdue, OSU, and BYU (in the Holiday Bowl).
Such a middling season didn't sit well in Ann Arbor and Bo quickly righted the ship. Going 10-1-1 in 1985, Michigan beat OSU, Notre Dame, and Nebraska in the New Year's Day Fiesta Bowl. In 1986, Michigan was cruising through the regular season before dropping a stunner to Minnesota in the Big House. Even so Michigan topped OSU and ND that year, and finished the season 11-2 following a 7 point Rose Bowl loss to Arizona State.
Over Bo's last three years at the helm he was 2-1 against OSU, winning his last two games against the Buckeyes including a 28-18 send off in Ann Arbor. However, Bo would never beat Notre Dame again. In 1987, 1988, and 1989 Michigan started off 0-1 after losses to the Irish. Michigan finished 1987 8-4, with losses to ND, MSU, OSU, Indiana, yet closing the season with a win against Alabama in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Bo did go out in style. He captured outright Conference crowns in 1988 and 1989, both years leading Michigan to the Rose Bowl. Bo won his second Rose Bowl ring in 1988, and capped his career in Pasadena with a 10-17 heartbreaker to USC.
During Bo's last ten years he captured two Rose Bowl Rings, a Fiesta Bowl win, a Holiday Bowl win, and a Bluebonnet Bowl win. Michigan never missed the post season during the 80's. Michigan went 6-4 over the Buckeyes. Michigan won four outright Big Ten titles and shared a fifth. Ohio State claimed only one outright conference championship during that time and split two more. Michigan went undefeated in Conference play twice, 1980 and 1989. Eleven consensus All-American's dotted Michigan's roster during that time. Bo left the Michigan sideline with 195 wins under his belt and a program restored to national prominence.
On the other side, Michigan lost more Rose Bowls than they won going 2-3. During that time Michigan's winning percentage slipped to (a still remarkable) .750. Finally, Bo finished with a losing record to Notre Dame during the 80's going 3-5 against them.
What It All Means (To Me)
It is nearly impossible to criticize Schembechler for his accomplishments at Michigan. He took a struggling, former national power and returned it to glory. 13 Big Ten titles and 10 Rose Bowl appearances speak to that. He built a program based on openness and integrity which remains strong to this day.
If there are questions regarding Bo's tenure, they revolve around his Rose Bowl record 2-8, his postseason record of 5-12, his style of offensive coaching, and his performance against top ten teams. During his tenure Bo went 7-27-1 against top ten teams. Bo also never won that elusive National Championship. Michigan wandered into Columbus undefeated four times only to leave with a loss or a tie. When Michigan made it out of Ohio unscathed it dropped the Rose Bowl and their National Championship hopes to Stanford in 1971/1972.
During Bo's 21 year tenure, Michigan came close but never captured a National Championship. However, Southern California who Michigan played in the Rose Bowl several times captured 3. Perennial foe Notre Dame took 3 National Championships home. During that time not a single Big Ten team won a NC. This either speaks to the Conference's toughness in that no one could escape unscathed, or that the conference was not as strong as we'd like to believe. During the 80's I would argue the former, however during the 70's I would argue the later. Even so, with Michigan's dominance of the Big Ten during Bo's tenure, one would expect at least a single National Championship to be delivered. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Arguably, despite the superior won/loss record of the 1970's, Bo's work in the 1980's was his best work. Michigan finished its season on a winning note five times, winning five bowl games. His record against OSU was 6-4. The Big Ten was expanding into the super conference we know it as today, yet Michigan was its most dominant member.
Bo is a larger than life figure in Michigan history. He seems above criticism. Where we roast Lloyd for a 7-5 season, his success is comparable to Bo's last ten years. Not once during Carr's tenure at Michigan has there been an investigation of wrong doing by boosters or players. Under Carr Michigan has a National Championship and two outright Big Ten Titles and three shared titles. Just like with Bo in the later years Carr struggles to get his team ready for that first road game. In the 80's Michigan was 4-6 in road openers (though Bo was 10-1 in road openers from '69-'79). As we saw in the 80's, College football changed for the better and became more competitive. Today it is even more so, and Carr's .750 winning percentage is something to be admired.
Before I looked at the record books and re-read some of the Schembechler lore I really didn't know why Bo was so important to Michigan history. He just "was". But a closer look truly drives home how crucial he was in building Michigan into the power it is today.
The Notre Dame Rivalry
Despite all he means to Michigan, here I think Bo is wrong to call for an end to the rivalry. I think Michigan should play Notre Dame every year. I think the two most storied football programs in college football history should meet every year. I think the early path to the National Championship should be determined by the outcome of our game in either Ann Arbor or South Bend each year.
Am I debasing the Ohio State matchup? Not at all. The UM/OSU match up determines who wins the Big Ten. More often than not it determines who has the opportunity to win a national title or who let one slip away. Look at how many times OSU came in undefeated and left empty handed. Look at Michigan's records in the early 70's or 2004. If you emerge with a victory, you're playing for a National Championship. If you lose, your rival spoiled your shot.
Because of Notre Dame's media and fan base cache, even with a two loss record they will always be in the Championship hunt. However, if one of those losses is to Michigan you can take the Irish our of that equation. If they beat us fine, they may have to play us again in the title game. If we lose to them and OSU, fine, let OSU or Notre Dame wear the crown. I want to know we played the best teams every year.
I want to beat both schools each year. I want to circle the ND game and the OSU game with the same amount of venom in my heart. If Bo wants a another tough non-conf, make it a Texas, Georgia or Oregon in place of CMU or Ball State. Let Michigan play and beat the best. If Notre Dame couldn't find its ass with a map, both hands, and a chair, I'd say fine, let them go. That's not the case. They are considered among the country's elite and its up to us to beat them.
I understand now, far better than before, how important Bo is to Michigan. But that doesn't make him right on this point.