Since the Michigan and Wisconsin football teams first played each other in 1892, Michigan has won a decisive 80% of those games.
The difference was one man: Bo Schembechler, who beat the Badgers 18 of 19 times. If Schembechler had coached Wisconsin, instead of Michigan, the record would be almost even.
That actually almost happened. And it all came down to a 40-minute meeting, 43 years ago.
Schembechler became the head coach of his alma mater, Miami of Ohio, in 1963, at the ripe old age of 33. After Miami won its league title in 1965 and ’66, Wisconsin came calling for the head coach.
Wisconsin set up an interview for 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. Bo walked in to face 20 guys sitting around a room, looking bored. One of the members actually fell asleep, right in front of Bo – which thrilled him. They also had a student who seemed to relish asking smart-aleck questions – which thrilled him even more.
The whole thing lasted just 40 minutes. The second Schembechler got out that door he walked to the nearest pay phone and called the Wisconsin athletic director, and told him to withdraw his name from consideration.
Schembechler already knew they were probably going to hire an assistant coach from Notre Dame anyway, so it was mostly for show. He didn’t appreciate that, either. But Bo knew one thing: even if Wisconsin still wanted him, he no longer wanted Wisconsin.
The process also made Schembechler realize his destination was the Big Ten, and he was going to hold out until he got there.
He turned down Tulane and Pitt, Vanderbilt and Kansas State. Finally, in 1968, Schembechler got a call from Michigan’s outgoing head coach, Bump Elliott, who was recruiting his replacement. Schembechler was interested, of course, but let them know he was not about to go through another dog-and-pony show like Wisconsin’s.
“Michigan didn’t need some silly committee or student rep to check me out,” Bo told me, “and I didn’t need any dime-store tour of the campus to appreciate what Michigan had to offer.”
Two days later, they sealed the deal with a handshake.
A year after Schembechler’s disastrous interview at Wisconsin, the Badgers offered a young basketball coach named Bobby Knight the top job. Knight called Schembechler at six in the morning for his advice.
“I can’t tell you what to do,” Bo said, “but I was unimpressed. If I was in your shoes, I wouldn’t go to Wisconsin.”
Knight didn’t, of course. Two years later, he took the job at Indiana.
The Badgers lost out on a football coach who would go on to win 13 Big Ten titles, and a basketball coach who won 11 more, plus three national titles.
Instead, Wisconsin got a revolving door of five football coaches and six basketball coaches, none of whom ever won a single Big Ten title. They did, however, get shellacked by the coaches they could have had, year after year.
And it was all because of one shabby, 40-minute interview on a Sunday night in 1967.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.