Longtime University of Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk announced this week he will retire after the football season. Falk has held the job for 40 years. But that won’t put an end to the litany of Falk Stories – many of them revolving around his former boss, Bo Schembechler.
Falk first met football coach Bo Schembechler in 1967. Falk was a freshman working in the equipment room at Miami of Ohio, and Schembechler was the head coach. Schembechler seemed pretty gruff to Falk, so he avoided him. That was not going to work for long.
Falk graduated from Miami in 1971 and stayed on as the football team’s assistant equipment manager. He lived at home with his mother and his grandmother and took care of them. In 1974 Bo invited Falk to interview in Ann Arbor. Falk had never lived anywhere but tiny Oxford, Ohio, so he was a little apprehensive about going to such a big place.
When he returned, he told his mother and grandmother that he was going to turn down Coach Schembechler’s offer because he did not want to leave the two of them by themselves. That night, around four in the morning, Falk’s mother came into his room, crying. She said it hurt her to say it, but he must go to Michigan. “I know Coach Schembechler will take care of you.”
His mom was right. The first few weeks Falk was in town, he ate almost every dinner at the Schembechler’s home.
But that didn’t mean Bo was easy on Falk. When Bo wanted a whistle or a pylon or a blocking dummy, he wanted it that second, and whatever it was, usually came from Falk. Patience was not Bo’s greatest virtue.
Bo once told me why he was so demanding of his staff. “Jon Falk’s job is not to fit a few hundred helmets every season. His job is to help us win Big Ten titles, and he does that by being the best equipment manager in college football. And when we win a Big Ten title, he gets a ring, too.”
Falk has 17 of those rings by now – and he has a good chance for his 18th this fall, with Michigan the likely favorite to win the division.
Falk has also earned the devotion of over a thousand Michigan football players. When they come back, their first stop is usually Big Jonny’s office.
Falk also earned Bo’s respect. And there’s no better proof of that than having Bo give you a hard time – and letting you give it back.
A few weeks after the team finished the 1984 season with a 6-and-6 record – the worst of Bo’s career – Bo was driving along I-94 toward Detroit on a nasty January night. It was all snow and slush and bitter cold – and his car broke down. He got out to hitchhike, thinking someone had to recognize him. But everyone passed him by, even three state troopers.
Finally, someone pulled over – Jon Falk. Bo jumped to the passenger side, covered in ice, and he was still so cold he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. “Where’re you going, Falk?”
“Coach, I kind of have plans.”
“Well, you’ve got new plans now! You’re taking me back to Ann Arbor.”
On the way back, Bo told him his story. “Falk, a hundred cars and three state troopers flew past me when I was standing on the side of the road. Can you believe that?”
“Well, Coach, we did finish 6-6 last year.”
“Now that’s a man,” Bo told me, “with too much job security.”
One day, Bo needed a buck for the vending machine. Falk was walking by, so Bo asked him. Falk pulled out his wallet, and produced a dollar – but when he did so, Bo noticed a lottery ticket in Falk’s wallet.
“Now what the hell do you have that for?” Bo asked. “We pay you well, and you will never have a better job than this one!”
Falk didn’t hesitate. “Coach, the minute my ticket hits, I’m walking straight into your office, and I’m gonna tell you, ‘Jon Falk is outta here!’”
Bo just stared at Falk, then finally started to grin. “Big Jonny, before you do all that, you better make damn sure you have all six numbers.”
Just a couple days after Bo left Michigan to work for the Detroit Tigers, he came back to the football building to work out – but his name had already been removed from his locker. Bo said, “Falk, what the hell is this?”
Falk just shrugged, and gave Bo that line from The Natural: “They come and they go, Hobbs. They come and they go.”
They do, but I don’t know where the lettermen will go now.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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