Column: Why Bo Didn’t Go

Wisconsin's treatment of Schembechler had long-term impact
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

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.


  1. By DrData
    November 19, 2010 at 4:44 pm | permalink

    Bo is from a different era – the good old boy era.

    It is not fair to have the person who is retiring call up his/her chosen successors and offer the job to them -especially, if there is no scrutiny by those pesky committee members. Hiring committees go to quite a bit of trouble to make sure they are reaching a wide swath of applicants, not just clones of the previous worker.

    If Bo were still alive I’m not sure he’d see anything wrong with the way he was hired.

    Still, is an interesting story and window to the past.

  2. By Rod Johnson
    November 20, 2010 at 1:40 pm | permalink

    I have no love for Bo, but is “fair” really relevant in a search like this?

  3. By Sridevi
    November 20, 2010 at 9:35 pm | permalink

    John, do you know why UM plays “Don’t Stop Believing” at the football games? Seems out of place

  4. November 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm | permalink

    Dear Sridevi,

    Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” has become a standard at college football stadiums nationwide. The main reason, I’m guessing, is that it has a quick hook and students like to sing along to it. In Michigan’s case, at least, it probably helps that it includes the line, “Born and raised in South Detroit” — no matter that “South Detroit” would be Canada.

    Not a complete answer, unfortunately, but I don’t think there is one.

    Hope this helped.

    -John Bacon