Bo's Lasting Lessons

The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership


By Bo Schembechler

By John Bacon

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There are very few coaches held higher esteem than Bo Schembechler. As coach of the University of Michigan football team, he won 13 Big Ten titles and finished as the winningest coach in their storied history. But beyond the wins and losses, Bo is best remembered for the remarkable impact he had on his players and fans alike.

In Bo’s Lasting Lessons, the coach draws on his years of experience, using first-person anecdotes to deliver timeless lessons on leadership, motivation and responsibility. His distinctive gruff voice leaps from the page.

With pithy language, Bo explains that true leadership requires the compassion to actively listen to your people, and then to have the courage to do what is right every time.

A big believer in peer pressure and in always making his players accountable for their actions, Schembechler has coached athletes who went on to become professional football players, doctors, lawyers and CEOs.



You Better Start with Your Heart

Let's start with first things first: passion. Because without that, nothing else I'm going to tell you in this book is going to be worth a damn. It just won't do you any good.

Because the fact is, you're never going to be able to lead others effectively unless you put your whole heart into what you're doing. If it's just a job to you, it's going to be just a job to them. And trust me: You're not going to fool them.

So you need to find something you really love to do, because otherwise you're going to hate it. And if you hate your work, you'll never put in the kind of effort the guys at the top are putting into it. You'll lose!

Once you figure out what you love to do, don't worry about the money or the prestige or anything else. Those things won't make you happy if you hate your job.

For me, it was easy to figure out what I lovedfootball! The game got me at an early age, so when people talk about all the sacrifices I'm supposed to have made pursuing this crazy lifein time, in money, in statusI have to laugh. They weren't sacrifices to me. I got to coach! And that's all I ever wanted to do.

I'm from Barberton, Ohio, and went to Oakdale grade school, where we had baseball, basketball and track teams, but no football. So you could only play football if you were willing to get to the high school and practice with the freshman teamand it wasn't easy. You had to go down the hill, across the tracks, over the canal and walk five miles to get to Barberton High on the north end of town. And if you were going to get there on time, you had to run.

Nobody else in my class would go with me, but as soon as the school bell rang each day, I started running down that hill and across town for freshman football practice, and I kept it up for two years. When I was in eighth grade, near the end of the football season, the Oakdale basketball coach wanted me to quit freshman football because I was a starter on his team, too. I said, "No way. I've got to play in the last football game!" So that's what I did.

They drove us over to Akron in this dump truck with two benches in the back for the players to sit on. A dump truck! It took us an hour to get there and an hour to get back, with the wind and the rain and the cold coming in, whipping all around. This was no school busheck no. That would have felt like a Cadillac to us!

We get there, and no one's in the stands. No one. I mean, the Akron parents weren't even showing up for this one. Guess they were smarter than we were.

You consider the whole thingthe daily run to practice, the distance to our games, the dump truck, the empty standsand you'd have to say we were a little crazy to do this. But I loved it. I knew I'd rather be in the back of that damn dump truck going to play some football game in the freezing cold in front of nobody than standing in a nice warm gym wearing shorts playing in front of a big crowd.

Football is what I loved.

By the time I got to tenth grade, I'd already played freshman football for three years. There was no question I was going to be a starter on the high school varsity. But the question was where our coach, Karl Harter, was going to put me. Our two big plays were the reverse and the reverse pass. You've got to have righties to run those plays, and fast ones, too.

Well, I was a lefty, so there's one strike. And we had guys who could run a lot faster than I could. There's two strikes. So I went to Coach Harter and said, "Where do you need the most help?"


"Then put me at guard!" Hell, I didn't care. I just wanted to play. And I started the next three years.

If you want to know why I've always loved the big lugs on the line the mostwell, you can thank Coach Harter for that.

Even then, I knewand I don't know how to put this without sounding like a jerkbut I knew I had a way with people, and the reason I had a way with people is because I liked 'em. And the reason I chose to coach football instead of baseball or basketball is because, of all the athletes out there, the football players were the ones I liked and respected the most. And I think that showed in the way I coached them.

When I graduated from Miami of Ohio, I knew I was going to be a coach. I was as sure of that as anything I knewand nothing was going to stop me! To be honest, I always thought I'd be a high school coachand that was fine with me. I didn't care about money or fame or any of that. I just wanted to coach.

And let me tell you, now that I'm looking back on the whole thing: I made the right call!


Seek Mentors, Not Money

When you're just starting out, it's better to make peanuts for a great leader than it is to get some big salary from a mediocre one.

But one of the biggest mistakes I see young coaches makeand young businessmen and doctors and lawyers, too, for that matteris thinking their first job should make them rich or famous. When you're in your twenties, those things shouldn't matter. Maybe they never should. They didn't to me. But especially when you're young, big money doesn't matter. Big names don't either.

Good organizations matter. Good bosses matter.

It would've been a big mistake for me to take a job as an offensive coordinator for some hotshot who really didn't know what he was doingand there are plenty of them out therethan to make nothing running errands for Woody Hayes when he was just starting out at Ohio State, struggling to build a winning program, and no one really knew who he was.

And I know this because that's exactly what I did.

If you want to become a great leader, you need to prepare yourself to become a great leader, and the best way to do that is to study great leaders. I worked for Doyt Perry at Bowling Green, Ara Parseghian when he was at Northwestern, and Woody Hayes at Ohio State. Every one of those guys is a Hall of Fame coach. I worked sixteen-hour days doing everything they asked me to, and I didn't get paid squat.

But it was the best training any coach in America ever received. I studied them, I watched them every second, I knew them cold.

This is what I learned.

When Woody Hayes left Miami of Ohio in 1951, right after my senior year, to take the head coaching position at Ohio State, I didn't have to think too long to accept his offer to go with him. This was the first of my two stints with Woody, which formed the bookends of my twelve years as an assistant coach.

But back then, there was no such thing as a graduate assistant, so he got me a job down at the tax department in Columbus, where I handed out the stamps that served as sales tax rebates for church groups, charities and other nonprofits. I got paid $100 a month. I wasn't paid a cent to coach.

When the coaches needed coffee, I got the coffee. When they needed someone to get their laundry, I got it. When they had to pick up recruits at the airport, I picked them up. I did all their grunt work, and I did it without complaining.

What did I get in return? I learned how to recruit, I learned how to run a practice, I learned everything I could, from top to bottom, from one of the greatest coaches who ever lived. I even learned a thing or two about alumni relations.

Ohio State had no athletic scholarships in the early 1950s, so the alums would get the players jobs in town. Well, Woody's first year at Ohio State was one of the worst in Ohio State history. The Buckeyes finished 4-3-2, and adding insult to injury, they lost to a mediocre Michigan team, 7–0.

Not long after we got back to Columbus, Woody decided to have a staff meeting at his house, a modest little home at 1711 Cardiff Road. He had one of those old Bell & Howell 16mm projectors, and while we were watching the film from the Michigan game, he was getting hotter and hotter, until he finally picked the damn projector up and heaved it against the wall, smashing the whole thing to bits. "I will not subject the people of Columbus to that kind of football!"

Now, I'm just a wide-eyed twenty-two-year-old kid, sitting in the back of the roomand I'd already played two years for Woody at Miami of Ohiobut that made quite an impression on me. He was serious!

A few days later we were back in our coaches conference room, when one of the staffers opened the door and said, "Woody, the alums are going to cut all the players' jobs downtown!"

We were stunned. "All the jobs?"

"All of them."

Obviously, the alums weren't happybut they didn't realize who they were dealing with. "Well, if that's the case," Woody said, "then I have a message for them: Screw 'em! I'll pay the players myself!" He wasn't kidding. Woody was ready to mortgage his house and pay their tuition himself, right then and there, and I never doubted for a second he'd do it. But when the alums heard about his resolve they decided that would make them look pretty bad, so they backed down.

The next year, the Buckeyes go 6-3, they beat a 12th-ranked Michigan team, 27–7, and the alums were on Woody's side from then on. Before he was done, he rewarded them with thirteen Big Ten titles and five national crowns.

What did I learn? If you cave in to outside pressureI don't care if it's alums or stockholders or special interestsyou're done as a leader. Woody was willing to risk everything, even his home, to do it his way.

As soon as I finished that 1951 season, I served two years in the United States Army. I boarded a bus to Cleveland headed to Camp Rucker, Alabama, where the air feels like a wet rag on your face, then coached at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, for one season.

The next year, 1955, Doyt Perrywho'd been one of Woody's assistants at Ohio Stategot the top job at Bowling Green, and he asked my old buddy Bill Gunlock and me to join him. That didn't take a lot of thinking, either.

Now, Doyt was the sweetest guy who ever came down the pikeeveryone loved himbut one day, Bill and I got into a big argument with Doyt about some defensive scheme or other on our way to the office. The two of us were walking up the steps behind Doyt, going on and on about why we should use this strategy we'd come up with, until finally Doyt got to the top of the steps and whipped around with his finger pointing right at us. "Now I know you two guys are a lot smarter than I am and you know more football than I'll ever know and you have a million great ideas. But I've got some news for you: I am the head coach! "

Bill and I looked at each otherand we both laughed! We didn't have any doubt about who was in charge after that. There was a lot of clarity in Doyt's message. That settled that, and we never questioned him again.

You can be sure I took that lesson with me to Ann Arbor. Just ask my assistants.

The following season, 1956, I left Doyt and Bowling Greenwith his blessingsto become an assistant for Ara Parseghian at Northwestern University. I had made it to the Big Ten! I knew that's where I wanted to be, and I was working for a great coach. Of course, everyone remembers Ara when he led Notre Dame to a couple national titles, but a lot of people don't realize he led the Wildcats to some of their best seasons before that.

Ara was not a big ego guy, he was great with players, he was a wonderful motivator, and he understood the game so well he could come up with things no one else had thought of. He was probably the most imaginative coach I'd ever seen, always adapting his plays to his players instead of the other way around like most coaches do. Heck, we used to call his practice field "The Laboratory," because that's where he'd try every trick in the book on Mondays, testing this and experimenting with that, just to see what might work that Saturday.

Before Ara arrived, Northwestern hadn't had a winning season in five years, but in his first year Northwestern went 4-4-1, and everyone was encouraged. But in Ara's second season, 1957, everything went to hell. We lost nine gamesevery single game we played! For a coach, that's just about the most difficult situation you have to face.

We could keep our opponents down to one or two touchdowns, but we couldn't score for our lives. And I was working with the offense!

Losing creates all kinds of other problems toopoor morale, nagging injuries, lackluster effort. The players were spending more time in the PR office than in the weight room. It was just a mess. I never experienced anything like that in all my years of coachingand thank God for that.

I learned an awful lot from Ara in my first year at Northwestern, but I learned a heckuva lot more from him that second season, when we lost 'em all. And what I learned was how a real leader leads when things aren't going his way.

Ara treated the staff as though we were winning every game. He never gave the slightest inclination that we were the problem. He not once blamed any assistant or any player for any loss we suffered that year. NOT ONCE.

"Stick with it, guys, and we'll get through this," he'd tell us. "We're going to be okay." We all kept busting our butts for Ara, working past midnight, doing everything we could to get that guy a victory.

I'm not saying there wasn't some bitching among the players. When you're losing every game, every player thinks he deserves more playing time. But I promise you this: There was a whole lot less bitching on that team than I've heard on teams that won half their gamesand there was absolutely no, but no, bickering among the coaches.

And that wasn't even the most impressive thing Ara did that year.

Stu Holcomb was Northwestern's athletic director, and his son Chip was a backup quarterback on the varsity. In the middle of this losing streak, Stu kept cranking up the pressure for Ara to start his son. At one of our staff meetings, Ara laid the situation on the table. Then he asked us point-blank: "What do you think?" The thing is, there wasn't anybody on the staff pounding on the table to make a quarterback change just because we were losing. We knew there had to be a ton of pressure on Ara to put Stu's son in, but our quarterback wasn't the problem. And that's exactly what we told him when he asked us. He just nodded.

Another coachmaybe most coacheswould have caved in to their boss just to save their hides. But Ara held firm. He didn't change quarterbacks, or even consider doing it. And every one of us who walked out of the coaches room that day felt the same way I did: Ara Parseghian is a stand-up guy. He is a leader. I want to work for this guy!

And that's why that losing season didn't break Ara's back: Because he's a confident guy, and he knew he could coach. His staff remained dedicated to him and his program the entire season.

You'd think my two years at Northwestern would have been a horrible experience, but it wasn't. It was a great experience, because Ara had put together a stellar staffthey're all still good friends of mine, especially Alex Agasebut mostly, it was because Ara was there.

The result? Put this down: Ara Parseghian lost every game that year, but the next year his team went 5-4Northwestern's first winning season in eight years.

When Ara took the Notre Dame job five years later, in 1963, he left Evanston as one of only three coaches in the last century of Northwestern football to post a winning record. And of course, from there he won two national titles and Coach of the Year at Notre Dame. Don't tell me he didn't deserve it.

But that 0-9 year? He didn't get any awards for that, but let me tell you: THAT was the most impressive year of his coaching career.

When Woody came calling for me the second time, in 1958, the Buckeyes had just won their second national title under himthe same season Northwestern hadn't won a game at all. Still, I had a hard time deciding whether to leave Ara. Think about that. I'm working for the worst team in the country, and the national champs want to hire me, and amazingly, I'm debating it! In fact, I had made up my mind to turn down Woody and stay with Ara when Alex Agase invited me to play some pool in his basement.

Alex is a big bear of a manhe played linebacker for the Cleveland Brownsand he got around to business pretty quickly. A politician, he isn't.

"I hear Woody's offering you a job," he said. He took his shotcrack!and sat down. "What are you going to do?"

I picked up my cue and lined up my shot. "Alex, I'm turning it down. I like the guys here, I like what Ara's doing, and Northwestern is going to be successful."

Alex stood uphe's a lot bigger than I amand said, "Now you listen to me, you dumb sonuvabitch. Don't you dare turn that job down. You're going to Ohio State!"

I swear to you I was not going to go leave until that momentbut Agase could be pretty persuasive! I left Ara and Northwestern to return to Ohio State as Woody's assistant in 1958, and I stayed there until I became the head coach at Miami in 1963.

Now, here's the kicker. In my first year back with Woody, the Buckeyes were coming off a national championship year and Northwestern, the team I just left,was of course coming off that 0-9 season. And I'll be damned if Ara's Wildcats don't beat Woody's Buckeyes, 21–0Ohio State's only loss all year! In fact, as soon as I left Northwestern, Ara's teams won three out of four against Ohio State.

Well, that'll teach me.

My second year back in Columbus, 1959, Ohio State goes 3-5-1 and finishes eighth in the Big TenWoody's worst season ever. You have to wonder: How did I keep getting hired? I must have been the worst luck charm in the world.

I have to tell you an aside, to prove my point about money not being the most important thing. In 1962, I'm making $6,000 a year coaching for Woody. He'd tell us, "I don't care what I make, so I don't care what you make, either."

Get this: By the mid-1970s, Woody had already won five undisputed national titles, he was one of the most successful coaches in America, and probably the most famous person in the entire state of Ohio. And he was making $29,400lowest in the Big Ten. And you know who was making the second-lowest? Yours truly. You can check it. And neither one of us cared. What we cared about were Big Ten titles, and no one else in our league went to the Rose Bowl during the decade we were both coaching.

Well, even if Woody didn't care about money, the Ohio State administrators did. They were embarrassed by Woody's salary, so they went directly to Woody, three years in a row, and damn near begged him to take a raiseand he still wouldn't do it! President Ford had asked every American to do everything he could to keep inflation down, and Woody figured that included him.

So when he told us way back when that he didn't care what any of us made, including him, I guess you'd have to say he meant it.

During my second stint with Woody, a businessman in town asked me out to lunch and offered to double my salary if I would work for him as a real estate appraiser.

I didn't hesitate. "Hey, I'm already doing what I always wanted to do. If it's outside of football, I'm not interested. But," I told him, "Bill Gunlock's working with me, and he's got four kids and no money, so you might want to talk to him."

Bill won't know it until he reads this book, but because of that lunch, that businessman sought out Bill, he hired him, and Bill applied all the things we learned coaching football to business, and did very well for himself. When I called Bill in 1989 to tell him I was about to retire from coaching, and I was feeling good about it, he said, "That's funny, because I'm about to sell my company and retire, too."

"Really? For how much?"

Let's just say it was many millions.

"Why you son of a bitch!"

Even if I gave ten speeches a day, I couldn't catch Bill in a thousand years. But I don't care, so long as Bill keeps picking up the tab for our dinners. We both got what we wanted.

The simple question is: Are you doing what you always wanted to do? I always think of that poor SOB who gets up every day to go to a job he doesn't even like. Well, hell's fire. How do you do that? I have no ideaand I know Woody didn't either. We wouldn't trade our coaching careers for anything in the world.

After my slow start as Woody's assistant, we won a national title my fourth year back, in 1961. But what I learned from Woody was this: He was the greatest teacher and the hardest worker I have ever seen in my entire life, to this day.

Where Ara was humble and innovative and easy to work with, Woody could be arrogant, stubborn and just plan difficult. Very difficult. But this was a very complex man, with the most brilliant intellect I've ever seen.

Woody was not innovative. He didn't waste any plays trying to fool you. That was not his game. No, his strategy was to teach his team fundamental techniques better than anyone else, and win game after game through simple, mistake-free football.

He coached the kind of teams that you simply did not want to get behind in the first half, because he was going to make it just about impossible for you to come back in the second half. You couldn't move! He'd just grind you downand man, was that demoralizing when you were on the other end of it.

That's another lesson I took to Ann Arbormuch to Woody's chagrin, I'm sure.

I remember when Lee Corso was Indiana's head coach in the 1970sthis was before he went on to become a college football expertand he tells us at the preseason Big Ten meeting in Chicago one year that unless we opened up the recruiting season to run year-round, eight of the ten coaches in the league photo that season were going to be gone in two years.

I just laughed. I told Corso, "If we had year-round recruiting, maybe you'll outwork memaybebut I guarantee you this: No one in this league will ever outwork Woody Hayes. It's just not possible!"

Put all those things together, and what do you get? I worked my tail off, I didn't make a dime, but I learned everything I needed to know from three of the greatest leaders the game has ever seen.

Smartest move I ever made.


Wait for the Right Opportunity

What did I do with all this knowledge I acquired from Doyt and Ara and Woody?

I didn't use it to sell myself, that's for sure. I used it to become the best assistant coach I could be. I had no qualms about being an assistant coach, and I thought I was the best offensive line coach there ever was!

I have never applied for a job in my entire life. I have never, not once, prepared a résumé. I just figured if I worked hard and got really good at this, someone's going to say, "This guy is good," and I'd get plenty of opportunities. And I was right.

Don't worry about marketing yourself. Just be good at what you're doing now and enjoy it, and things will take care of themselves. Yes, I know in some fields you have to get your résumé out and all that, but I think it's overestimated. In most businesses, word gets around pretty fastand hey, that's what headhunters are for.

That was the final lesson I learned from my days as an assistant coach: Don't waste your time and energy looking for the next job. Take care of the job you've got now. If you're good at what you're doing now, they'll find you. Trust me, word will get out there, and they'll find you.

They always do.

And when that happens, don't jump at the first offer, just because you think it's a promotion. Being an assistant for a great organization is better than being the head honcho at a place where you're being set up for failure. You've got to wait for the right opportunity, working for the right peoplebecause if you're impatient, you're going to regret it.

I left Woody and Ohio State to become the head coach at Miami of Ohio in 1963, and that was a darn good job. The cradle of coaches! You're talking Colonel Earl Blaik, Paul Brown and Weeb Ewbank, not to mention my coaches, Sid Gillman, Woody and Ara.

In my six years as head coach in Oxford, Ohio, we won 70 percent of our games and a couple league titlesand it didn't take too long at a place like that before bigger schools started calling.

I never made a pitch for any job, because I figured if they didn't already know about me and what I was doing, they wouldn't have called me in the first place. And I certainly wasn't going to beg for any job, no matter how good it looked, because I already had a good one at Miami.

After we won our conference title in my third and fourth seasons at Miami1965 & 1966Wisconsin called. From the outside, it seemed like a pretty good job. Wisconsin's a good school in a great league. It was about ten o'clock on a Sunday night when I walk into this meeting room to face twenty guys sitting aroundand some board member falls asleep, right there in front of me! Now what does that tell you?

They also had a student on the committee, and this kid asks how I would handle Clem Turner, a Cincinnati kid, who was always in trouble. Well, how the heck do I know how I would handle Clem Turner? I've never met him! And that's exactly what I told that kid. But I'm thinking, Who the hell's running this show?

The whole thing lasted maybe forty minutes, and the second I was out that door I walked right to the nearest pay phone and called Ivy Williamson, the Wisconsin athletic director, and told him to withdraw my name from consideration. Keep in mind, I'd already learned they were going to hire a guy named John Coatta from Notre Dame, so the whole thing was just a big dog-and-pony show, anyway. And I didn't appreciate that, either.

But I knew one thing: I didn't want that job, whether they wanted me or not.

Now here's a funny thing. After I'm back home in bed, at about five in the morning, the phone rings. It's Bob Knight, who was the head coach at West Point at that time, when he was maybe twenty-five years old. We'd met a few times at Ohio State, when I was an assistant under Woody and Knight was on the Buckeyes' national championship basketball team.

Knight says, "Bo, you went up to Wisconsin and interviewed for that job. You know they've been after me for the basketball position, so what do you think?"


On Sale
Sep 10, 2007
Page Count
352 pages

Bo Schembechler

About the Author

Bo Schembechler was the winningest coach in the history of the nation’s winningest college football team. As coach of Michigan, he had a record of 234-65-8, the fifth best tally of all college football coaches in history. He was in demand across the country for his speeches on team work, motivation, and inspiration, and was the bestselling author of BO.

John U. Bacon is a top sports journalist based in Michigan and a long-time associate of Bo Schembechler.

Learn more about this author