Bo Schembechler died today.
To most people in the country, I suspect, the only impact of this statement is an impression of the passing of another sports name, perhaps sports legend, who will eventually be replaced in the public’s eye with the next big-name coach at a big-name university.
Bo was more than that.
Bo represented the spirit of a school, if not a whole state, in his embodiment of integrity, determination, team-orientation. Bo was the face of what many Michigan students hoped to one day achieve: overwhelming success without compromise, determination to succeed while maintaining absolute standards of conduct. Bo was determined in what defined success—a Big 10 championship—and in what was necessary to be successful—sacrifice for the success of the team.
Bo wasn’t just a faceless coach who answered questions with pre-canned statements that we’ve heard thousands of times.The press loved him because he was as consistently honest with them as he was with anyone whom he met. To many who weren’t used to hearing honest thoughts from a player or coach, Bo seemed like an oddball. To those who actually listened to what Bo had to say, he was inspiring.
A close friend of mine, a professor who only ever observed Bo from thousands of miles away, liked to make fun of Bo by mangling his surname and mocking his sometimes over-the-top press conferences. Similarly, academicians in general tend to dismiss sports and sports personalities as being trivial and insignificant. A professor at Michigan liked to recount how a dean at Michigan once told him that the worst thing that ever happened to the University of Michigan was that it had a great football team because that took focus away from the school’s excellence in academics (Michigan often vies academically with Berkeley for top state univerisity honors).
What all of these people don’t recognize is the importance of characteristics embodied by people like Bo. There’s a reason that sports metaphors are often applied to other fields of endeavor—they embody behavior and characteristics that are valuable in many areas outside of the sports arena. Are the great achievers in Silicon Valley more similar to towering sports coaches or to brilliant lone scientists? Are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates (okay, not Silicon Valley), Andy Grove, Larry Ellison better associated with the successful engineering professors or with successful coachs?
Bo was passionate about his job and inspired others to be passionate as well. So do the great entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Many Michigan alum, who observed Bo’s determination with uncompromising standards, unconsciously try to embody Bo’s values in their lives today, no matter what profession they are in. Great leaders embody those same characteristics that were so abundant in Bo, although most leaders rarely experience the same public scrutiny, pressure and expectations.
To those who were at Michigan during Bo’s tenure, his passing seems like a weakening of life’s foundation—one can’t imagine Michigan and Bo not co-existing. More importantly, the ideals that he represented have lost a steadfast representative. I have to admit, after today, the phrase “Go Blue” for me won’t carry as much weight as it used to.
For those who would like to read better accounts of Bo Schembechler's relevance, the following capture things nicely: