Friday, June 12, 2015

Bo Schembechler and Thom Darden

The setting is Ann Arbor, Michigan, November 22, 1969. The media called this the beginning of the 10 Year War. Ohio State coached by the legend, Woody Hayes was bringing his number one ranked Buckeyes with a 23 game winning streak to play the Michigan Wolverines. The media hyped the Buckeyes to the extent and said that they were worthy to play the mighty Minnesota Vikings [that year with Coach Grant they scored the most offensive points and gave up the fewest points] in the NFL. OSU were favored to steamroll the Wolverines by 17 ½ points on that Saturday. Coach Hayes called this his best team ever.  The year before his Buckeyes slaughtered, Michigan 50-14. To make matters worse, and rub salt in the face of the Wolverines, Hayes, late in the game, on the 7th touchdown had his team run for a two-point conversion. Hayes said because he couldn’t go for three points when asked” why” by the media.

That Saturday’s matchup pitted Coach Hayes against his protégé and first year Michigan head coach Glenn Edward “Bo” Schembechler.  Schembechler, years earlier. was a position coach for Woody Hayes when OSU was the number one ranked team in the country. The team captain on that football team, whose position coach was Schembechler, was Gary Moeller. On this Saturday, the former Buckeye captain Moeller was now a position coach for Bo Schembechler.

On that historic Saturday, the 17 ½ point underdog, University of Michigan whipped that mighty team from Columbus, Ohio, and the transformation of Michigan football once again reached prominence. In fact, during the 10 year war between the two coaches and teams, the winner was the Big Ten conference champion and was eligible to play in Pasadena, California on January 1, In the Rose Bowl. Eight players and coach Moeller from that game are profiled. Did these 9 create the new legend, was it simply Bo’s imprint or was it a symbiotic relationship between the coach and players that created the dominance?

During that historic season, the Wolverines were 3-2 after five games. In the sixth game, they were losing at halftime. They came together and won the next 24 out of 25 regular-season games. In that 1969 season, they began the blowout of the Big Ten teams before their final game of the season. They demolished Iowa, the week before 51 – 0. They were ready to take on Ohio State, right then and there, as they were all singing returning from Iowa City. That next week it snowed in Ann Arbor, and the coaches shoveled the field so players could practice. That week of practice was like no other as the intensity was fierce and brutal. The players were high, motivated and eager. Prior to taking the field on that November, Bo smashed the chalkboard with ferocity and  as the players left to go to the tunnel to reach the playing field, the seniors started throwing around and smashing furniture- Thom was scared. Going through the tunnel, players were mesmerized and floating on air with their goal ahead of them. Team captain senior, Jim Mandich turned and faced his teammates with tears, spittle and spouting unintelligible words with both fists shaking high in the air before he led his band of brothers onto the field.

The Wolverines kicked off to the Buckeyes. Woody Hayes’s team went down the field and eventually scored a touchdown. However, they missed the extra point, making the score. OSU 6 and the Wolverines 0. Then Ohio State kickoff to the Michigan. And, Michigan went down the field and scored a touchdown and converted the extra point. Michigan 7 and Ohio State 6. Again, Michigan kicked off to OSU. Once again, OSU went down the field and scored. This time, Ohio State went for a two-point conversion, but were stopped. The score is now OSU 12, and Michigan 7. The Buckeyes kicked off and the Wolverines marched down the field, scored a touchdown and kicked the extra point. Michigan has the lead, 14 to OSU 12. The Buckeyes never scored again on Michigan scored 10 more points in the half, making the final score Michigan 24 and Ohio State 12.

To gain a sense of the character of those Michigan Wolverines, the following is a brief glimpse into the profile of one of those players-Thom Darden. Thom Darden lived in the projects in Sandusky, Ohio. An only child, he was the Apple of his parent’s eyes and experienced tough love. He was reared by parents who did not cut corners and expected him to go to church, sing in the choir and develop his pitching control by practicing throwing the hardball to his athletic father. Thom, the southpaw gained fame as early as age 7, when he demonstrated the ability to effectively and superbly pitch with either hand. Thom was scheduled to pitch in a playoff game when a bee stung his pitching hand. To make a long story short, Thom pitched with his right hand and that brought media attention.

Being intelligent, he was admitted into the college prep curriculum in the Sandusky schools. One problem immediately arose was that he was a significant minority in school. His athletic friends and buddies were separated from him in school. He early on, experienced racism as he knew he had to keep his adolescent emotions in check, and that it was a no-no as far as asking to dance with a white girl, and a potential lynching as far as asking a girl for a date. It didn’t matter that he was an athletic star in multiple sports-this was the 60s.

This cerebral jock during the off-season, studied the game with his high school coaches. And during his senior season, at the request of his coach changed positions because the middle linebacker was injured. Thom was a team player, and even received honors playing a very different football position. In fact, he was recruited by Bo Schembechler who was then the head coach at Miami of Ohio. At that meeting, Schembechler had him working out and Thom wanted no part of him. Thom expected a steak dinner and instead was told to put on his workout clothes and put through drills. Thom thought he was crazy. Coach Hayes also recruited Thom. At the Darden household, Coach Hayes used abusive language, and the elder Mr. Darden, a religious soul did not want that man to coach his boy. The Darden family was impressed by Wolverine coach Bump Elliott and Thom left for Ann Arbor in 1968. During Thom’s initial meeting with Bo, in 1969, Bo told him to shut the door and “you thought you got rid of me didn’t you.”

It’s safe to say that Thom was insecure about his football ability, and that he disliked Bo Schembechler. If his father knew what Bo was like on the football field, he would have made sure that Thom transfer to another school. Thom became Bo’s first Wolfman an integral part of the defense-in some ways, like a defensive quarterback, In that he was responsible for defending the pass and stopping the run.

This talented athlete wore his hair in an Afro and became part of the “mellow men” [7 black athletes] coined by Sports Illustrated that lived together. They had integrated parties, shut down the engineering building during protests and Thom was free to openly date anyone he chose. Further, on the field, he excelled and became an All-American and made a spectacular interception that resulted in Coach Hayes receiving two 15 yard unsportsmanlike penalties, Michigan winning the game and ESPN calling it one of the greatest interceptions of all time and that it defined college football.

Graduating from Michigan, Thom became the first round draft pick of his Cleveland Browns. He became all pro, became their single season and career interception leader. He was also ranked in the top 50 of the all-time Cleveland Browns. He was a superstar with a superstar reputation as the doors opened for him and the women chased him. He had an ugly media blown, divorce and eventually retired. While with the Browns, he assisted coach Schembechler by implementing a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive scheme. The Michigan position coach, at the time, which he taught was Jack Harbaugh [Jim Harbaugh’s father].

His relationship with Bo Schembechler changed as Bo talked to him about potential coaching positions in the NFL, about recruiting, and about the loss of Bo’s son. From being the student, Thom became Bo’s teacher and equal.

Thom experienced an identity disturbance after leaving professional football. He had to go from being a highly valued celebrity to a regular person on the street. The adjustment was not easy, and Thom was involved in the media industry, the college- Pro agent industry. He is now in business for himself-he assists companies and corporations finding capital to purchase or reinvest in their own companies.

He is married to Melissa, reared a Catholic, and assists his biracial daughter in adjusting to the white culture. Like his father, he too is involved in the church.

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