Oct 16, 2011; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz (left) shakes hands with San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh at the end of the game at Ford Field. San Francisco 49ers defatted Detroit Lions 25-19. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber- USA TODAY Sports

Say it ain’t so, Bo!

“If I saw Bo Schembechler today, I would hope I had a rock in my pocket. I’d take it out and throw it at him.” -Lulu Harwell, 2001

Super Bowl Sunday is an icon of the American culture. The NFL has perfected the formula to achieve the unthinkable – a 3-hour snapshot viewed by roughly half of the adult population on the planet. In stark contrast to baseball, whose World Series unfolds in a series of contests played well past the bedtimes of a majority of interested viewers; the Super Bowl generates hyperbole for thirteen days before bursting forth in hi-def splendor at a time calculated to provide the utmost unoccupied audience.

As such, I feel compelled to take pause from the hot stove of speculation on the upcoming MLB season. Let’s allow the denouement of the fully-ripened 2012 NFL season to decant. The comparison and contrast of professional baseball and football is an enjoyable debate, certainly there are common threads worthy of consideration in 500 words or so.

Let’s see, reminiscence on the Lions Super Bowl success and how it inspired the Tigers to greater achievement, yeah, no. The Lions and Tigers both held league titles simultaneously – in 1935. They shared Briggs/Tiger Stadium from 1941-1974, but generally when the Tigers were strong, the Lions stunk and vice-versa. There is one inexorable link, however, from Michigan sports lore and Tigers management to Super Bowl XLVII, and it is neo-Shakespearian tragedy, indeed.

You may be shocked to learn that, for the first time, two brothers are head coach of the respective combatants in the Super Bowl. It’s true – it was in ALL the papers, and on ESPN too! The father of these two brothers was a successful head coach himself in the college ranks, and spent 7 years as an assistant coach at the University of Michigan. Coincidentally, the younger of the two boys played quarterback at U of M before embarking on a efficacious NFL career. Both men credit the Wolverines head coach with being a tremendous influence in their professional and personal lives. Jerry Green says that, “There is a lot of Bo Schembechler in Jim Harbaugh.”

Glenn “Bo” Schembechler – 234 wins, 13 Big Ten titles, fundamentally sound teams, conservative game plans. What possible connection could a bona-fide gridiron legend have to the Detroit Tigers?

On a dark December day in 1990, Bo Schembechler fired Ernie Harwell. It’s a Buddy Holly-Ritchie Valens moment; a day that lives in infamy – you remember where you were when you heard Ernie was canned.

Schembechler presided over the most ignominious moment in Tigers history, a  public relations blunder of colossal proportion. The story, as it has emerged, shifts more responsibility onto the management of WJR, as they wanted to go in a “new direction”.  Bo, however, quickly jumped in line behind the decision; after a poll revealed 97% against the firing he gruffly responded, “…it’s not going to change no matter how much clamor is made over it.”

This haughty rigidity of thinking should not have come as a surprise – his football teams off-tackled outmanned Big Ten teams into submission, yet fared significantly worse against tougher competition; an abysmal 2-8 in the Rose Bowl and 5-12 in bowl games overall. The “new direction” of  Bo’s regime was piloted on-air by the dreadful duo of Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun. Their caffeinated catch-phrases were a stark contrast to the laconic professionalism of Ernie and long-time sidekick Paul Carey.

A new sheriff/pizza magnate arrived in town in 1993 – he promptly ran the black-hatted Bo out of town and re-hired our hero, Harwell. The team on the field would get worse before it got better, but it felt right, and sounded like it should – The Voice of the Turtle had returned.

So far as we know, Miss Lulu never got to hurl that stone at Bo Schembechler. My guess, on Sunday she will be rooting for the brother that is least like Bo.


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  • Matt Pelc

    Great read as always, Scott.

    One thing to add, the Lions and Tigers made the playoffs last season, the first time that has happened since 1935!

    It always amazed me how beloved Bo was, then he was hated for so long because of the Ernie thing. I remember him saying he found Ernie’s call of the games “boring.” Well that’s what happens when you throw a football-first guy into a baseball position. Tom Monahan really didn’t know how to run a sports team, he just lucked out that the core of the team he bought in 1983 won a title the next year. He certainly let the farm system go to hell and led to the doldrums of 1989 to 2005.

    Finally, as much as I loved Ernie and Paul (and George and Al on TV), I didn’t mind Rick Rizzs, and actually kind of liked him. Rathbun was terrible, no question but Paul Carey retired the year Ernie was fired, so a team of Rizzs and Ernie taking turns calling innings like Ernie and Paul did wouldn’t had been so bad–it worked for Rizzs in Seattle with Dave Neihaus. But the way it was handled, Rizzs and Ernie really couldn’t have worked together–save for the 1993 season when Ernie was brought in to call three innings each game.

    Bottom line, Rizzs and Rathbun followed legends and that never goes well for the people in that position. I think that Rizzs’ successor on radio, Frank Beckmann, was far, far worse than Rizzs, but he gets a pass because he was a local guy who followed Rizzs and Rathburn, who no one liked.

    • scott byrne

      You are correct, no matter who followed Ernie he was in a lose-lose position.