The words have echoed for the past quarter century:
"If you think my career has been a failure because I have never won a national title, you have another thing coming. I have never played a game for the national title. Our goals always have been to win the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. If we do that, then we consider it a successful season."
So said Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler shortly before retiring following the 1989 season. Success without a national title at the country's all-time winningest program though?
Replace the Rose Bowl with the Sugar, the Big Ten with the SEC, and could you believe such a statement from Nick Saban if he coached at Alabama for two decades and didn't win a national title?
For years Notre Dame fans have poked fun at Schembechler and the regional Michigan attitude of not caring about national titles. So when Schembechler was put on the ballot for inclusion into the SBNation Hall of Fame, well it was once again time to rediscover that sugar coated record of his.
First let's just admit that Bo was in fact a very good coach---I'm not here to outright bash everything he achieved while at Michigan. He did win 194 games over 21 seasons in Ann Arbor, 5 outright Big Ten titles, and shared 8 more league titles. His .795 winning percentage at Michigan puts him in the upper-tier historically of college football coaches, and this was the third best percentage nationally for a program throughout his time in Ann Arbor, behind only Oklahoma and Nebraska.
Schembechler is also beloved for earning a winning record over hated rival Ohio State (11-9-1) and for resurrecting the Michigan football program that had gone just 51-42-2 in the decade prior to his arrival.
These are all commendable accomplishments in major college football.
Yet, what exactly are the ingredients in that shiny .795 winning percentage and at least a shared Big Ten title in 60% of Schembechler's seasons at Michigan?
The first chink in the armor is the weakness of the Big Ten during this era. There was a reason the conference used to be called "The Big Two and Little Eight."
Big Ten Winning Percentages 1969-89
|NATIONAL RANK||TEAM||WINNING %|
I'm sure there will people who will say "The league was so competitive and everyone just beat each other up!" or "College football was smaller back then so even the mediocre teams were quite strong!" but the fact is the Big Ten was close to awful during Schembechler's era. There is some truth to college football being more well-rounded and competitive on the whole back then, but this was still an especially putrid era for most Big Ten teams, and on in which the top two teams horded the majority of the talent.
Take a look at the past 20 years within the league:
Big Ten Winning Percentages 1992-2011
|NATIONAL RANK||TEAM||WINNING %|
Even when you factor in the watered down version of today's college football (more teams, more competition with I-AA teams, etc.) this is still pretty enlightening evidence.
70% of the Big Ten couldn't even be bothered to win half their games during Schembechler's era.
Over the past two seasons Michigan has played just 7 teams who finished the season at .500 or worse, complete with a solid .571 winning percentage for their opponents. Notre Dame played 9 such teams but with a tougher opponent winning percentage of .601. The point is that anywhere from a quarter to a third of games played today are against .500 or worse teams with occasional spikes over 40%.
Schembechler played 131 such games, good for an even 53% of his total matchups at Michigan.
Even with a shorter regular season than today, Bo's Michigan teams didn't face a schedule with less than 6 teams at .500 or below until 1981---13 years into his career in Ann Arbor.
14 out of his 21 seasons on every schedule he faced had at least 6 teams at .500 or below.
The 1970's schedules in particular---where Schembechler had the highest winning percentage of any coach in the nation---were super soft.
In fact, Bo didn't face a regular season schedule where his opponents won at least half their games until the previously mentioned 1981season when they were dead even at 62-62.
13 of his total 21 seasons saw him face schedules where the opponents winning percentage was below .500.
Especially appalling was the 1971 schedule which saw Michigan run the table during the regular season, but the Wolverines faced just 3 winning teams (7-4 Northwestern, 6-5 Michigan State, and 6-4 Ohio State) with an opponents winning percentage of .368. Even after the (predictable) Rose Bowl loss to 9-3 Stanford, the 1971 opponents winning percentage rose to just .403 percent---truly awful.
So now we've established that Schembechler played very easy schedules, in a conference with one peer and typically just one more decent opponent to take care of each season. There's not a whole lot a coach can do when the competition is weak (we'll have more on this next week in regards to Ara Parseghian's Notre Dame teams) but every program faces inevitable challenges against the cream of the crop from time to time. Surely such a winning coach as Bo Schembechler won his fair share of big games when they arose, right?
No, not really.
Bo's biggest win---and some say Michigan's biggest win in school history---came during his first season in 1969 when the Wolverines hosted undefeated and defending national champion Ohio State who were riding a 22-game winning streak. That day, Michigan upset Ohio State 24-12 and Schembechler is credited with this program changing victory initiating the Wolverines dominance back on the Big Ten and national stage once again.
However, in what would become a running theme throughout his career, Schembechler's Wolverines would go on to lose the Rose Bowl to Southern Cal---a team Notre Dame tied that year by the way.
The more interesting part is that after the 1969 win over Ohio State, Bo never won a game for the rest of his career against a team that finished the season with 1 loss. Most people could forgive playing a weak schedule if you took care of business when you played the country's elite, but Schembechler went 0-16-1 at Michigan after that defeat of OSU in his first year.
What's more, he was just 5-10 against teams who ended the season with 2 losses.
247 total games.
6 wins over teams with 1 or 2 losses.
You'd be hard pressed to find a coach in any sport across any generation who won at such a high level but almost never won big games. Schembechler is like the poor man's version of Jerry Sloan in the college football world.
It makes you wonder how the legacy of Schembechler would be altered if Michigan played Notre Dame in the early part of his career in Ann Arbor. He ended up just 4-6 against the Irish---winning the first game in '78 of the resumed series---but that was the only time he beat a Notre Dame team with a winning record.
If he was just 1-6 versus Notre Dame teams with a winning record, is it too bold to say that the Irish likely go at least 7-2 if they played Michigan from 1969 to 1977?
Moreover, Schembechler was a dreadful 5-12 in bowl games, including just 2 Rose Bowl victories (out of 10 appearances, losing his first 5) and 3 major bowl wins overall in a 21-year career at Michigan. Those major bowl wins came against 9-3 Washington in 1980, 9-3 Nebraska in 1985, and 10-2 USC in 1988.
In each Rose Bowl victory season, Michigan lost to Notre Dame. In fact, their win over the Trojans in the '88 Rose Bowl was done a month earlier by the Irish in Los Angeles by twice as many points.
Is Schembechler a Hall of Fame coach? Perhaps, but this piece puts the famous "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions" into some proper context. It should be, "Those Who Stay Will Sometimes Beat Ohio State."