Back in 1969, Michigan didn’t know how to get ready for its Rose Bowl date with USC in Pasadena. Really, the Wolverines just wanted to ring in 1970 on a high note, says Michael Keller.
Despite a 10-3 loss during the Grand Daddy of Them All, they did that.
Thanks to the Trojans, the Wolverines had gone through the initiation process that New Year’s Day, which carried over into the next season. It was an invaluable experience, says Keller. However, and more importantly, his coach–the iconic Bo Schembechler–learned how to more effectively approach and manage the postseason.
“We were a little bit bewildered. We had never been to a Rose Bowl before. Bo and his staff had never been to a major bowl game before, and everything was just a complete first-time revelation,” said Keller, who played for Bo from 1969 to 1971 (freshmen were ineligible during his career). “‘What do we do? How do we do it?’ And of course, God bless Bo and his staff–and I love them all–they went into it like we were preparing for Ohio State…
…and so, we worked our asses off.”
Now, Keller wasn’t saying that the Trojans lacked focus or determination. They won. He and the Wolverines didn’t. But he is saying that USC had much more fun than the Wolverines, who were drilled on a regular basis by a new coach—sometimes twice per day–during a week of pre-Rose Bowl practices.
“Southern Cal was really enjoying all the trappings that go with being in the Rose Bowl,” Keller recalled with a laugh. “And we were out working our assess off. Not taking any time off. And not enjoying all the trappings that go with being in the Rose Bowl…”
In hindsight, strapping on the work boots like they were about to clock-in versus Woody Hayes and the Buckeyes wasn’t the best idea. The players didn’t particularly enjoy the more than 20 practices in seven days. They didn’t like missing out on the attractions, either.
For comparison, the Wolverines were allotted 15 practices between the end of the regular season and the 2016 Citrus Bowl versus Florida in Orlando. They’ve practiced hard during that span, of course, having worked out at nearby West Orange High School.
Coach Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s a lot like Bo. Not a carbon-copy, but a lot like Bo. Like the legend, he expects nothing but the best at all times, regardless of circumstances. He had said so–several ways–during the regular season.
However, when it comes to the bowl prep, Harbaugh appears to have deviated from Bo’s original plan. He has his own style, with splashes of his old coach, but he doesn’t always operate in the same manner.
That’s probably for the better.
Jake, Amara, Blake and Michael enjoying Thunder Mountain Railroad. pic.twitter.com/IpqszKTioq
— Michigan Football (@umichfootball) December 29, 2015
“(Bo) later said: ‘I wish I would have let these guys all enjoy the fact that they were playing in the game rather than preparing for it like we were preparing for Ohio State,'” said Keller. “He wishes he would have allowed us to enjoy the rewards rather than working us like dogs.
But we were used to him working us like dogs. We didn’t know any different. I was a sophomore, for Christ’s sake, at the time (1969). I didn’t know any different. And nobody had experience before, so we just felt that’s the way things were done.”
— Michigan Football (@umichfootball) December 29, 2015
As he aged and grew more comfortable at Michigan, Bo changed his demeanor and angle to the postseason, says Keller. Despite a rough 0-7 start in bowl games (5-12 overall), Bo allowed his players to cut loose and take in their surroundings. They never lost by more than 10 and competed head-to-head with some of the top programs in the nation.
Three of those first seven bowl match-ups were against USC, which never won by more than eight points during those meetings.
Keller sees such competition, if not better, for Harbaugh. Win or lose on New Year’s Day, Bo’s protege has won over alumni, former players and fans due to a 9-3 start. Jim’s grown up since Keller last played for Bo. But he’s still the same energetic and driven soul he was more than 40 years ago.
“I think it’s terrific. I am so… I think Jim–I mean, I knew him when he was a little kid, running around the sidelines with us when we were playing at Michigan,” Keller excitedly replied when asked about the Wolverines’ progress. “He was like a little rugrat–you know, one of those sideline kids that you’re always kind of shooing away.
But I’ll tell you what, I am so pleased and delighted with what he’s been able to do with the Michigan football program. I think everything is going to be so upward…”
Most of the time, Harbaugh doesn’t like comparisons. Don’t ask him about the NCAA versus the NFL, Michigan versus Stanford or Player A versus Player B. Comparisons diminish, he says. But he’ll just have to embrace the head-to-head with Bo. It’s just part of the territory.
While nobody will ever be identical to Bo, Harbaugh has taken the ideas and lessons from yesteryear and applied them to his program–it is, without question, his program.
Somewhere out there, Bo’s proud. And he’s probably OK with Harbaugh taking it a little easier on the guys as they await their meeting with Jim McElwain’s Gators on New Year’s Day.
“These guys are coming together as a potentially great team,” Keller said. “The recruiting backs it up. The enthusiasm and talent of that coaching staff is there. I have great expectations for what’s to be seen in the future.”