By Matt Slovin, Managing Editor
Published November 7, 2013
In the last year of Bo Schembechler’s life, he made a final pilgrimage to Columbus.
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The Big Ten landscape felt reminiscent of The Ten Year War — there was the Big Two and the Little Eight. But other than that, Bo’s last trip to Ohio State, in the summer of 2006, was remarkably different than the rest.
For the first time in decades, he felt at home in his home state. Former Buckeye players swarmed and exalted him at a reunion. They treated him like one of their own. In some ways, he was.
Bo returned to Ann Arbor mystified. He couldn’t figure out why he’d been treated like a God this time around.
“Don’t you know what’s going on here?” asked Jon Falk, Michigan’s head equipment manager since 1974 and a long-time friend of Bo. “You’re the last link to Woody.”
Months later, Bo was gone and, with him, the way a generation of Ohio State players connected to their late, beloved coach.
Now, Falk is the new Bo in Ann Arbor — the last remnant of the Bo era in the Michigan locker room. At a recent home game, former All-American offensive tackle Ed Muransky waited for Falk to finish his duties. When Falk finally emerged from the locker room, he was greeted by a weeping Muransky. The 53-year-old, one of the largest linemen in Michigan history, had been moved to tears.
Falk knew why. In July, Falk announced he’d retire following this season after 40 years with the program. Muransky realized the last connection to Bo in the Michigan locker room would soon exit its doors for the final time.
“Jon links a lot of eras and generations,” said Tommy Amaker, a close friend of Falk, who coached the Michigan men’s basketball team from 2001 to 2007. “There’s a wealth of history with him. Having somebody around like that is invaluable. The lineage he can connect, I’ve always found very fascinating.”
Falk grew up in the small college town of Oxford, Ohio. During his freshman year at Talawanda High School in 1963, he approached the football coach, saying he didn’t want to play, but he’d be interested in helping the team.
The coach asked if Falk would like to be the team manager. Falk had no idea what a team manager was or what the position entailed. The coach told him that a manager does everything the head coach asks of him.
“To be honest with you, nothing has changed in all these years,” Falk said, gazing around the locker room he has called home for the past 40 years.
Since then, Falk has worked for six different head coaches, including Bo, between Michigan and his alma mater, Miami (Ohio). There’s no duty — from polishing helmets to brushing up the footballs on game days — that Falk takes nearly as seriously as remaining loyal to his coach. If you ask Falk, that’s the most important part of his job, and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for the men who have kept him on the staff despite the changes of the guard.
But none of them have meant more than Bo.
They made an odd couple, the two men from small Ohio towns. Bo, who hired Falk as a student manager at Miami, left for Ann Arbor in 1969. Five years later, he asked Falk to do the same.
After his college graduation, once Miami had hired him as the assistant equipment manager, Falk lived at home with his mother and grandmother. He prided himself on being the man of the house. Even after visiting Ann Arbor at Bo’s request and hearing him talk about all of the doors Michigan could open for him, he returned home and told his mother and grandmother he was staying.
That night, at 4:30 a.m., Falk was awakened by the sound of his mother coming into his bedroom. He could tell she had been crying.
“ ‘Jonny, it hurts me. It hurts me bad to tell you this,’ ” Falk remembered her saying. “ ‘But tomorrow morning, you’re calling Bo Schembechler, and you’re going to Michigan. Bo Schembechler and Michigan will take care of you.’ ”
It didn’t take long for Falk to realize Bo had been right — the opportunities his new job would afford him and the people it would allow him to meet couldn’t be found any place else.
Falk cherishes the friendships above all else, and he’s formed a lot of them since he came to Ann Arbor. He became close with former Detroit Tigers managers Sparky Anderson and Jim Leyland. All-time MLB hits leader Pete Rose is also a good friend of Falk’s — the two had lunch in Las Vegas over the summer.
And three times, his job has allowed him to communicate with the president of the United States. He met Bill Clinton when the Wolverines traveled to the White House following their 1997 national title.
In 2005, in a nationally televised game at Iowa, Falk broke his leg on the sidelines, forcing him to do something he’d never done in his time at Michigan — miss a game.
Then-coach Lloyd Carr walked into the trainer’s room after the game and noticed Falk was crying.
“ ‘You must be in unbelievable pain,’ ” Carr remembered telling Falk in a press conference. “(Falk) says, ‘No, I was just thinking next Saturday is going to be the first Michigan football game I have missed in 30-plus years.’ ”
The Monday after the Iowa trip, Falk had surgery. At 11 p.m., when the doctors had finished operating on his broken leg, Bo, his wife Cathy and Michigan Radio Network sportscaster Jim Brandstatter walked in.
They stayed for an hour, talking and laughing. For a while, Falk forgot he wouldn’t be on the sidelines for the first time in decades the next week.
“That’s the type of friendship I was able to have with Bo,” Falk said. “I valued that.”
Letters from well-wishers poured in from across the country, including one with a White House return address. President George W. Bush watched the game with the first lady and wanted to let Falk know he was in his thoughts.
But unlike his encounters with Clinton and Bush, Falk’s relationship with Gerald Ford was more than a quick handshake or a thoughtful note. It began when Ford evicted him.
In 1976, Bo called Falk into his office and told him that President Ford was returning to Ann Arbor and needed a place to stay. Bo didn’t ask but rather told Falk that Ford would be staying in his apartment that overlooked the U-M Golf Course — but on one condition.
“ ‘Is the place clean?’ ” Falk did his best Bo impression, which, having spent decades together, is quite precise.
“ ‘What do you think I am, an animal?’ ” Falk replied. “For two weeks, every day, Bo would say, ‘Hey Falk, is your apartment clean? The president is coming into town. The president of the United States.’
“Two days before he showed up, they threw me out of my apartment and brought in a professional cleaning crew.”
When Ford finally arrived at the pristine apartment, he chatted with Falk for a few minutes. Ford thanked him for the hospitality, assuring him that everything looked to be in order. Falk, never the type to shy away from an opportunity to stay in his coach’s good graces, made one request of the president, in exchange for the use of his bed.
“Make sure that Bo knows the place is clean,” he boldly requested of the commander-in-chief.
Falk could never fully repay Bo for thinking of him when the head equipment manager position opened up in 1974. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t try his hardest.
His attempts to keep his coach happy, which seemingly knew no bounds, ranged from the hilarious to the heroic.
One day, Bo walked into the office a little taller and a little prouder than usual. He had a big grin on his face and strolled over to Falk, lifting up his pant leg to reveal a brand-new pair of cowboy boots, courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys, emblazoned with his name.
That afternoon, players and coaches were gathering to begin practice, and uncharacteristically, Bo was nowhere to be found. He eventually made it into the equipment room and half-dragged, half-carried Falk into the coaches’ locker room, slamming the door behind them.
As Falk remembers it, Bo said, “Look, I’m going to have you do something to me. If I ever hear that you tell somebody what you’re about to do, I’m going to hit you in the face. Now pull these boots off my feet!”
Falk straddled Bo’s legs and yanked on the boots until they came off.
“He and I giggled about that for a good five minutes,” Falk said. “But that’s the fun you have with a coach. That’s the fun you have with the players.”
Then there was the time in 1985 when Falk rescued Bo. He was cruising along on Interstate 94 near Ypsilanti when he saw a hitchhiker up ahead.
“It’s almost 40 below. February. Snowing,” Falk remembers. “I say, ‘Wow! That guy’s got a hat that looks just like Bo’s hat.’ ”
Falk drove up a little further and noticed Bo’s car on the side of the highway. He pulled over right next to a red-nosed, red-cheeked Bo.
“ ‘I’ve never been so happy to see your ugly face in all my life,’ ” Falk recalled Bo saying.
Once Bo was in Falk’s passenger seat defrosting, on the way to the airport for a recruiting trip, he grumbled that three state troopers had passed him — the most celebrated personality in the history of Michigan athletics shunned mere miles from the Big House.
Falk listened to Bo’s complaint but didn’t fully sympathize.
“Bo, you gotta remember,” Falk said, “you were 6-6 last season.”
The last time Falk saw Bo — the Monday before he passed away — isn’t how he remembers him.
The feeble man Falk helped out of his car hardly resembled the powerful man that Falk truly believed could do anything. After all, he transformed a would-be farmhand from a rural corner of Ohio into the epitome of a Michigan man.
Bo stumbled out of Falk’s car and, despite the coach’s protests, Falk grabbed his arm and assisted him into his house.
Then Bo did one thing that night that reminded Falk that this was the same coach he’d grown up under, the one his mother had accurately predicted would take care of him.
One last time, Bo took his index finger, “like he always does,” Falk said, and jabbed it in the meaty part between his ribs.
“Falk, I know exactly what you’re doing to me,” Bo growled. “If something happens to me tonight, you’ll tell everyone, ‘I got him in the house. He was OK when I left.’ ”
Four days later, Bo was dead.
Falk and Bo had spent countless hours in a car together, but that final ride, like Bo’s last trip to Columbus, felt different. All Bo cared to talk about was his rivalry with Woody Hayes and their battles that would outlive both of them. It was as if the last link to Woody knew his time was coming, and he wanted to share every last story before it came and there was no one left to share them.
Falk takes the responsibility of being the last remaining tie to Bo in the Michigan locker room very seriously. He sees it as his duty to keep Bo’s presence alive there. When he addresses the team, like he did the week leading up to his last Little Brown Jug game against Minnesota earlier this season, Bo’s masterful speeches linger in his head.
Now, Falk’s time with the football team is coming too. He strolls across the locker room to set up the barricades that prevent anyone from stepping on the block ‘M’ logo on the floor. Then, he pauses and looks up. He has one more story to tell about his friend Bo.