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.