Schembechler left lasting legacy at Michigan

It won't be the same without him.

Not Saturday. Not ever.

Michigan and Ohio State will play a huge football game Saturday afternoon, but something profound will be missing. Glenn E. "Bo" Schembechler will be missing.

One of the very few events that could mitigate the towering anticipation for this matchup between the Wolverines and Buckeyes has stunningly transpired, on the eve of the game. Bo Schembechler has died. Just when it appeared he might stubbornly live forever.

It's a flabbergasting, karmic coincidence -- the Hall of Fame coach dying the day before the biggest of all 103 games in a rivalry he helped enliven. Emotions will be in powerful conflict in Ohio Stadium on Saturday. The game will still be played at a passionate level that Bo would both demand and applaud, but there will be shadows across many hearts in two states.

It's a terribly sad loss for the winningest football school of all time.

Precious few men in the history of the game have exerted such a dominant influence over a single football program for as long as Schembechler did Michigan's. The only two living icons who come to mind are Joe Paterno at Penn State and Frank Broyles at Arkansas.

It's been Bo's Way at Michigan since he arrived in 1969. His successors have come from his family tree: former assistant Gary Moeller, followed by former assistant Lloyd Carr. The very ethos of the program remains distinctly Schembechlerian in almost every way. It's no coincidence that the man maintained an office in the athletic department to this day.

But it's a sad loss on the other side of the great rivalry, too. Anyone who's ever felt his or her pulse pound faster at the sight of maize and blue or scarlet and gray will mourn today.

Michigan-Ohio State wouldn't be Michigan-Ohio State without Bo. It will forever be a highlight moment of the football calendar, but a flame that helped heat this game like no other has flickered and expired.

The twin titans who transformed a great rivalry into the greatest rivalry both are gone now. Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes defined it, pure and simple.

Bo was the only man in the Midwest tough enough to go jaw-to-jaw with Woody -- Schembechler's coach at Miami (Ohio) in 1949-50 and boss at Ohio State in the early '60s -- and win more than his share.

The head-to-head record is Bo 5, Woody 4, with one unforgettable tie. Before Schembechler arrived, Hayes was 12-6 against Michigan.

But those are mere stats, and their personal rivalry went far beyond stats. You could persuasively argue that the Schembechler-Hayes showdowns during 1969-78 are the apotheosis of college football.

Those games embodied everything that makes the sport so compelling: sky-high stakes, immense pride, intense competition, unwavering will, extreme physical and mental toughness, great athleticism, healthy respect for the opposition and a reverence for tradition.

If you saw them, you know what I'm talking about. If you didn't, I'm sorry. Tune in to ESPN Classic, read a few books and you'll hopefully understand.

"What made the rivalry was Bo taking on his mentor," said former Michigan offensive lineman Doug James, one of the captains on Schembechler's 1984 team. "No disrespect meant to all the great Michigan and Ohio State players who went before that, but what made this rivalry special was Bo Schembechler challenging the Old Man, as Bo used to call him."

Last time I talked to Schembechler it was late August. I was writing a story about mounting pressure on coaches who had won national championships -- current Michigan coach Lloyd Carr among them. Bo was, as usual, passionate. He fiercely defended Carr, one of his former assistants.

"There isn't one [critic] out there with guts enough to come up to me and say we need to change coaches," said Schembechler, who hired Carr decades ago. "I know there's some of that talk out there, but they don't tell me.

"The guy is quite a guy, so I don't mind standing in front of him. I'm not going to let those people do that to him, and I still do have some influence with some people up here. So he'll quit when he wants to."

Schembechler's defense of Carr has been utterly vindicated in Michigan's surprising 11-0 season, though the old coach acknowledged that losing four of five to Ohio State was a mighty unfortunate thing. The mere mention of that rivalry ratcheted up the enthusiasm in Bo's voice. He talked with glee about how fun it was competing against Hayes.

That was his life's passion.

James remembers a day in the spring of 1985 when he was a graduate assistant under Schembechler. His duties included getting Bo's lunch, washing his car and driving him to the airport when needed. On this particular day he was driving Bo to the airport so he could fly to Columbus and visit Woody, who was in failing health.

"Bo was talking about the Old Man," James recalled. "He was so competitive with Woody, even in those days. He said, 'Woody's wife loves me. She always told me I'm one of her three favorite people in the world. Cary Grant is No. 1, Thomas Jefferson is No. 2, and Bo Schembechler is No. 3.'"

Schembechler laughed.

"'Woody didn't even make the top three.'"

Schembechler undoubtedly relished the opportunity his old team has Saturday: undefeated but still an underdog against No. 1 Ohio State, which comes in riding an 18-game winning streak.

It's strikingly similar to Bo's first Ohio State-Michigan game as coach of the Wolverines, when the defending national champion Buckeyes were on a 22-game winning streak. Michigan scored a 24-12 upset, and the rivalry was transformed.

"It's disappointing he's not going to be here for the game," James said. "But I guess he's going to have a better seat than all the rest of us."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.