Mo knows pressure from Bo Wolverines' Moeller labors in Schembechler's shadow

September 27, 1990|By Don Markus

The first eight pages of this year's University of Michigan football media guide might tell you something about the task facing Gary Moeller. They are devoted strictly to Bo Schembechler. To the program he led back to national prominence during his 21 seasons in Ann Arbor. To the place he found among coaching legends. And to the spotlight he left behind.

"I don't think the pressure will ever not be there," said Moeller.

It has been there since the day last December when Schembechler, forced to leave coaching on the advice of his doctors, announced his retirement and promoted Moeller from offensive coordinator to head coach of the Wolverines. It was there for a 28-24, opening-night defeat at Notre Dame and for a 38-15 victory last week over UCLA.

It will be there again Saturday, when the sixth-ranked Wolverines play Maryland (3-1) at Michigan Stadium.

For Moeller, the high expectations were not unexpected. He had been part of Schembechler's staff for 16 years at Michigan and two at Miami of Ohio. With the exception of a disastrous three-year stay as head coach at Illinois, Moeller had been there to share the success, if not the stage, with his mentor and close friend.

"It's a tough job, no matter who the coach was before," said Moeller, 49, "but the fact that you're replacing a guy of this magnitude makes it even more difficult. It's hard. All I can do is be myself. I can't go out and act like Bo Schembechler or Woody Hayes. I have to act like Gary Moeller."

Though he is not laid-back -- as evidenced by his sideline demeanor in South Bend, Ind., two weeks ago -- Moeller doesn't have as short a fuse as did Schembechler. As Bo learned to weed out Woody's bad habits as an assistant at both Miami of Ohio and Ohio State, the man whom everyone calls Mo learned the same thing from Bo.

"He's probably more sensible than I am," said Schembechler, now president of the Detroit Tigers.

Said Moeller: "I'm a little more easygoing than Bo, but I think we have the same strong beliefs about the game, about Michigan football. Most of them I stole from him. I might change the strategy a little, take a different approach on the field, but a lot has to do with the times, with what works in this particular age."

And with this particular team. Whereas Bo's offense seemed to be taken straight from the Ohio State playbook, circa 1961, Mo's offense is centered as much around quarterback Elvis Grbac's arm as tailback Jon Vaughn's feet. But even Grbac said, "Michigan is Michigan, and you know we're going to run the ball at you."

The difference between Bo and Mo is not lost on the Wolverines, who are on the same nickname basis with Moeller as they were with Schembechler.

It was obvious during spring practice, during two-a-days, and even now. Moeller had to distance himself a little when he took over the team, but he is a far less imposing and intimidating figure than his famous predecessor.

"Mo is terribly excited about this season; if he could suit up and play he would," offensive guard Matt Elliott said of Moeller, a linebacker who played for Hayes at Ohio State. "Bo would feed off our enthusiasm. When you looked at Bo, it was such a weird feeling. He was a football icon. He was so historic. As opposed to Mo, who's just our coach. But I think Mo will be here a long time and have a great deal of success."

Surely, he will have more success than he did at Illinois, where in three miserable seasons during the late '70s, his teams went a combined 6-24-3. One reason is talent. Schembechler said he warned Moeller at the time that it would take at least five years to rebuild the Fighting Illini and that he would need an ironclad five-year contract to do it.

"I remember on the bus back to the airport after we killed Illinois, Mo said that there might be an opening there after the [1976] season, and I told him that there was no way he was going to be successful before five years because 'you are going in with nothing,' " said Schembechler. "Mo wanted to do things the right way, but the people there didn't give him the support."

Moeller, who was fired with two years left on his contract, returned to Michigan. For most of the next 10 years, his name came up for head coaching jobs, but the experience at Illinois had made Moeller a bit skeptical about rebuilding programs. On top of that, Schembechler had suffered two heart attacks, had undergone heart surgery and had kidded Moeller about being his hand-picked successor.

"I used to say to him, 'When you're head coach . . .,' " Schembechler said.

That chance came last December, when Schembechler finally heeded the warning of his doctors. There was no dilemma about choosing Moeller; Schembechler said he did it in part to save the jobs of the other members of his staff and added, "He had the players on his side." As for the pressure, Schembechler said, "I see him having an easier time than the guy at Ohio State [Earle Bruce] did replacing Woody or the guys at Alabama did replacing Bear [Bryant]."

That Schembechler had such a poor postseason record (4-13) and never won a national championship should leave Moeller room to carve his place in Ann Arbor. The comparisons remain, and so does Schembechler's giant shadow.

Gary Moeller

as a head coach

At Illinois (1977-79)

1977 3-8-0

1978 1-8-2

1979 2-8-1

Totals 6-24-3

At Michigan (1990)

1990 1-1-0

Career 7-25-3

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