On November 17, 2006, Bo Schembechler passed away. He was 77.
For Michigan fans, the bad news hasn't stopped.
Second-ranked Michigan lost the next day's game to top-ranked Ohio State, 42-39, missing a shot at another national title. Then the Wolverines lost the next three straight, including the historic upset at the hands of Appalachian State. Coach Lloyd Carr's last season was followed by Rich Rodriguez's troubled three-year run, and then almost four years of Brady Hoke. After Hoke's honeymoon season in 2011, when the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes and won the Sugar Bowl en route to an 11-2 record, the program has been sliding steadily downhill.
Since the day Bo died, mighty Michigan has gone 55-46, and 24-31 in the Big Ten -- not the kind of numbers that made Michigan the sport's winningest program, let alone king of the Big Ten.
On Halloween, new President Mark Schlissel announced he had accepted athletic director Dave Brandon's resignation, ending his short but tumultuous tenure. Brandon stumbled for a number of reasons, but the current team's 3-5 record before he stepped down surely didn't help.
So, what now? On the same day Brandon resigned, Schlissel named Jim Hackett the interim AD. Like Brandon, Hackett was a back-up for Bo in the seventies, earned a few Big Ten title rings, and became a Fortune 500 CEO, leading Steelcase to the top of the office furniture industry. But Hackett's teammates, colleagues, and employees will tell you he's no carbon copy of Brandon.
Fourteen years ago, I met both of them for the first time, while researching a book on their old coach. Brandon told me the story of getting kicked off the team -- something that happened to a lot of Bo's players -- then begging Bo the next day to get back on. The lesson was simple: Don't take your good fortune for granted.
Hackett told me about going to see Bo after a sleepless night. He had been on the team for almost three seasons, didn't complain when they moved him from linebacker to center, and never took a single play off in practice. But Hackett started to wonder if his contributions on the third-string demo team really mattered.
This is where Bo took over the story. Bo told me "you can not be a leader unless you like people! If you don't listen to what your people have to say, they have no reason to respect you, and won't follow you."
He added that, even if you're doing everything else right, "if one of your people comes to you with a personal problem, and it just goes in one ear and out the other, you will fail!"
To illustrate his point, Bo told me his version of Hackett's story. When Hackett came down to see him, on a Tuesday morning in 1975, he spilled his guts. When Bo was sure Hackett was done, he looked him straight in the eye and said, "Jimmy, I know how you feel." Because Bo did, going back to his playing days at Miami, Ohio.
Bo told Hackett exactly why he wasn't starting: He was simply not big enough, or fast enough to beat the incredible depth they had at center that year, loaded with current and future All-Americans. But Bo also told Hackett knew how hard he was working, and that he never missed a practice. "And because you never take a play off," Bo added, "the guy you go against every day, who sees you more than the rest of the Big Ten combined, is a first-rate nose guard, and that's another reason why we're undefeated!
"I can't tell you what to do, Jimmy. But don't think for a second that what you've done hasn't been noted, and respected."
Needless to say, Hackett never again had to wonder why he was playing for that man, for that program, and that university.
Years later, when Hackett became Steelcase's CEO, he instituted the same open door policy. He explained to Bo that it wasn't just the right thing to do, it's how he learned what was really going on in his company: by talking to people all over the organization, every day. And that was one big reason, he said, Steelcase fought through tough international competition, and a rough economy, to get to the top of the industry.
It's a crucial lesson: If you're going to lead, first you have to listen -- to the people who play the games, and the people who pay for them. In fact, President Schlissel himself traveled to Michigan alumni clubs around the nation last week, armed with smart questions, and the will to listen to the answers.
This still leaves plenty of questions unanswered, of course. Schlissel and Hackett will first have to decide how long Hackett intends to serve as interim athletic director. Will he become the permanent athletic director, or will he name a replacement -- and if so, whom? Brad Bates at Boston College and Warde Manuel at Connecticut both played for Bo, too, and have worked in athletic departments their entire careers. But right now, it could be almost anyone.
Or will Hackett hire a new head coach first? Yes, Michigan is 5-5 right now, and still has a fighting chance to get to another bowl game, but the Wolverines' 10-9 win over struggling Northwestern might go down as the weakest win in recent history. The Wolverines converted just one of 12 third downs, and committed three turnovers -- more than Michigan State and Ohio State combined, on the same night. Perhaps most embarrassing, both Michigan State and Ohio State doubled Michigan's 256 yards of total offense -- just one indication of how far Michigan now trails its arch-rivals.
Brady Hoke is an unusually likeable guy, and his players haven't given up on him, but his teams have gotten worse every season. The dirty secret among a growing mass of Michigan fans is their private hope that their favorite team fails to make a bowl game, forcing Schlissel and Hackett to find a new coach, and affording them the time to do so, without distraction.
If the program goes in that direction, as expected, the all-too familiar specter of yet another coaching search looms ahead, with a familiar name topping the list: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan's prodigal son, who served as the team's ball boy when his dad coached for Bo.
Even after making these big decisions, whoever's running the department six months from now will have a lot of work to do mending fences with fans, selling season tickets and skyboxes, and bringing in enough money to meet payroll for a greatly expanded staff.
Right now, just about everything is up in the air. If anyone tells you they know what's going to happen next, and they're not Jim Hackett, don't believe them. No one knows anything.
But, one way or the other, the big decisions will be settled in the next few months. How those shake out will likely determine what the next decade of Michigan football looks like -- and if the Wolverines will reclaim their place among the big boys, or continue riding with the also-rans.
But when you're trying to rebuild an empire that thousands of people helped create, listening to them is not just a good place to start. It's the best place.
-- John U. Bacon is the author, most recently, of Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, a New York Times bestseller. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.