‘Bo knew’: Schembechler’s tarnished legacy

Just 10 years old at the time, Matt Schembechler said that he summoned the courage to tell his new stepfather a horrific, uncomfortable and humiliating truth: During a physical examination he’d been fondled and digitally penetrated by a doctor, Robert Anderson.

Anderson was the team doctor for the University of Michigan football team, which Matt’s stepfather, Bo, coached.

This was 1969, and as Matt tells it now, Bo told him he didn’t want to hear about the incident and even struck the child hard enough to knock him across the kitchen in the family’s Ann Arbor home.

“My effort earned me a punch in the chest,” Matt Schembechler said Thursday at a news conference.

Undeterred, Matt said his mother, Millie, had Michigan athletic director Don Canham over to the house to hear the story. Matt described what happened and said Canham went to fire Anderson, only to have Bo step in the way and save Anderson’s job.

Anderson would remain the Wolverines’ team doctor until 2003, which spanned 13 Big Ten championships won by Schembechler during a heralded career.

It also resulted in some 850 allegations from former players that Anderson would routinely fondle, abuse and rape them during routine physical therapy and checkups.

Michigan coach Bo Schembechler talks with an official while his team warms up before an NCAA football game in 1986. (Getty Images)
Michigan coach Bo Schembechler talks with an official while his team warms up before an NCAA football game in 1986. (Getty Images)

The allegations against Anderson, who died in 2008, aren’t new. They were so prevalent at the time that Anderson was dubbed “Dr. Anal” by members of the football program.

Also not new is the idea that Bo Schembechler, who died in 2006, knew generally of Anderson’s abuse. A recent university-funded report even detailed numerous stories of Bo being directly told. That included one from Daniel Kwiatkowski, an offensive lineman from 1977-79, who on Thursday detailed his own molestation by Anderson and his reporting of it to Schembechler.

“Bo said, ‘Toughen up,” Kwiatkowski said. “Bo knew.”

“Bo knows everything that goes on on campus,” said Gilvanni Johnson, a Michigan wide receiver from 1982 to 1986, while fighting back tears. Johnson added that Anderson’s behavior was so well-known that coaches would threaten trips to see him as a motivational ploy.

“Only now do I realize how crazy it was to threaten rape as a way to make players work harder,” Johnson said.

Anderson, Canham, Bo Schembechler and Millie Schembechler are all dead, so trying to conduct a full investigation into these claims is nearly impossible. However, the breadth of the accusations and the emotional testimony of the men on Thursday certainly carry significant weight.

And it changes everything with Schembechler, previously a legend in Ann Arbor and a giant of a figure across college football, but now comes across as incredibly cruel.

This isn’t just a coach ignoring a vague verbal report — not that such a thing would be acceptable. This isn’t being uncertain how to handle such a thing during a time when there was a limited understanding of how sexual assault and sexual predators work.

This is punching your own stepson when he tells you about being abused. This is about caring, somehow, about the reputation of a football team over not just your players, but your own family.

Matt Schembechler theorized that Bo would have enjoyed having power over Anderson, essentially blackmailing the team doctor to get injured players back on the field sooner, although that’s just a guess.

All of the men said they are coming forward publicly now because they feel an obligation to prevent future abuse by almost anyone anywhere. They figure similar institutional abuse scandals are still occurring — indeed, the doctor at the center of the recent USA Gymnastics abuse cases, Larry Nassar, was a student football trainer at Michigan working under Anderson.

They said that if others had done what they are doing now, maybe they would have been spared.

“If I didn’t do my part in preventing it from happening, then I’m responsible,” Matt Schembechler said. “Why now? The opportunity was there and society is ready to accept this. I don’t think as a culture we were ready to handle this in the 1970s.”

The men are seeking an apology from the university for its inaction, not just on behalf of Anderson. They also want additional safeguards and for more of the school’s investigation to be released.

As for Bo Schembechler, everything is in doubt now, everything is a question. With faces and names to the allegations, there is no more hiding from this ugly, horrific scandal.

The Michigan football facility is named after him, with a giant statue of him standing guard outside. He remains synonymous with the program from his catchphrases (“The Team. The Team. The Team.”) to his sideline fashion (a block ‘M’ hat).

It’s hard to imagine how any of that remains.

Those are symbols though. The men who came forward Thursday spoke of pain, deceit and struggles. They promised they weren’t the only ones.

Mostly they told stories of being recruited to play football at Michigan only to find out the people they met there were engaging in an abusive, evil practice. They remain oddly loyal to some of it — they even acknowledge Bo was a great coach and hoped the scandal doesn’t carry over to the current team or coaches.

But through tears, they struggled to describe the cost that building up the culture and brand of mighty Michigan football inflicted on their lives.

“The brand,” Stephen Drew, a Michigan alum and lawyer working on the case, “needs to be about accountability.”

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