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Published: Thursday, 12/28/2006

President Ford had good sense not to be a Lion

PASADENA, Calif. - Bo Schembechler was a legend.

Gerald Ford sort of transcended even that label. Being the leader of the free world will do that.

Another of the Victors has fallen.

It was hard to judge just how Schembechler's death on Nov. 17, the day before the University of Michigan's game at Ohio State, affected the Wolverines.

His was the face of Michigan football, even 17 years removed from his last game as coach. He was half of the dynamic duo that nurtured the Wolverines-Buckeyes rivalry into college football's best.

But kids are resilient. Death is so often a distant rumor.

Former President Gerald Ford visited then-Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. Ford played for the Wolverines. Former President Gerald Ford visited then-Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. Ford played for the Wolverines.
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It is likely that Ford's passing late Tuesday will have little, if any, impact on the Wolverines' performance against Southern Cal in Monday's Rose Bowl.

But he was one of them. One of the Conqu'ring Heroes, as the fight song goes.

He was Jerry back in his day, and he wore No. 48.

"He came to talk to us my freshman year, and we were introduced, and he called me 'Little Mike,'•" UM running back Mike Hart recalled yesterday with a smile. "It's always hard to lose a great man who meant so much to the university and to the country."

Michigan s Rose Bowl practices are held at the Home
Depot Center. Don t think the Wolverines are dodging
plumbing supplies, though. This Home Depot is a 125-acre facility in Carson, Calif., that houses pro soccer and lacrosse teams and has state-of the-art practice facilities.
  Dave Hackenberg Michigan s Rose Bowl practices are held at the Home Depot Center. Don t think the Wolverines are dodging plumbing supplies, though. This Home Depot is a 125-acre facility in Carson, Calif., that houses pro soccer and lacrosse teams and has state-of the-art practice facilities. Dave Hackenberg
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The great man who would become the 38th President of the United States was just another strapped lad when he traveled from Grand Rapids to Ann Arbor in 1931 with $200 in his pocket. Half went for tuition; half covered all his other expenses for as long as possible. When that became impossible, UM's football coach, Harry Kipke, got the freshman a job waiting tables and mopping floors in the nurses' cafeteria at the old hospital on campus.

Gerald Ford was Michigan's starting center for the next three years, playing for two national championship teams and being voted the Wolverines' MVP after the '34 season. As a senior, he was selected for the East-West Shrine Game. A few NFL teams, most notably the Lions, were hot on his heels.

Instead, Ford took a dual position as boxing coach and assistant football coach at Yale, where he could attend law school and pursue an interest in politics.

Imagine, he might have been a Lion. Good choice. He was a smart man, even then.

Too smart, on one occasion, for UM coach Lloyd Carr, whose team was 10-0 and ranked No. 1 while gearing up to play Ohio State in 1997.

"I was trying to treat it like any other game and keep the pressure down," Carr recalled. "It's Wednesday, the most important practice of the week, and President Ford was in town and came out to watch practice.

"I called the team together and he told them, 'I've been following this team. I saw the great win against Notre Dame and I saw that comeback against Iowa. But forget those games because this Saturday you're going to play the most important game in the history of Michigan football.' Well, so much for keeping the pressure off.

"He always told our players what a great love he had for Michigan and how they should embrace the opportunity for their education. They knew his story, how he'd bused tables and washed dishes so he could go to school and play football here. And that he became one of the most powerful men in the world. His message was never lost."

From Michigan to the halls of Congress to the vice presidency and, ultimately, the White House. Bigger even than the Big House, that address. But Gerald Ford never lost touch with his school and his football team.

He married his wife, Betty, in October, 1948, just a few weeks before an election. No time for a honeymoon, so how did they celebrate? The couple, and 85,780 others, attended the Michigan-Northwestern game the next day. The Wolverines won 28-0, if you're keeping score at home.

Ford gave the commencement address in 1974 as vice president. He kicked off his presidential election campaign in '76 with 15,000 people crammed into Crisler Arena. He returned to the campus in Ann Arbor dozens of times. The Gerald R. Ford Library is there. The Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, as well.

His favorite trip back though was in early October, 1994.

You know, Schembechler may or may not have been the greatest coach in UM history. Fielding Yost lost 29 games in 25 years, for goodness sake. Fritz Crisler could coach 'em up a bit, too. It's a coin flip.

Gerald Ford, though, certainly was not one of the greatest players in Michigan history.

The Wolverines have had too many All-Americans to count. UM players have earned All-Big Ten honors almost 400 times. The name Gerald Ford does not appear on any of those lists.

But on Oct. 8, 1994, Ford's No. 48 became just the fifth football jersey to be retired by UM.

"Other honors that have been bestowed upon me were because of my work or my efforts," he said that day at Michigan Stadium. "But in this case, I am being honored by the school where I learned skills and discipline that I used for the rest of my life."

A long life, 93 years, and well lived.

It was, by most observations, a life of honor and integrity, of humility and patriotic service, a life filled with decisions, some popular, some not, from which he never wavered regardless of consequence.

Sounds like he would have been a heck of a coach.

Fortunately, he was too smart to have been a Lion. Yikes! That might have ruined everything.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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