From his office at a corner table in a joint on State Street in Chicago last Friday night, Big Tom the bookie said, "I make this out to be the worst mismatch since Pearl Harbor. Michigan has got the fastest backfield in the history of the Big Ten. Northwestern has got scholars. The line says Michigan by 33. But you can't hardly get none of my colleagues to book it. You know why? The numbers are too high. What kind of a idiot would give 33 to any team in the world? But what kind of a idiot would take Northwestern and 33 against Michigan? In my business you want to do heavy trade with suckers. You can get killed fooling around with idiots."
Judging from the screaming and imploring and general button-busting racket at Northwestern's Dyche Stadium the next afternoon, there must have been an army of bettors on both sides of the line. Considering that only 31,045 people showed up for the Michigan-Northwestern game in the first place, the last couple of minutes reached a level of loudmouth usually found only in those games that match fire against water.
The question was: Would Northwestern score? Would the poets, artists and drama majors, who had lost 11 games in a row, actually make a touchdown or even kick a field goal against the No. 1 team in the nation?
That the question involved more than pride or curiosity could be detected by shouts of "Kill 'em! Kill 'em!" and "Fumble! Fumble!" and "Please, God, give me just one break in this life!" Such shouts accompany the finish of a game with a wager on it. Ordinarily you would not observe such behavior in a home crowd whose team is behind 38-0 with about a minute to play. Ordinarily the crowd would have been out in the parking lot honking at each other by then.
October 24, 1976
With a fourth and three at the Michigan 13, Northwestern Quarterback Randy Dean threw a pass to Wally Kasprzycki for five yards. Bedlam. It was Dean's 10th pass completion. For a quarterback with a broken arm, that is about halfway remarkable, no matter what class the opposition.
Actually, it wasn't Dean's whole arm that was broken. It was his wrist. And it was his left wrist, whereas he throws with his right. But it is against NCAA rules to play wearing a cast, so Dean's left arm from elbow to fingertip was wrapped in tape, bandages and sponge rubber. Every time Dean fell on his left arm you wanted to cry out in sympathetic pain. Or else you wanted to cry out that one of the top engineering students at Northwestern ought to have more sense.
Northwestern's best runner, the school's alltime rushing leader, Tailback Greg Boykin, tore up his knee in the first quarter two weeks ago while the Wildcats were being shut out by Indiana. Boykin will not play again this year. Dean isn't sure when he broke his wrist. Maybe it was against Indiana, maybe before. "My adrenaline gets to rushing so fast that I forget my wrist hurts," Dean says.
Anyhow, there were three running plays and then a time-out was called with 34 seconds left, fourth and goal from the four. The crowd going crazy. What to do?
Whatever small success opponents have had against the Michigan defense this year has come from passing. Scott Yelvington of Northwestern, on that fourth down, needed one more catch to tie Pat Richter of Wisconsin as the Big Ten's 10th alltime receiver.
Dean threw a pass to Yelvington for a touchdown.
Dyche Stadium broke up with noise. Far to the south you could see the skyline of Chicago wobble as the reverberations busted into the smog. Over to the east the whitecaps on Lake Michigan shuddered.
"They ought to call this place the Windy City," said Big Tom the bookie. His nose was blue from the cold but his heart was warm from the day's work. Big Tom had booked the game. Most of the action that came into his office on State Street was giving the points. The score was 38-7, Michigan. Giving the points was a loser.
But those who took the points, or even those who were interested in the metaphysical implications of scoring a touchdown against Michigan after all these years, were winners. Long into the night they whooped and chatted. "Never have I seen so many people claim a team that got beat 38-7 done so good," said Big Tom. "On the other hand, never have I heard so many people who give the 33 points bitch that their side wasn't trying to throw the bomb on the last two plays of the game."
Bo Schembechler, the Michigan coach, was not trying to hold down the score, if that is consolation to those on the wrong end of a wager. Because Bo used to be a roommate at Miami of Ohio of Northwestern Coach John Pont doesn't mean Bo froze on the trigger. Michigan had beaten Stanford 51-0 and Navy 70-14 and had outscored the opposition 234-51 heading into the Northwestern game. Near the end of the first half, leading Northwestern by 31-0, Michigan called a time-out with eight seconds left on the clock and tried a 55-yard field goal. That does not sound like cooling it with the scoreboard.
Neither does keeping most of the Michigan first team on offense in the game deep into the fourth quarter. Bo did yank the defensive first team with a mere 38-0 cushion. But he thinks that may have been a mistake.
"I probably should have taken out the offensive first unit and left the defense in there to hold Northwestern back," Schembechler said.
To preserve the shutout? "I don't care that much about shutouts," he said. To protect the point spread? "What point spread? I don't pay any attention to point spreads," he said.
Schembechler was grinning and nodding and drinking a soft drink out of a can. His yellow shirt was smudged. He had his meet-the-public face on. But you could see he was tired and bothered by the way he would duck his head and his eyeballs would sink for a moment. After all, this is Bo's first time to be No. 1 in the nation, right from the opening forecast straight on through more than half the season. And Bo is a certified heart case. Bo had his heart attack the day his Michigan team went to the Rose Bowl and lost, in 1970. The old blood pump is still tricky enough that Schembechler had to lay out of spring training this year. If he sat by himself for a while on a locker room bench after the Northwestern game and allowed his head to dangle and his eyes to shut who should be surprised?
His quarterback, Rick Leach, had spent much of the spring playing baseball and there was no question his attention was divided. As a high school senior in Flint, Leach was said to have been offered a $100,000 bonus to sign with the Phillies. To get him to Ann Arbor, Bo had to promise Leach that he could play baseball, too. Last year as a freshman it was said of Leach that his passing style belonged in the other sport. In the spring Leach cut loose with a hard, low, one-bounce throw from center field to third base to catch a runner. "That's the way you throw a football," somebody yelled from the stands. "One bounce!"
Last year Michigan went ahead of Ohio State 14-7 in the fourth quarter, but Leach threw a couple of interceptions and Michigan lost. Then Leach did not complete another pass until the fourth quarter of an Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma. In the Orange Bowl, Bo had Leach throw nothing but long passes for fear of interceptions. Now Schembechler says Leach has become something of a passer, at last. Against Northwestern, Leach threw seven passes, completed three and had two intercepted. At one point Leach threw passes two plays in a row. "We were afraid he might get a sore arm," Bo said. But Leach's three completions covered 101 yards, scored one touchdown and set up another. Besides, it is Leach's shorter passes, his pitchouts, that are vital to the Michigan offense.
Against Northwestern, the Michigan fullback, Rob Lytle, moved to tailback for much of the game. Lytle is a compact 6'1", 195 pounds, a sprinter on the track team who is often used as a blocker for fellow sprinter Harlan Huckleby, the regular tailback. Against Northwestern Lytle rushed for 172 yards in 18 carries. With a hurt right knee.
"People hear I'm a Big Ten fullback and they look past me, wondering who is being talked about," Lytle said. (By comparison, the Ohio State fullback, Pete Johnson, is 247 pounds.) "But my style of running probably fits more as a fullback than it does as a tailback. Playing tailback, the thing that scares me most is the pitchout. I'm concentrating on that defensive guy. That's one of the places where Rick is terrific. His pitchouts are soft and they come right into your hands."
Seven of the Michigan starters—including Offensive Guards Mark Donahue and Gerry Szara and Tackle Mike Kenn and Wingback Jim Smith (perhaps the team's best athlete, according to Schembechler)—are from the neighborhood of Dyche Stadium. Lytle, however, is from Fremont, Ohio, in Woody Hayes territory. For five generations Lytle's family has owned a clothing store on Front Street in Fremont. When Rob chose Michigan over Ohio State, people came into the store and said from now on they would rather go naked than buy a Lytle garment. "But they were mostly kidding, and my family is not that rah-rah about football anyway," says Lytle.
Woody also once courted Huckleby, inviting him down to watch the Ohio State-Michigan game when Huckleby was a high school senior in Detroit. Ohio State won the game 12-10 when Michigan missed a field goal. "I tried to be neutral, but I'm from Michigan and I couldn't help it. That game made up my mind," Huckleby said.
Schembechler said the thing that is bothering him now is that this season has been too easy. "We need a slugfest," he said. "We need to have it hanging in the balance. We need to need continuity snap after snap, to know we've got to drive it out, with the heat on. We need to give up the idea that we can score from anywhere on the field at any moment. We are going to run into some of those slugfests in the last part of the season. Nobody will know how good we are until we find out ourselves."
"I can tell him one thing," said Big Tom the bookie. "It didn't hurt him none to call it off in the second half against Northwestern. Lytle didn't run but three times for 30 yards in the second half. Leach didn't throw but one pass, and it was intercepted. The scholars looked real good in the second half. Now we will wait for the numbers to come down while Ohio State approaches on the Michigan schedule, and then we will see where the business comes from. Suckers and patriots, it's all the same. With idiots, I'm happy to have got out a winner."