Remembering Michigan's swashbuckling football star

Apr 29, 2011

On Tuesday, the Michigan football family lost another beloved son, Jim Mandich, who died of cancer at age 62.

Regular readers of this space know I’ve had to write a few elegies already this year, and I’m not sure if we can bear another one right now.   

I’m not sure Mandich would want any more, either, beyond his funeral. 

As he told Angelique Chengalis of The Detroit News last fall, after he was diagnosed with cancer, “I said to myself, ‘No whining, no complaining, no bitching. You've lived a damned good life. You've got lot to be thankful for.’”

And he did, including a great NFL career and three grown sons – good guys, good friends.

But I’m sure he’d like to be remembered – don’t we all? -- and I thought you might enjoy a story or two about an unusually talented and charismatic man.

Mandich grew up in Solon, Ohio, outside Cleveland, and should have gone to Ohio State, where Woody Hayes had the program riding high.

Instead, he risked being called a traitor, and went to Michigan. 

"Obviously, Michigan is the better place,” he told HBO a few years ago.  "That was a very easy decision to make. And if that’s smug, Michigan arrogance – deal with it, Buckeyes."

As a junior, he played on the 1968 team that went down to Columbus and lost, 50-14. 

"We got shellacked.  We couldn’t stop ‘em and we couldn’t do anything against them.  And Woody Hayes showed no mercy."

The next year, a man named Bo Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor, and things were not the same.

He told his players, “From now on, I’ll treat you all the same – Like dogs!”  He kept his promise, which helps explain why 40 or 50 guys left, some times in the middle of the night.

That inspired Bo’s famous phrase, “Those who stayed will be champions.”

All the best players in that team stayed, but the most important might have been Jim Mandich, their only captain.

He was a confident guy, even a little cocky -- but he had the rarer kind of swagger that attracted people, instead of repelling them. The ladies loved him, and he had the perfect nickname, “El Diablo.”

I always got the feeling, whenever Schembechler started talking about Mandich, that Bo, as tight as they come, with tunnel vision and no time for women until he got married at mid-age, secretly envied Mandich, this swashbuckling football star, and wished he could be a bit more like him. 

But that never stopped Bo from chewing him out, of course.  Someone once asked Mandich who had a shorter fuse, Schembechler, or his legendarily hot-tempered NFL coach, Don Shula?

Mandich thought about it for a moment, then said, “Neither one had a fuse.”

Call it a draw.

But Mandich was also a serious student, who graduated in four years with a degree in economics, while earning Academic All-American honors.

He was also an All-American tight end.  He never took himself too seriously, but he took his role seriously.  He led.

The Wolverines started Mandich’s senior year, 1969, by losing two of their first five games.  But then they caught fire, beating Big Ten teams by scores like 35–7, 57–0, and 51–6. 

They had caught El Diablo’s swagger.  It was contagious.  They believed they could beat the number one-ranked, undefeated, returning national champion Ohio State Buckeyes – even if no one else did. 

Las Vegas pegged the Wolverines a 17-point underdog – but they didn’t listen.

The morning of the game, one of the Buckeyes missed the team bus.  They weren’t taking it seriously. 

But Mandich was.

When I asked him about that game, he told me he was crying in the tunnel.  I said, Of course.  It was the greatest upset in Michigan history.  No, he said.  “I was crying in the tunnel before the game.”

That’s how charged up they were.  All that pain, all that suffering, all that work they’d done in the off-season—it fueled everything they did that day.  And it showed, when they completely manhandled Woody Hayes’s greatest Ohio State team, 24-12. 

On the HBO documentary about the rivalry, Mandich says, “There’s an expression in German, “schadenfreude,” which means, “Joy in the misery of others.

“40 years later, I feel Schadenfreude – Joy, that it still hurts the Buckeyes, what we did on that fateful November day in 1969.”

But the image of Mandich that day tells a different story, from the famous photo of the outstretched number 88, exalting in the final countdown, and the film footage of his teammates carrying him off the field.

He’s exhausted, and overwhelmed, exuding something deeper than mere happiness – something more akin to an abiding satisfaction, one he probably knew even at that moment would last the rest of his life, having spent himself completely for his teammates and his school, and a cause bigger than himself.

And that’s what he did.