I recently sat down with Mark Messner, the two-time All-American who anchored Bo Schembechler’s defensive line in the mid-eighties. The rest of the interview will likely appear in the next issue of GoBlueWolverine Magazine but here’s a taste. Messner looks back at his epic battles with Tony Mandarich, on Bo’s drug policy and a little about the team’s role in policing bad behavior.
Is there a particular game that you look back on with great memories?
Messner: The Michigan State game my senior year is one that sticks out, because there was so much hype about Mandarich. There was talk about ‘the game within the game’, with Lombardi and Outland trophy candidates going at it and all that. He was such a physical specimen and I vowed that I would not let myself get embarrassed by someone who could overwhelm me physically. I could not let that person get me because if I did, the media coverage would be all over it.
He did get me once and that’s when I realized that there was something strange going on with this man, because no man should ever do that. It was my junior year. We were watching film getting ready for Michigan State and I was like, “Look at this thing! He’s destroying people.” In that game I got out of position and he got underneath me. He picked me up off my feet and ran with me for fifteen yards with my feet just dangling. He threw me like a rag doll into the Michigan State bench.
No matter what, there was no way I was going to let that happen again. And I never did. In my senior year I would not let that guy catch me. Bo used to say he’d never seen somebody out-run, out-think, out-maneuver someone when they shouldn’t have. It was purely motivated out of not getting embarrassed [laughs].
Did you ever get a chance to know Mandarich personally?
Messner: Yeah. On different All-American teams, like the Playboy team, the AP, UPI, Bob Hope Show, you’d come down for a few days for taping and publicity stuff and they would room us together [laughs]. They’re thinking, “Oh, Michigan people!” I’m like, “This is our frickin’ rival, what are you doing putting me in the same room with this guy!”
He was a very personable and a nice person. He wasn’t like some of these guys, and I don’t bad mouth people, but Broderick Thomas was just arrogant guy and not respectful of other people. Tony wasn’t like that at all and we had a mutual respect for each other on the field.
Obviously Mandarich’s name evokes thoughts of steroids. How did Bo handle drugs within the team?
Messner: It’s one of the things that makes me respect and love the guy the way I do. Well before the NCAA was doing the drug tests, Bo was doing random tests to anybody so that you wouldn’t be out on campus smoking. He was more concerned about recreational drugs on campus (than steroids). We’d come to practice and if your name was on a list you’d have to pee in a cup. That was before it was mandated. We’d still have to do it for bowl games but for the regular season, no one was doing that. Bo was that way all season long.
I remember one day I took the socks from practice because I need some socks [laughs]. The next day I was getting dressed for practice and I had no socks. I practiced without socks. [Equipment manager] Jon Falk told me, “Listen son, that’s an NCAA violation. I can not let you have them. I can’t replace them. If you bring me an old pair of socks I’ll give you a new pair but you’re not leaving this building with our t-shirts, shorts or socks.”
I had to bring the damn socks back so I could have socks for practice. That’s how strict they were. I’m proud of that.
We’re starting to see students arrive on campus that might not remember Bo, certainly not during his coaching days. Is there something unique you remember about Bo?
Messner: Bo had a very protective media persona. He was standoffish and harsh toward the media, and that’s what a lot of people saw, but inside he was one of the most caring and long-term developers of men that I’ve ever met.
I was privileged to be one of his captains. After practice you’re sitting in his office and he asks you about the team chemistry, about problem kids, about which kids need help getting their degrees. As the captain you are rattling off the guys that are struggling, or aren’t feeling confident or not sure if they are going to stay with the squad and so on. Bo wanted special emphasis on these players because he really cared about guys.
As leaders on the team, did you have to self-police the other players?
Messner: We didn’t police for steroids because it was pretty obvious, from the physical changes to the personality changes. But we would self police guys breaking rules on campus.
I remember when Brad Cochran was our captain one of the kickers was out the night before when we were going to be at Campus Inn. We had a strict internal policy against it. Brad got a phone call and let him know that one of the players was up at Rick’s. He stormed right up there, grabbed him and told him, “Sorry bud, you’re not playing tomorrow.”
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