War As They Knew It: Michael Rosenberg

Detroit Free Press sports columnist Michael Rosenberg’s first book, War as They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America in a time of unrest, will be released September 10. There have been a few reviews of the book out there already, and from what I’ve read it’s getting high marks.

Rosenberg sent me an advance copy and I burned through the 330+ pages in a few days. It’s a wonderful read, well written and meticulously researched. A quick scan of the acknowledgments and book notes reveal the breadth of interviews, videos, books, and news sources that Rosenberg poured through to weave the tale of this period.

The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry certainly plays a key role in this book but it’s more of a backdrop. Rosenberg unveils how each man and their teams both dealt with and were affected by the social and political turmoil of this time. Mixed in are some new stories and a fresh, deeper look at some of the old legends.

For me, the most interesting elements of the book:
* Rosenberg’s accounts of the various protests in Ann Arbor and Columbus during the period.
* The insight into the mind of Woody Hayes – the guy is completely off the charts.
* And apologies to my English teachers/professors but I was also re-introduced to and fascinated by the work of 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hayes studied Emerson with religious fervor and his work formed the principles that truly defined the old Buckeye legend.

Rosenberg was kind enough to sit with me to talk about the book. The interview went longer than I planned so I’m splitting it up into two parts. Part I will focus on the book itself, in Part II we’ll get into Rosenberg’s now well web-traveled harsh opinions on Rodriguez and talk about the current team in the aftermath of Saturday’s opener.

One thing that stuck out for me was how well researched and detailed the book was. Was this a larger effort than you envisioned when you started?

Rosenberg: Either the schedule was too ambitious for the book, or the book was too ambitious for the schedule. I started working on it in spring of ’05, I talked to Bo and sold a 60 page proposal in December of ’05, the idea it’d be done in November of ’06, and published last fall. In August I met with my editor and they let me know Bo is shopping a book [John U. Bacon’s Bo’s Lasting Lessons]. The marketing people figured it should be published in the college football season but not in the same season [as Lasting Lessons]. So it was delayed an extra year and I used all of that time, which I’m not proud of.

[Side note: Coincidentally Bacon was sitting in the same coffee shop where I did the interview with Rosenberg. Good thing the place didn’t burn down or we’d have lost lost two of the leading experts on Schembechler; I tried to keep them on separate sides of the lounge.]

How did Bo react when you approached him about the book?

Rosenberg: His first reaction was ‘Another book!?’. Literally those were the words he said. But then I started about some of my ideas on the book and on the era. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I remember sitting at his desk, he said, “I think the true story that’s really never been written, and the most interesting part of the time when we faced each other was what was going on on campus.”

Here’s a guy that’s had around 50 books written by him or about him, and he’s saying there’s a book that hasn’t been written. It was really encouraging to me.

Michigan fans don’t want to hear this, but Bo could have coached 25 years in Columbus, had Woody actually left when Bo went to Miami. Woody wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes in Ann Arbor.

As I went through the book, I felt like that Columbus was sort of a mainstream sanitized version of Ann Arbor, and Bo was kind of a mainstream sanitized version of Woody in certain ways.

When Woody was fired/retired, you mention in the book that there was some speculation that Schembechler might replace Hayes in Columbus, how realistic was that possibility?

Rosenberg: I spoke to Gene D’Angelo, who produced Woody’s TV show in Columbus. As a side note, his daughter is Beverly D’Angelo from the Vacation movies. He told me that Woody wanted Bo to replace him and that he had a whole plan to do it. I didn’t put that in the book, I just felt it was too uncertain, I didn’t have other sources say that. I think that was Woody’s dream, Bo was his guy and it would be proof that Ohio State is a superior place to Michigan. But once Bo took the Michigan job, there was no way he was going to Ohio State.

You’re obviously not the first writer from the Free Press to write a book, but how did they feel about you taking on this project?

Rosenberg: They were great, Mitch [Albom] kind of paved the way I guess because he’s got so many things going on. . I’ve got the best boss – Gene Myers. They want happy writers and as long as your working hard they’ll make accommodations. My Free Press work was probably not what it would have been if I hadn’t done the book, but I still worked real hard for the paper. It was a hard double to pull off.

Did Mitch give you any advice during or at the beginning of the project?

Rosenberg: I actually didn’t tell him I was working on it – not for any reason in particular, but I just didn’t talk about. He came up to me at the Ohio State game in ’06, I remember him coming up to me saying, ‘I didn’t even know you were writing a book.’ I didn’t really ask for any advice, the only thing I asked him for was that blurb [on the book jacket cover Albom wrote, “A wonderfully crafted collision course of a book.”].

Is Mitch around a lot, or does he kind of just fly in for games? Are you allowed to speak to him?

Rosenberg: [laughing] Yes, I’m allowed to speak to him. He’s obviously in his own orbit as far as career success. Forget about sports writers, very few writers period have had that kind of success. But we have a good relationship and we get along well.

You had a special message from Free Press writer Mick McCabe in your acknowledgments [Rosenberg thanked everyone on the Free Staff “except for Mick McCabe”], what was the deal with that?

Rosenberg: [laughing] Anybody who knows Mick will understand that completely. I actually haven’t heard from him yet- it was all in good fun. On some level he would appreciate this. If I had an actual problem with someone it wouldn’t show up in the acknowledgments.

You interviewed John Prusiecki, the former player that wrote that famous note under the ‘Those Who Stay will be Champions’ sign […and those who leave will be doctors, lawyers, etc., etc.,’] as he quit the team, how did you find him?

Rosenberg: It was mentioned somewhere, maybe it was Mitch’s book [Bo]. I’m not sure. But I was able to track him down, he was in Chicago. I think that anecdote says a lot about my book as opposed to the other books that have been written. Because that story’s been told and that’s a fun story. But the rest of it when he goes into Bo’s office and Bo says ‘You can’t quit’, and Prusiecki says ‘This isn’t the army, I can quit if I want to quit’. Bo says, ‘Fine. What’s your name?”. He didn’t even know the guy’s name and he’s telling him he can’t quit.

That to me showed so much more depth and said so much more about the era – how he’s saying this isn’t the army and how Bo was running things at the time. To me, this is a metaphor for the book, there’s stuff out there like that story, but I’m providing a different level of depth and insight – that’s what I was shooting for. I wasn’t just going for funny stories.

Another often told story is Woody, when asked why he went for two at the end of the 1968 game, allegedly said, “Because I couldn’t go for three.” You couldn’t find any reference to Woody actually making that quote. And your interviews revealed that Woody didn’t actually intend to go for two, it was actually a miscommunication.

Rosenberg: I couldn’t find any reference to that quote in the next day’s papers, or in the next year’s stuff leading up to the game. If you’re asking me, I think that’s an urban legend. That doesn’t mean he never said it. But it’s possible given Woody’s personality that he would have said that, just in his defiance of the press. It would be a little odd to me, but I could find no evidence.

The story that is repeated a lot is that Woody said that and that it motivated the guys [in 1969]. I’ve had Michigan guys on that team tell me that. My response is, if it was such a big deal how come no one wrote about it? It could have been a rumor that he said that. It could have been mentioned to a booster club. Some of the best stories I heard I couldn’t put in the book because I just couldn’t prove it. I tried to double and triple check all the stories, and I always erred on the side of not putting in the book.

Hayes and president Nixon were good buddies and Woody was a big supporter of the war in Vietnam. You just returned from Beijing- how do you think Hayes would feel about having the Olympics in a Communist country?

Rosenberg: [laughs] I think there’s so much about the world today that Woody wouldn’t be able to handle. He’s just a guy from his era, and it was slipping away from him. I can’t imagine how he’d react to a lot of things, like Jim Tressel making $3.5 million a year!

As far as the Olympics, I think he’d be very outspoken that Communism is wrong, and would talk about it. And hope the Americans kicked ass. Whatever he felt, he wouldn’t shut up about it I can tell you that.

One person that I was introduced to in your book was Woody’s wife, Anne Hayes, and you provide some anecdotes about her throughout the book. She really seemed like a saint, how is Anne remembered in Columbus?

Rosenberg: She was beloved. People in Columbus speak warmly and fondly of her. I find that the Ohio State guys tend to stay around Columbus, a lot of them work at Worthington Steel. Ohio State football is so much more the fabric of Columbus than U-M football is in Ann Arbor, not to minimize it here, that’s just how it is. Students today probably have no idea who she was.

Every year that passes, like anyone else, fewer and fewer people know of her. Part of the reason this book appeals to me is I think Woody has become a caricature for people now. He has become a two dimensional figure. He was much more complex than many of these guys coaching today, the Nick Sabans and the Urban Meyers of the world. Many see him as a guy who won a lot of games but he’s much more complex than that, hopefully this book can change that perception.

Woody was working on a book that he never finished; he was a good way through it. Does anyone have a copy of his work?

Rosenberg: If someone does, I don’t know who. His student manager Mark George has a lot of Woody’s stuff, he doesn’t have it. I’d like to see it. After 30 years, who knows?

You talk about [former Michigan athletic director] Don Canham in the book. Do you think Michigan fans, or for that matter, fans of college sports in general appreciate the impact that Don Canham had?

Rosenberg: No way. They’re spending $230-$250, whatever, million to build these luxury boxes. Canham had a deal that would have had them built and paid off in a year, in 1976 and ’77. He was literally 10-20 years ahead of his time for his entire career.

Another thing he did, when he retired [in 1988], he sat down with [current assistant AD] Bruce Madej and basically laid out the next 15 years of college athletics, what was going to happen. Everything he said came true. He could literally see the future for his business.

You thanked librarians at Ohio State, so you’re saying there’s actually a library in Columbus?

Rosenberg: [laughs] Yes, yes indeed, and they were a tremendous help. I did all the research here at the graduate library for the most part, and I had a guy in Columbus and another researcher in Washington who handled the Nixon library.

The Michigan Daily is probably the only source for a lot of the games throughout Michigan’s history. Is there any effort by the daily to digitalize the archives and make them available online?

Rosenberg: That’s a good question. I’m not the best person to answer that, and I’ve asked that question in the past. It wasn’t a major concern for the era I covered. I would love to see that happen.

You’re starting your book promotion September 10th at Borders, correct? Are you excited?

Rosenberg: Yes, September 10th. I’m excited by that’s not the only feeling . I’m excited but I’m also a little concerned. I hope people like the book; I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback so far. I hope people buy it, I hope they read it, I hope people show up at the signing. It’s my first book we’ll see how it goes. Self-promotion is not my natural strong suit, but I know I’ve got to do it. But you work for years on a book you owe it to yourself to promote it.

I don’t mean it to sound wrong, but I also feel like this book is different, more in depth than some of the others books out there. I’m not exactly sure how to say that without sounding like an egomaniac – so I need you to say that [laughing].

[Coming up in Part II: Electric Boogaloo, [Update 9/3: it’s posted] we’ll talk about Rosenberg’s recent column that blasted Rodriguez, Darth Vader masks and much more. You can order ‘War as they Knew It’, here, or you can visit Borders or other area bookstores on Wednesday, September 10th].