Memories of El Diablo - A Michigan Original

April 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.

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  • 4/29/2011 10:12 AM Dr. Ed Kornblue wrote:
    Just like Bo, there are so many stories that can be written about "Mad-Dog", and they are all good!

    All of So. Florida is mourning their loss, because the world has lost a good human being. In addtion, Michigan feels the sorrow because we have lost a great "Meechegan Man"!

    Our sincere condolences to Jim's wife, Bonnie, and sons Michael, Mark, and Nick

    Sincerely, The Kornblue's
    Reply to this
  • 4/29/2011 10:13 AM oldblue wrote:
    "a LITTLE cocky"??? You obviously never played anything against him. He was VERY cocky, but he could generally back it up fully. On a basketball court, you did NOT want to be between him and the basket.
    Reply to this
  • 4/29/2011 11:01 AM Kurt OKeefe wrote:
    He emceed the football bust several years ago. Impressive guy.
    With Brandstatter there, said he was happy to report that Bo's surgery had been a success, and Brandy's nose had been removed from Bo's rectum.
    Reply to this
  • 4/29/2011 6:09 PM Bob Sykora wrote:
    Nice post! I remember so well the tapes of Jim Mandich after the game carried off, exhausted and excited. He was truly the man to whom credit is due in Teddy Roosevelt's quote “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” On that day he knew victory as few experience it.
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  • 5/2/2011 4:04 PM AlphaPhi76 wrote:
    In the Fall of 1973 I moved into the Alpha Phi house (1830 Hill)as a sophomore pledge. It was early enough that few other girls were there and because I was a pledge, I didn't really know anyone well. I was a bit homesick and lonely; climbed into the lower bunk the first night and turn on the clamp light to read myself to sleep. Looked up to see written on one of the wooden bed slats of the bunk above me "Jim Mandich was here." I laughed out loud - clearly not the first time Jim Mandich made a girl smile in the Phi house! My condolences to his family - what a wonderful zest for life he must have had.
    Reply to this
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