Conducted by Tim Pulice
He grew up in Ohio a Buckeye fan, but since 1974, Jon Falk has been a loyal Wolverine. Now in his 37th season as equipment manager for the Michigan football team, Falk has compiled his experiences handling the gear and acting as mentor to hundreds of players in the engaging If These Walls Could Talk: Michigan Football Stories from Inside the Big House (Triumph Books), written with Dan Ewald. The book is filled with colorful anecdotes centered on U-M greats such as the late Bo Schembechler, who hired Falk, beloved Maize and Blue stars like Rob Lytle, Anthony Carter, Charles Woodson, and Tom Brady–the latter of whom penned the foreword–tales of fierce gridiron battles against Woody Hayes and Ohio State, and more. Recently, Falk agreed to an interview inside his office at Schembechler Hall on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, where he recounted how he once rescued Bo from subzero temperatures, impressed upon Brady the importance of leadership, and briefly lent his apartment to a visiting U.S. president.
Describe a typical day for you during the football season at U-M.
Jon Falk: Well, what we do is have our staff meeting at 8 o’clock in the morning with the football coaches, and they tell us the plan structure for practice in the afternoon. We come down and get the practice jerseys ready. Offense is white, defense is blue. We have the scout team numbers from the opposing team, and we put those numbers on the scout team, so that the offense and defense can practice against the numbers they’re going to see on Saturday.
From there it rolls into practice in the afternoon. As soon as practice is over, there’s a lot of laundry that has to be done. I have some part-time students that come in and do the laundry, and then it’s ready for the next morning, to either have a weight-lifting process or practice for the next day.
I can imagine keeping up with 100+ players can be quite a challenge. Talk about the logistics of overseeing the team during a game.
JF: The thing that people don’t realize is that for a 12 o’clock game, we’re at the locker room at 6:30 in the morning. We put the uniforms in their lockers, we make sure their game shoes are all polished, we make sure that all the helmets are all polished. On Saturday morning, we have some part-time helpers that live in town here that have done it for years. Herbie Fredericks is one, he’s done it for over 63 years here. Bob Blandt paints the helmets on Thursday night, takes the nicks out from what’s been scratched during the week.
While they’re working on the helmets and jerseys, I have a phone man who goes with us and we help set up the sideline phones. I go up in the press box, and he’s on the sidelines. We settle the communications for the coaches because we want to claim our radio waves before somebody else claims them. We claim those by 8 o’clock, 8:30, it takes that much time to set the phones up in the press box, set them up on the field. Then by 8:30 or 9, we have those set up, then we set up the team benches on the sidelines, then we have the little cards that tell each position, so that they know as soon as they come off the field that’s where you’re supposed to sit so the coach, if he wants to talk to them, knows where they are.
Then you have the pre-game ceremony, when everybody is in, they ask for a different T-short, they ask for this or that. Then they get dressed, we run down on the field, we play the first half. We come back, I’m usually one of the first ones back in at the half. I get all the players in the locker room to sit down. Then we go down for the second half. As soon as the game’s over, we get ‘em back up, the coach comes in, he gives a little talk. Hopefully we can sing "The Victors" after a win, and then from there, the players start to turn their jerseys and pants in, their laundry. Their game shoes are picked up and put back in the stadium cubby hole, with their name. All the dirty laundry, the towels, the shoulder pads, the helmets, are all picked up and put in a truck and brought back over here to the football building.
So, for a noon game, by 6:30 or 7, everything is back in the lockers over here at the building, and you could practice on Sunday morning, if need be. Now, that’s a home game. A road game is a little different, because now you’re packing the semis on Thursday night, and we’re leaving on Thursday night to go to the ballpark where we’re playing. From there, we set up the 70 guys who can travel in the locker room. We’re all there all day on Friday. The team comes in right around 3:30. They leave after a walk-through with their warm-up sweats on. Saturday morning, we get to the ballpark, we set the phones up. After the game, all the travel bags are packed, they’re put back in the semi, and that guy takes off. We’ll fly back with the team. We’ll see him [the driver] Sunday morning at 9 o’clock, and we’re unloading that truck.
That’s the thing people who are home watching TV don’t realize. In fact, sometimes I tell people that, as far as they’re concerned, we’re cartoon characters. They turn the TV on, and there we are bouncing up and down the sidelines for about three, three-and-a-half hours. As soon as that game’s over, they turn the TV off, and as far as they’re concerned, we have no life, we have no problems, and we don’t do anything until next Saturday afternoon when they turn that TV back on. Nobody understands the involvement, the work, the pain, the ordeal, the time that it takes to get to that next Saturday afternoon. It’s not just at Michigan, it’s pro teams, it’s everything. Even on pro games, especially baseball and basketball, when they turn the TV off at the end of the game, nobody realizes that people are in that locker room for another two hours. And, if they catch a jet, they’re heading to another city, and may not get in to five in the morning. Here they are five in the morning, the equipment guys are over at the locker room, getting the stuff ready because at two o’clock in the afternoon those kids are going to come in and start that game. So, nobody knows the time that athletics consumes.
What do you like best about your job?
JF: The most fun that I have in the job is working with players. I mean, those kids are nice guys. It’s fun to go into the locker room after the game or after a practice, and walk around and talk to them. But at the same time, while you’re walking around and talking to them, you’re looking at their faces, you’re looking at them and you’re seeing if there’s a scratch or a nick on their body, and maybe you can ask them how it happened and maybe you might be able to do something with your football equipment that might be able to protect that piece you see.
Tom Brady wrote the foreword and, like him, a lot of players are quoted as saying that you’re someone they can always approach, even if it’s about something unrelated to Xs and Os. How do you find time to speak to players, maybe someone who is homesick or has other personal problems?
JF: It’s time consuming, but you’re here all day, and there are times when those kids just want to come in and talk. And that’s another thing. When you walk around the locker room, you look in a guy’s eyes. People’s eyes never lie. You can always tell how a guy feels.
In Tom Brady's case, when he was playing here with Drew Henson. I walked in here and I could see it was bothering him that he wasn’t starting. That’s when I called him in to my office. I said “Hey, Tom, I know you’re upset about not starting, but you’re the leader on this team, and everybody on this team looks up to you. If you show any flaw, that you’re willing to crumble, the whole team is gonna crumble, because you are the guy that they look to.” Tom looked at me and said, “Oh, man, I’ve been wanting to talk to somebody about this for a long time. I really appreciate you talking to me, Big Jon.”
That was good, he got it off his chest. I said, “Just keep your mouth shut, keep practicing, and someday, you’re gonna start, and they’re not gonna take you out.” And then a week or so later, he started, and they never took him out after that. That’s just the way it is.
People that are in this business a long time know athletes, they know players. Great athletes are like stallions. You don’t want to break a stallion down. You want to just control him a little bit. You want him to be able to run and jump and do what he wants to do. You can’t break him down to where he’s a pony ride for a child. You want him to be a nice stallion.
Jimmy Harbaugh was like that. Brian Griese came in the spring of ’97, and he said to me, “Well, Big Jon, I’m coming back for my senior year.” I said, “My gosh, Griese, you’re gonna walk out of here with a Michigan diploma in your back pocket. Why do you want to come back for one more year? You’ve got no guarantee that you’re gonna be the starter on this team.” He looked at me and said, “Because, Big Jon, I want to go to the Rose Bowl. I want to play in the Rose Bowl.” I said, “Well, if you keep that attitude, and if a quarterback beats you out, at least he’ll take you to the Rose Bowl.” Little did anybody know at the time that, not only would he be going to the Rose Bowl, but that he’d be the MVP, and we’d win the national championship.
That’s what so great about athletes, that’s what’s so great about Michigan, the things you’re able to do at the University of Michigan.
In one sentence, what is Michigan tradition?
JF: Everlasting time, over time it’s proven itself.
Fritz Crisler wrote, “Tradition is something you can’t borrow. You can go down and buy it at the corner store, but it’s there to sustain you when you need it the most.” He said, “I have watched countless Michigan football coaches, countless Michigan players call upon it time and time again, There is nothing like it, I hope it never dies.” That was Fritz Crisler. And you know what? It hasn’t died. Michigan tradition is there, it’s being built every day. That’s what so great about working at the University of Michigan.
What is the most important lesson that you teach players, maybe something that transcends the football experience at U-M?
JF: Never get down, pick yourself back up, and go on to the next step. I think players even mention in the book that, even after a loss, Big Jon was in the locker room on Monday talking about the next game, and that’s the way it is. You’ve gotta get away from that, and you gotta move on to the next game.
Football equipment has undergone some changes since you got started in the business. How have the athletes changed?
JF: Let’s see, that a good question. I think the athletes are faster today than they used to be, I think they’re bigger today than they used to be. If you compare locker rooms from 20 years ago and today, the locker rooms are bigger because the bodies of the players are bigger, so you’ve goota have bigger lockers, you’ve gotta have a bigger space for those kids to accommodate them. Shoulder pads have gone down in size, because everybody wants to be movable, they want to be flexible. We’re wearing more body-built equipment underneath your shoulder pads to protect you. It’s lighter, more flexible. Everything’s gone lighter and smaller.
Personality-wise, how have they changed?
JF: You know what? I don’t see much difference in personality. Kids are still having fun, they still love Michigan football, they still enjoy the game. To be honest with you, they’re all the same.
The two nicest things are being with the players that are here today and to see the players who come back after they graduate. That is the fun of this job. Being here so long, since 1974, I’ve had a chance to meet and be with so many players. I’m still one of the only guys left now that the former players can come back and see, because I worked for Bo, I worked for Mo [former head coach Gary Moeller], I worked for Lloyd [Carr, former head coach], and now I work for Rich [Rodriguez, current U-M head coach]. So, it’s neat to see all those former players come back, and they all know that they can come back and see me, and I’m still the one guy who has been on the teams when they were playing here.
Bo hired you in 1974. Was he as irascible as he often appeared, or was there a softer side, too? The book mentions how he loved the Michigan band. What he was like away from the sidelines and the cameras?
JF: Heck, we’d go see Neil Diamond in concert. He’d call me up. "Hey, Falk, we’re going down to see Neil Diamond, why don’t you come on over here?" He enjoyed entertainment. I’d go out to his house, and we’d sit there and watch TV, and we’d watch movies. He was a big movie buff, he’d rent videos, and we’d watch them on the TV screen. He was a good guy. Yeah, he had to have that tough [exterior]. A lot like Woody [Hayes], and a lot like Bobby Knight [former Indiana University head basketball coach].
I tell the story in there [pointing to the book] about Bobby Knight. Whenever we’d go to Indiana, he’d pick me up on Friday night and we’d go to dinner. So, one day we went out and Bobby had a new credit card, and said he wanted to use at the gas pump. We drove around to four different places in Bloomington and not a one of them had a gas pump that took a credit card. So, I said, “Well, Bobby, you go in, and go to the office, slide the credit card after I pump the gas. So, I’m out there and I cannot get his gas cap off. I’m tryin’ to turn and turn. I look in there and there’s Bobby Knight, and he’s looking at me and his foot starting to stomp. So, he walks out and says “What’s goin’ on here?” I said, “Is there a trick to opening this gas cap?” He says “A trick? Give me that!” and takes it, pops it right off. After he popped the cap, he said, “Hey, Jon, you gotta be smarter than that gas cap.” So he grabbed the pump out of my hand, started to squeeze and pump, and he goes “What’s goin’ on, this isn’t working!” I said, “Hold on, Bobby,” so I and went over, flipped the lever on the gas pump and said, “You gotta be smarter than that gas cap," and he just laughed. So, they all have a laughable side to them.
How would you characterize Bo’s relationship with Woody?
JF: Friends, great friends. Woody was sick, and Bo had won an award down in Dayton, Ohio. So, Bo invited me to go down with him in 1987. We flew down, and the guy who flew us down was Bill Gunlock, who played with Bo for Woody down at Miami of Ohio. So, we go in, and Woody just looked terrible. He got up and gave a talk, and he had a hard time, but he did it. Bo ridiculed him afterward, saying “I told you not to come tonight, Woody I told you not to come.” In fact, Woody gave me a little pot of flowers. He said, “You married?” I said “No sir, but I’ve got a girlfriend.” He said [imitating Hayes’ gruff voice], “Here take these flowers, and give them to your girlfriend.” So I took them back to Cheri, who’s now my wife, and I said, “Hey, Woody Hayes gave these flowers to you!”
Going back in the plane, Bo said, “Boy, the old man didn’t look good tonight, did he? And we both said, no, he didn’t look good at all. Bo said, “Well, he’s so hard-headed, he doesn’t listen, I told him he’d introduced me enough, he didn’t need to come introduce me tonight.” I looked at him and said, “Hard-headed, huh? Sounds like some other people I know,” and everybody just laughed.
Here’s a beautiful story that I thought was good, you talk about Bo being able to laugh at himself. In 1985, I’m going down I-94. It’s about 40 degrees below zero in January. The snow’s coming down. Twice I said to myself, you know, I think I better turn around and better go back, the roads are getting bad. I said, no I’m gonna keep on going.
I go on, and there’s a guy hitchhiking on the side of the road, and I said, “Wow, he’s got a hat that looks just like Bo’s.” So, I went just a little further, and said “Wait a minute, that’s Bo’s car.” So I pulled off to the side of the road. I went back, and here was Bo standing on the side of the road, shaken, cold, his nose was red, his cheeks were red, his hands were cold. He looked up at me and he goes “I’m never been so happy to see your ugly face in all my life.” And I said, “Hey now, Bo, you better treat me nice. My car’s still running, and it’s warm!” So, I helped him get into the car, I turned on the heaters full blast. “I just want you to know, Jon, I’ve been on the side of that road for 45 minutes and not one person stopped. Three state troopers went by, and they didn’t even stop. You’d have thought that a state trooper would have said, ‘Hey, what’s goin’ on here?’ But no, they all passed me by.” And I said, “Well now, Bo, you gotta remember something. You were 6-6 last year.” And Bo looked at me and said, “Yeah, why don’t you just shut up, get me to the airport, and then get my car and have it in my driveway tomorrow morning.” I said, “Hey, Bo, I’ve got plans tonight.” He said, “Well, your plans just changed.” So, when I dropped him off at the airport, I had to call a friend of mine. We towed the car in, got it fixed, and I had it in his driveway the next morning. But he could laugh about that stuff. He told that story a hundred times after he got back, he thought it was funnier than heck.
Jon, you’ve got a great memory. Do you keep a journal?
JF: It’s really interesting. I used to tease Bo all the time that I was gonna write a book. Bo used to laugh, "Yeah, you could tell a lot of good stories." So, I started keeping notes in 1980 as I went along.
Dan Ewald did a great job of taking my voice, and the way I talked, and put it into the book. I’ve had so many letters. Rick Forzano, who coached the Detroit Lions, wrote me and said, "Jon, I only met you once, but I want you to know that I bought your book on Friday, I couldn’t put it down for the whole weekend. I knew Bo back in Barberton [Ohio], but I want you know, in my opinion, your stories brought Bo Schembechler back to life.” Now, that’s a tremendous compliment from a guy who coached as much as Rick Forzano did. Bobby Nichols, who was the retired basketball coach at Toledo, great guy, wrote me a letter. He said, "Jon, I read your book, I couldn’t put it down, and I want you to know that the stories you tell are so genuine, I enjoyed every one of them. I thought it was a great book.”
When you get letters like that from people, it makes you feel good. Many of my friend have said that, when you’re reading the book, Dan Ewald wrote it like it was just me sitting there spinning a story for somebody. That’s what really has helped the book a lot.
Do you compare notes with equipment managers from other universities?
JF: I call equipment managers from other universities all the time. Glenn Sharp was the equipment manager back at Bowling Green [University], and I was still a student and an assistant equipment manager at Miami of Ohio. In 1973, I was a full-time assistant, because I had graduated in 1971. Well, Glenn Sharp spearheaded to have an organization. I was one of the founding fathers with him, and a few other guys. Bob Knickerbocker from Michigan State was another one. But we helped form the Athletic Equipment Managers Association in 1974. That encompasses equipment managers from all across this country, all kinds of sports.
Before, communication was slow. I mean, the only time you really got to see the equipment manager from another football team was when you were on the road, or if you played them at home. When you’re on the road, you go the locker room, you set the stuff up, you practice that day or you prepare, and the next day is the game, then by the time the game’s over, you’re on a bus or jet and you’re headed back home, so you never had a chance to talk to other guys.
What we did with the Athletic Equipment Managers Association was we gave all the other equipment managers a chance to meet in summer and talk to each other. So, we all now are friends, and that’s what’s so great about the organization. Now, I can pick the phone up and call my buddy out at UCLA and say ‘Hey, what are you doing with football jerseys, what are you doing with football shoes?” We all know each other. Because of the organization, the educational level of the equipment manager has raised. Now, most equipment managers are college graduates. That has helped educate and make our profession a lot better than it used to be 35 years ago.
If a young person wanted to break into your field now, what advice would you have?
JF: I went to physical education and speech. But nowadays, you have athletic administration, and that is a good way to learn. Today’s job is so much different than what is used to be. It’s not just picking up the dirty towels, it’s not just picking up the laundry for the next day. Today there’s so much more in the business end of the field that business [education] would be a good place to go. You have to keep so many different records now because of auditors and audits. You have to have records of what you hand out, what people get, you have to work with the administrators on how much money is being spent.
I never will forget when I was taking a class at Miami. The professor made us work a budget up for an athletic team. How much money is being spent here, how much money is being spent there? And I said to myself, ‘What good is this doing me? I’m not gonna have to work about that.’ Well, every January when I start to do my budget work, I always laugh because I’m doing exactly the same things that I did back at Miami of Ohio. That’s what education is. There’s a lot of times you do things in college that you never think you will ever use again and yet, here you are, using those things that you were taught at that college.
I want to ask about your own football experience. You played, right?
JF: I played one football game in 8th grade. I got my face smashed to the ground, and said "I’m not playing this again."
The way I got started as a manager was when I went to high school, I lived across the street. The football team was practicing there, and I was gonna be a freshman that year. So I walked over to the football coach, and said "Sir, is there anything I can do to help the football team?” He said, "Well, don’t you want to play?” I said, "No, sir, I really don’t want to play." "Well, do you want to be a manager?" “Well, what does a manager do?” "Well, a manager does anything the head football coach tells him to do." I said, "Yeah, I can do that." And I’ll be honest with you, nothing’s changed since 1967. The equipment manager does exactly what the football coach tells him to do.’ [Hearty laughter]
Talk about the home-field advantage of playing at Michigan Stadium.
JF: I marvel. In fact, I was just talking with Dave Brandon [U-M Athletic Director] on Saturday. We were standing at the end of the bench area. I said, ‘Dave, look at this, isn’t this a beautiful stadium? What a great place to play football. What a great place for a student to come out of high school, to come to Michigan, to be able to play in that atmosphere, and in that stadium. Those suites have just immensely improved Michigan Stadium. It’s so pretty now. It’s the best stadium in the country. I love it.
I very seldom looked around at crowds before. But nowadays, when you go in there, you look at that crowd, you look at those stadiums. I mean, I know Wisconsin [Badger Stadium] is not nearly as big as Michigan Stadium. But, you walk in there, and the atmosphere at Wisconsin is so hippity-hoppity, and they’re always jumping up and down. That one year, we were playing them there and it was a tie game, and they were screaming and yelling, and I said “My gosh, how do they ever expect you to win a game here at Wisconsin?” Well, we had to punt the ball with a minute left, it hit one of Wisconsin’s guys on the leg, we recovered the fumble at the 6-yard line, we kicked a field goal and got the locker room, and I said, “That’s how you win!” [Laughing]
You mention so many former players in If These Walls Could Talk, but are there are unsung heroes you'd like to cite here, true Michigan Men who, for whatever reason, either didn't make it into the book or weren't considered stars on their teams?
JF: I’ll tell you, Brad Bates. Now, he’s in the book. But here was a guy who was a walk-on. He took his education at Michigan and now, he’s the athletic director at Miami of Ohio.
Doug James is not in the book. He was an unsung hero. He was a guy who came up Kentucky. He announces games now for some college football team down south. As a matter of fact, I’ll never forget, he was hurt when we played Ohio State. He broke his leg the week before, so he didn’t get to play. But Earle Bruce, the football coach at Ohio Sate, came over on the sidelines and shook his hand, and said he was awfully sorry he wouldn’t be able to play in that game. I think that’s the thing that people don’t realize is the respect that Michigan players, Ohio State players have for each other.
I saw Eddie George in an elevator one day at the hotel, and I had my Michigan gear on. I said, ‘Oh, Eddie George, I’m Jon Falk, the equipment manager for Michigan.’ He just lowered his head and said, ‘Listen, that ’95 game, I remember that all my life.’ That was a game. They were the best team in the country, and came into Michigan Stadium, and we just beat them. We beat them because of Tim Biakabatuka. He looked at me and said, “I hate Michigan, but I love to watch them play.’ And that’s the same with us. We love to watch Ohio Sate play. When I got home the other night, I watched Ohio Sate play. That’s just the way you are when you play for Michigan.
What other sports do you watch?
JF: I’m a big baseball guy, I love baseball. I’ve been to four College World Series with the Michigan baseball team. The Cincinnati Reds came up here in ’81 and worked out here at the University of Michigan during the strike. I got to be real good friends with Johnny Bench and Tom Seaver. I’m a very good friend of Sparky Anderson [Editor's note: Anderson passed away two weeks after this interview was conducted] and I’ve had a lot of fun with him. Jim Leyland is a good friend. I go down and see the Tigers. Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, he always teases me because they beat us in ’78 over here ‘cause he played for [Michigan] State. Every down I went down to a Tigers game, I’d walk in the clubhouse, and I had my Michigan gear on, and I had my Michigan hat. Finally, one day he walked over to the equipment manager, Jim Schmaegel, and said, ‘Jim, do me a favor, make Jon take that ‘M’ hat off, and give him a Detroit Tiger hat’ He said, ‘I can’t stand it.’ So, then we all laughed. I took the hat and out in my back pocket and put on the Tiger hat on, and he [Gibson] said, ‘You look a heckuva lot better.’ [Laughing]
But that’s the great thing about being in athletics. Michigan State, you see those guys, and you have fun with those guys. We all laugh about the games, we all talk about the games. When you beat them, you say something to them, and when they beat you, they say something to you.
So, it’s a real fraternity.
JF: It’s a fraternity. Like I say, football games last for only three-and-a-half-hours, but friends can last forever. I think that’s what this job, and this game, has helped me with. I’m just a guy. But working for the University of Michigan, and working for the Michigan football team, people know me.
I always tell people that working for the University of Michigan football program, or the University of Michigan, will get you to a door. When they ask you what your name is, and what you do, you tell them and they’ll let you in the door because of the University of Michigan. Now, after you get inside that door, how you act, and what you say on the inside is going to dictate how long they’ll let you stay around. That’s what I’ve learned through my years. What to say, how to act, and what to do once you get behind a door. I think that’s part of the education.
How many hours would you say you work during the season?
JF: Oh, I don’t really know, you don’t really count those hours, those are all fun times.
How do you keep yourself busy in the off-season? Hobbies, pursuits?
JF: The off-season is kind of a funny thing. As soon as we get back from the bowl game in January, we start winter workouts again. The only people who are missing are the seniors who graduated. Everybody else is working out every day. They’re weightlifting, and they’re running, and developing for the next year.
My wife, Cheri, and I have a place in Lewiston, Michigan. We have a boat up there, we’re 500 yards from the lake. We travel around the upper part of Michigan. I love the upper part of Michigan. I really enjoy that. I have to go to Mackinac Island. We go up to the Soo [Sault Ste. Marie] and drive up there sometimes to see the locks. So, I guess just sightseeing, traveling around seeing different things.
The one thing my wife wanted was a picture of the family in the book. Here’s the thing. You get a lot of people sometimes who get the book. First of all, this job takes a lot of time away from your family. So, to be able to put the family in a book like that is very neat because that’s one of the very few times that we’re all together, because you’re either on the road, or you’re at practice, or whatnot.
The thing of it is, when you write a book, some people will tease you because you wrote a book. Some people will say "Wow, you wrote a book." Others will say, "Wow, I read the book, it was a great book." So, you get a lot of different feelings about you writing a book. But, remember, the thing about the book is this: After I’m long gone, my little girl or my family is always gonna say, hey, that was my dad working for the University of Michigan, and all the football experiences. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, to share those experiences that I’ve had with these Michigan football players. People don’t know the humanistic side of a football team, or a coach. They don’t know the humanistic side. All they do is see the coach. They have no idea the pressures, the concerns, that he has to worry about, every day of his job.
If you weren’t equipment manager for Michigan, you’d be…
JF: I don’t know what I would be. I was very lucky in the sense that I was the manager for the high school team, and then I went to Miami University and I was the football and baseball manger for those teams. Luckily, along the way I met Bo Schembechler, who was the football coach at Miami of Ohio. When the job opened up here [at Michigan], he remembered me as a kid. I was just a freshman or sophomore. I was able to, luckily, go ahead and move on, and get to this level, because the University of Michigan is one of the biggest stages in the country.
There’s a little thing in there [pointing to the book] about Drew Henson, which I think is a great story. Drew Henson played quarterback here at Michigan. I saw him here a spring or so ago, and we were just talking. He said to me, ‘You know what, Jon? Playing for the University of Michigan, the biggest thing I remember is being able to go down to Ohio State to throw a touchdown pass, and to run for the winning touchdown against Ohio State.”
Now, think about this guy. He has played on the biggest stages in this country. The New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys, the Detroit Lions. Those are three big stages, and yet, and yet, he remembers the stage at the University of Michigan.
You know, I think the University of Michigan is a lot like New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. What happens at Michigan doesn’t go into the local gazette. What happens at Michigan is in USA Today every day.
In fact, I’m getting ready to make this little speech, and Bo used to read an article, “The Penalty of Leadership,” and it was written for the Saturday Evening Post, January 2, in the year of 1915. [Editor's note: Text appeared as an advertisement in the publication] It was copyrighted by the Cadillac Motor Car Company. Now, think about that. But, here’s what it says: “In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment fierce denial and detraction. When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes the target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be merely mediocre, he will be left severely alone–if he achieve a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a-wagging. Jealously does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write or paint or play or sing or build, no one will strive to surpass you or slander you, unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius.” 1915! And what’s changed, what’s changed? Then he goes on to talk for a little bit, then down here at the end, he says: “There’s nothing new in this. It is as old as the world, and as old as human passions–envy, fear, greed, ambition, and a desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains–the leader. Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live–lives.”
And he [Bo] used to read that every August to the football team when they’d come back, because that’s the way the University of Michigan is. Michigan is a leader, Michigan is the best, and you have to be able to handle and hold all these things that are talked about in this paper. And that’s why I think Michigan graduates are some of the best in the country, because they’ve had to live with these things on their shoulders. These Michigan football players live with this everyday, jealousy, envy. [Hearty laughter]
Tell me about when Gerald Ford stayed at your apartment during a visit to U-M.
JF: He was the president in 1976. I used to live by the golf course, and they had a bottom apartment house there for me. So, I had a kitchen, a living room, a bathroom, and a bedroom. Well, President Ford needed a place to stay for a golf tournament they were having for the University of Michigan. So, Bo called me in one day and said, “Jon, President Ford’s coming to town, and we’re gonna put him at your place, so he can go in, rest up, get ready for the golf tournament, then take a shower when they get ready to go home. Now, is your place clean?” I said, “Well, yeah, Bo, do you think I live in a pig sty?” And Bo said, "Now, Falk, I know you. What’s that place look like?” I said, “It’s clean” So, for two weeks, every day he’d see me, “Now, President Ford’s coming to town, Jon, is your place clean?”
Two days before President Ford’s supposed to arrive, he sent Lynn Koch, the secretary over to my apartment house. She came back, and I got a phone call from Bo who said they were bringing in professional cleaners. So the professional cleaners came in and cleaned the place up. So, I got to know the security guys, the Secret Service, and so the day he was there, President Ford was sitting on my couch smoking his pipe. I walked in and we shook hands I said “President Ford, do me a favor when you play golf with Bo today make sure you tell him that the place was clean because he’s been on my tail for two weeks.”
President Ford said “Now, Jon, the place is nice, very accommodating, thanks for having me here, I really appreciate it.” So we talked for 5, 10 minutes or so. Then as I was getting ready to leave, I turned around and said “Hey, President Ford, if you’re ever in Ann Arbor again, and you need a place to stay, you can stay at my place.’ President Ford took his pipe out of his mouth, and he looked at me and said, "Now, Jon, if I do, I’ll give you two weeks notice so you can get it cleaned up for me.” [Laughing]. So, yeah that was really nice. And we got to be good friends from that time on, and every time he came back to Michigan, he’d stop in the equipment room and see me, and I’d give him a Michigan golf shirt. He earned a letter here at Michigan, and I gave him a new letter jacket to wear. Every time, he’d always stop by.
Is there one moment in your career that stands out, something that makes for a good snapshot of Jon Falk and Michigan football?
JF: Yeah, the Rose Bowl in 1998. We had just beaten Washington State. We came in the locker room, and they all gathered around, and Lloyd said “Men, today you just won the national championship.” And to think of all the things that have gone on and all the things that happened. When they tell you that you’ve just won the national championship in football, that’s one of the greatest feelings in the world. That’s one thing I’ll never forget as long as I live, that Michigan was able to win a national championship, cause it’s hard to do, it’s very hard to do.
Do you know how much longer you plan to stay on?
JF: Well, I hope to last for a long time. I love the job. You know, I got my leg broken at Iowa in ’05, but it’s coming along fine. The doctors have done a good job there. I’m having fun at my job, I love the job, I love the kids. I love to work for the coaches. These coaches are great guys here at Michigan. I love to work for Rich [Rodriguez] and those guys. Rich has a great side to him, too. He’s able to laugh and joke. You can go up and talk to him, and the coaches are the same way. When you’re in a business like that, you have to be able to have some time to have some fun, because it’s just pressure all the time.
What would be the perfect ending to your career at Michigan?
JF: I want to go back to the Rose Bowl. I’ve been to 14 of them, and I want to go back one more time. That is the premier bowl of all bowls. When I was a kid, that’s all I lived for, to watch Ohio State play at the Rose Bowl, to see Coach Hayes, to see Bob Hope. And then, the amazing thing is, to be able to come to Michigan, go to the Rose Bowl, and then meet Bob Hope, and talk to him personally, give him a sweater. Even though he was an Ohio State guy, Bob Hope said, “I’ll keep this Michigan Rose Bowl sweater for the rest of my life.”
Shorter version of interview, which also includes an image slideshow, appears on Examiner.com.
Book cover image courtesy of Triumph Books. All other images courtesy of Jon Falk and Dan Ewald.
Interview copyright © 2010, Tim Pulice