8:45 PM EDT, September 18, 2013
STORRS — The man he admired, the coach who could make the world shake, walked into his family's home in New Orleans. Warde Manuel's mom was ready for Bo Schembechler's recruiting visit that January more than a quarter century ago.
"My mom didn't make a lot of food for people, but that day she had prepared some gumbo," Manuel said Wednesday. "She knew I thought highly of Bo. My dad had watched Michigan. Bo enjoyed it and he said, 'If Warde comes to Michigan, I hope you'll send some gumbo up for me and I'll have him over to the house to enjoy it.'"
Later in 1986, after Manuel had chosen Michigan over Notre Dame and LSU, over Nebraska and UCLA, the Parade All-American defensive lineman out of Brother Martin High got a call from Schembechler's secretary.
"The head coach rarely calls, I'm a freshman and I'm like, 'Oh, boy, here we go.' But Bo picked up the phone and said, 'Your mom sent me the gumbo. Millie and I want you and a couple of the guys to come to the house Sunday.' I had forgotten about it. My mom hadn't."
Did you have a good time?
"Yeah," Manuel said. "Thankfully we won the game that Saturday."
Manuel's mom died a year ago. The home where the legendary Schembechler first tasted her gumbo? Wiped away by Hurricane Katrina. Schembechler, too, died at age 77 in 2006, the morning after he had delivered his Thursday night pep talk to the Wolverines before the Ohio State game. A pep talk, given the day of his former quarterback Tom Slade's funeral, one that lives in Michigan lore for Schembechler's not focusing on beating the Buckeyes, but exhorting the players to become as good a Michigan Man as Slade and ending with his famous, "team, team, team." It was a lesson Manuel had learned years earlier from Bo when his own dreams of playing in the NFL had dissolved.
Yet it also is a lesson that sits better at the Sunday dinner table if the team won on Saturday. Manuel, now the UConn athletic director, knows this better than anyone. After opening losses to Towson and Maryland and with a 10-16 record since 2011, Paul Pasqualoni's coaching seat is so hot these days you could bring gumbo to a boil. Manuel now must also rely on a final piece of advice Bo gave him in 2005 when he left Michigan to become athletic director at Buffalo: "Trust your eyes."
"I am frustrated," Manuel said. "The team is frustrated. I know the fans are frustrated. Paul and the staff are frustrated we haven't had the success they envisioned as we approached the season. But they haven't gone into a hole and buried their heads. They're working hard at being better and preparing themselves to play Michigan Saturday night. The effort level, the passion and intensity is there.
"As it relates to Paul, I will continue to evaluate the coaches and the program as I've always done. The analysis and evaluation is going to wait until the end of the year. … Should circumstances change and I need to do something different I reserve the right to that. But my focus is on supporting the coaches and student-athletes to be successful."
Manuel had planned to major in pharmacy out of high school and Michigan academics played a significant role in his decision. So did a Wolverine defense predicated on slants, aggression and movement.
"I liked the movement," Manuel said.
Let the record show that the defensive tackle also started five games at outside linebacker as a sophomore in 1987. Displeased with his linebackers, Bo turned to a 6-5, 260-pound redshirt freshman.
"Hey, I could pick 'em up and put 'em down back in the day," Manuel said.
That was before the neck problems. They started in the fall of 1988 in two-a-days. He would play periodically that season, in fits and starts.
"We couldn't figure it out," Manuel said. "We thought it was a pinched nerve. By spring ball after some rest I was fine. But in the summer I had problems off the field, non-contact."
In the worst episode, he fell to the ground, pain shooting down his shoulders and arms, down his back, too.
"I was positioned to start so I didn't say anything," Manuel said. "It went away. Then in two-a-days, it started again."
A senior academically, with two more years of eligibility left, he knew it was over.
Diagnosed as spinal stenosis and with bone spurs, his neck had degenerated to the point where, if he continued with football, the rest of his life could be ruined. Schembechler, who doubled as AD from 1988 to 1990 and retired as coach after the 1989 season, made sure Manuel kept his scholarship. Still, Manuel was distraught.
"Even today I can envision myself in my room, it hit me really hard," Manuel said. "I had aspirations and dreams as a kid to play in the NFL. It wasn't going to happen. It all hit me in a wave.
"My life experience really helped me as I got into athletic administration. I want to help our student athletes think about what happens when athletics end. I hope it doesn't end like it did for me, but I want them to hear from me that you need to start thinking about it now. I was fortunate. I had people around that really helped me."
One was Schembechler.
"When I sat down with him, he asked me a question and I immediately started crying. He said, 'Warde, what's most important is we get you taken care of physically and do what we promised your parents, get you a degree from Michigan.' The talk turned about securing a job after graduation. It was a special moment in my life because he wasn't angry, he showed no disappointment. He was helpful at a moment when I was so frustrated and sad. It was like a father to a son and not a coach to a player."
Manuel would get into sports administration, climbed the ladder at one of the most powerful programs in the nation. He met his future wife, Chrislan Fuller, while they both pursued graduate degrees at Michigan. She was refereeing a volleyball game between the law school and business school and, to her frustration, he kept blocking her vision. The plan worked.
"She's still a Wolverine fan," Manuel said. "But this game, she's definitely with the Huskies."
Rising to associate AD at Michigan, Manuel handled the business aspects of the football program. Essentially working between then-coach Lloyd Carr and then-AD Bill Martin, Manuel handled scheduling, budgets, travel, the bowl arrangements.
"What I learned at Michigan is my base for how I do things," Manuel said.
Although he didn't schedule the Michigan-UConn game and he was on the other side of scheduling the Buffalo game, Manuel will essentially be following his life's path the next two weeks. Will it be emotional?
"A little bit of a tug," Manuel said. "This is a special time in that there are friends at both places, some deep relationships with people who still work there. There's a deep love for me for both institutions in different ways. The irony is there. My first game as AD at Buffalo was against UConn.
"While I've looked forward to it for a long time, what's really special is to have Michigan at Rentschler for our team and for our fans."
Since 2009 Connecticut has looked forward to playing Michigan at the Rent. After the Huskies played the 2010 opener at the Big House, Michigan would have loved to have played this game at MetLife Stadium. Manuel held tight. How tight?
"They wanted to have a conversation about it and we did," Manuel said.
'It's sort of water under the bridge now. We chose to keep it here. I think they'll be impressed with Rentschler and our fans. I think our fans will respond Saturday night. The team will, too."
That's what a Michigan Man knows, team, team, team. At the same time, as Bo taught him, trust your eyes. Warde Manuel has some tough decisions ahead.
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