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.
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"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.