The Mellow Men of Michigan: Bo Schembechler's Gridiron Sons

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The Mellow Men of Michigan: Bo Schembechler's Gridiron Sons
Mike Powell/Getty Images
Bo Schembechler helped The Mellow Men become champions and to strive for success both on and off the football field.

Two houses down from the intersection of Geddes Road and Observatory Road lies a Michigan football landmark. There is no plaque commemorating its historical relevance, but anyone old enough to remember the class of 1968 knows all about it.

This is not just any old house; it is The Den of the Mellow Men.

The seven former tenants of 1345 Geddes Road were once the largest group of African-Americans on scholarship in Michigan history. Although George Jewett became the first African-American to letter in football for the Wolverines in 1890, it took close to 80 years for players of the same descent to become the faces of the program.

Billy Taylor, Butch Carpenter, Glenn Doughty, Mike Taylor, Mike Oldham, Reggie McKenzie and Thom Darden made up this groundbreaking group. They became affectionately known as The Mellow Men.

Today, just seven African-Americans on a Michigan roster would be an anomaly.  However, during the 1960s, college football was not yet fully integrated. Many SEC teams, including Bear Bryant’s mighty Crimson Tide, wouldn’t integrate until the late '60s and early '70s.

“When we came in as freshmen, we realized Michigan traditionally had not had a lot of black players,” Billy Taylor said. “The alumni were not used to seeing a lot of black players out there in those winged helmets.”

The Black Action Movement helped raise the number of African-Americans admitted to the University of Michigan. Photo courtesy of AnnArborChronicle.com.

Racial tensions were high. The Black Action Movement on campus sparked both controversy and national conversation. All the while, the Vietnam War began causing uproar worldwide.

All this lingered in the minds of The Mellow Men. However, they were preoccupied with winning.  The success the 1969-71 teams brought to Ann Arbor created the culture that made Michigan what it is today.

The Mellow Men led the charge, while Bo Schembechler directed the battle.

 

A New Sheriff in Town

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Schembechler's tough practices wound up driving several players out of the program.

When Schembechler took over as head coach of the Wolverines in 1969, two Mellow Men thought their careers were finished.

The group had all signed up to play for beloved Bump Elliott. Conversely, everyone thought Schembechler was crazy.

“I love Bump Elliott. He was just the perfect gentleman and coach. He was a very likeable guy, well respected and very personable. That’s whom I wanted to play for,” Taylor said as he leaned back in his maize and blue chair. “Thom Darden and I had been recruited by Bo, and we already knew he was crazy, so we didn’t want to play for him.”

Those comments are not surprising considering the 6 a.m. workout Schembechler put Darden and Taylor through during a recruiting visit to Miami (Ohio). Weightlifting, calisthenics and timed 40 and 100-yard dashes were all on the morning agenda.

To top it all off, Darden and Taylor had to play a full-court basketball game against the other Miami players. Needless to say, neither one was fond of Schembechler.

Boy were both of them in for quite a surprise come December 27, 1968. Taylor picked up his local newspaper and saw Schembechler had been hired by Michigan.

“I almost died,” Taylor said. “We came to play for Bump Elliott, not Bo Schembechler…I thought for sure my career was over before it even got started. He never said a word to me or Thom Darden for about a week. Finally, he targeted me. He said, ‘Taylor I want to see you after conditioning.’”

Taylor did as he was told and went to Schembechler’s office. Once inside, Taylor stood and watched Schembechler write and shuffle papers. After 10 minutes of silence, Schembechler just leaned back in his chair, put his hands over his head and finally looked at Taylor.

“Thought you got rid of me didn’t you?” Schembechler said, according to Taylor.

Darden got the same routine from the coach as well. From then on, there were no issues. Despite the tension of the times, race never became an issue on the team. Schembechler would not allow it.

Bo decided his team would be a family. He also said he would treat them equally. This was a breath of fresh air for The Mellow Men.  

I can honestly say race never became an issue in what we were doing on that team. Even during the Black Action Movement, none of the Caucasian guys came out and said anything negative,” Darden recalled. “There was never a blatant racial issue on that team.”

On the practice field, Schembechler worked The Mellow Men and the rest of the Wolverines harder than ever. A bond between the seven of them began to take shape. The grueling practices and time together in the West Quad dormitory made the group inseparable.

“After the 1969 season, we had all established ourselves as Wolverines and were starters. We decided we would get a house together,” Taylor said with a grin. “It was kind of funny how that came about, because Bo was against it.”

 

The Den 

Photo taken by Mike Oldham, who is not pictured. Photo courtesy of Glenn Doughty.

At the time, players were rarely able to use their scholarship money to get a house or apartment. Schembechler’s policy of non-preferential treatment also stood in the way of The Mellow Men acquiring a place of their own.

The Mellow Men were a clever bunch, though. Carpenter and Oldham went through athletic director Don Canham, who approved of them renting the house. Bump Elliott found the house for them and Doughty’s father made a sign for the front porch that read, ‘The Den of The Mellow Men’.

Although Schembechler did not know about the house until later on, the atmosphere in the house was one he would approve of.

“It was an expectation of success, working hard and being champions. Knowing we were always constantly improving ourselves mentally and physically,” Dougthy said. “The atmosphere was always positive.”

Family was also important at The Den. Every home game, the seven families would gather at the house for a post-game feast. Friends of The Mellow Men and coaches were frequent visitors on Saturdays as well.

Over the years, the group has forgotten some stories, but every one of them remembered the dinners. Fried chicken, barbecued ribs, macaroni and cheese and baked beans—the list goes on for days. Nobody went hungry at The Den.

Outside the house, The Mellow Men supported the other Michigan sports teams and went on road trips together. Only on rare occasions would a member of the group be spotted alone, according to Darden.

That’s what I remember more than anything. Just being in their company and walking around campus. We went to all the sporting events together. You always found three or four of us together at all times. I think that was probably due to us getting along so well that we enjoyed each other’s company.

 

The Revival of Michigan Football

Bo’s arrival in Ann Arbor, combined with the motivation of The Mellow Men to claim a championship together, built a winning formula. And it came to fruition much earlier than anyone expected.

The Wolverines won the Big Ten title in 1969 after a monumental 24-12 upset over the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. Taylor and Doughty played major roles in Michigan’s offensive output in the victory. On defense, Darden notched a second-half interception that helped the Maize and Blue seal the game.

That win changed everything for the Wolverines.

Prior to the improbable win over the Buckeyes, attendance was down and the fans had lost interest. Everything changed after the upset. The Big House was packed on Saturdays. Support for the team reached new heights. All of it helped The Mellow Men pile up win after win.

Over the next two seasons, the Wolverines amassed a 20-2 overall record. Visiting opponents were dominated. Michigan won all 13 of its home games from 1970-71 by an average of 33.4 points.

The pinnacle of it all came in 1971 when The Mellow Men were all seniors. Taylor’s touchdown in the closing minutes sealed a 10-7 victory in the season finale against Ohio State. A pair of interceptions from Darden enabled the Wolverines to shut down the Buckeyes’ offense. The win capped an 11-0 regular season and gave Schembechler a second Big Ten title in three years.

Billy Taylor's late touchdown against Ohio State helped Michigan finish the 1971 season 11-0

Each of The Mellow Men played an important role in the success of those teams.

McKenzie, a starting offensive guard, was one of four Mellow Men to earn All-American honors in 1971. The college football Hall of Famer was also a two-time All-Big Ten performer.

Doughty led the Wolverines in receiving yards as a senior. He was an electrifying kick returner as well and played in the College All-American and All-Star Games.

Fellow offensive standout Billy Taylor was Michigan’s top rusher for three consecutive seasons. In addition to being a three-time All-Big Ten running back and an All-American, Taylor left Michigan as the all-time leading rusher (3,072 yards). Only Mike Hart averaged more rushing yards per game than Taylor (102.3 per game) in school history.

Doughty and Schembechler talking things over on the sidelines. Photo courtesy of Cleveland.com.

The other two All-Americans were linebacker Mike Taylor, who led the ‘71 team in total tackles, and Darden. Eleven career interceptions has Darden locked in a tie for sixth all-time in the Michigan record book.

Oldham and Carpenter were not as highly touted but made contributions at split end and defensive end, respectively.

Upon the expiration of their eligibility, NFL teams drafted six of the seven Mellow Men. Had Carpenter been completely healthy during draft workouts, it is likely the entire group would have been selected.

 

Politics

Despite the fact Schembechler wished for his players to stay out of political issues, nothing could stop The Mellow Men from joining the rallies.

“We didn’t stay out of them,” Doughty chuckled. “We were right in the thick of it.”

Not even spring football kept the group from protesting the university’s lack of integration in 1970. The Black Action Movement shut down the school for 18 days before the students won their battle. It even managed to postpone one of Schembechler’s practices.

“Bo was good about it. He recognized it was something we felt strongly about. So, in order for us to participate that Friday he called off practice. In actuality, we had a practice, but he just moved it to another day,” Darden laughed. “I thought it was pretty significant for Bo to do that.”

The controversial Vietnam War was a political movement The Mellow Men were in the middle of, too.

In 1970, Billy Taylor and Doughty were named to the U.S. State Department’s All-American team. The two went on a three week trip to Vietnam in order to increase troop morale. This was no vacation, though. Their safety could not be guaranteed given the situation.

Both found out how dangerous the country was during their first night. A bomb placed at the base of their hotel was eventually disarmed. Had it gone off, half the building would have been decimated.

Another unforgettable memory from the trip came while the two were visiting wounded soldiers. One severely injured soldier recognized Taylor and shared a memory. Taylor was immediately overcome with emotion.

"He managed to smile and said, 'Billy Taylor! I watched you play in the Rose Bowl!' That was moving, and I'd never seen anything like that before."

Those experiences inspired both of them to come back and sign petitions to end the war. Schembechler could not have been prouder.

 

Schembechler's Lasting Impact

Today, Billy Taylor helps addicts recover at Get Back Up, Inc. Photo taken by Zach Dirlam.

Making an impact off the field was as important to Schembechler as success on the gridiron. None of The Mellow Men have failed in this regard.

After blocking on the Buffalo Bills’ famous offensive line known as “The Electric Company,” McKenzie founded the Reggie McKenzie Foundation. It is approaching its 40th anniversary. Over the years, the organization has helped inner city youth in Detroit build life skills and self-esteem.

Following an All-Pro career with the Cleveland Browns, Darden became a sports agent. He now runs The Darden Group, Inc. Additionally, Darden works with a non-profit organization at his church that helps children build their reading and comprehension skills.

Doughty has arguably been the busiest of the group. Not only is he the CEO of Career Information Training Network, he also founded the Shake & Bake Family Fun Center in inner-city Baltimore. The 72,000 square foot center is in its 31st year of operation.

A series, co-produced by Doughty and the late Steve Sabol of NFL Films, highlighting NFL players’ and owners’ community involvement is set to air in the near future as well.

Mike Taylor works for a security firm in Detroit, while Oldham is employed by a youth counseling center in the same city.

In spite of Carpenter’s sudden death at age 22, his legacy lives on today at Michigan. For the past 35 years, an African-American law school scholarship has been in Carpenter’s name at the university. First-year BLSA students receive the scholarship every year.

Finally, Billy Taylor runs Get Back Up, Inc., a rehabilitation center for addicts in metro-Detroit. The work Taylor does today stems from the experiences he had being incarcerated, homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol on the city streets. 

On Aug. 17, 1997, Taylor gave up drugs and alcohol for good. He went on to earn a doctorate degree from UNLV and wrote a book titled “Get Back Up: The Billy Taylor Story,” which details his rehabilitation. A documentary on Taylor’s life and recovery will air on the Big Ten Network in June.

“I think Bo would be proud of the things we’ve been able to do,” Doughty said with confidence.

The Mellow Men admit they do not stay in touch as much as they should, but their bond remains strong. 

“We don’t keep in touch probably as often as we should,” Darden said. “But a relationship like that, I’ll go to my grave knowing that if I needed something I could call one of those guys, or if they needed something they could pick up the phone and call me.”

Nothing could ever erode their brotherhood. No group of former Wolverines has made more of an impact both on the football field and in communities across the country. 

Schembechler's most famous phrase has an entirely different meaning to Billy Taylor today. Photo taken by Zach Dirlam.

 

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam.   

All of the quotes used in this article were obtained firsthand through interviews conducted by Zach Dirlam.

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