Schembechler son, players say Michigan coach knew of abuse

Michigan

NOVI, Mich. (AP) — One of legendary University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler’s sons and two of his former players described in detail Thursday how they were molested by the team’s longtime doctor and how Schembechler turned a blind eye when they told him about the abuse, telling one to “toughen up” and punching his son in anger.

Matt Schembechler, 62, and former Wolverines players Daniel Kwiatkowski and Gilvanni Johnson told similar stories about how Dr. Robert E. Anderson, who died in 2008, molested and digitally penetrated them during physical exams decades ago. They also talked about how Bo Schembechler, a Michigan icon whose statue stands outside a university building that bears his name, refused to protect them and allowed Anderson to continue abusing players and other patients for years.

Anderson “was supported by a culture that placed the reputation of the university above the health and safety of the students,” Matt Schembechler said during a news conference in the Detroit suburb of Novi. “That is the culture that made my father a legend and placed his statue in front of Schembechler Hall.”

“Dr. Anderson was part of the University of Michigan team,” he continued. “He was part of Bo’s team, therefore, he was more important than any man. It’s very clear that Bo and the university always put themselves before any student-athlete or son, just to support the brand.”

The three are among hundreds of men who were allegedly abused by Anderson during his nearly four decades working for the university — a period in which he also treated staffers, their families and other patients. And their assertion that Bo Schembechler, who died in 2006, knew about the abuse and allowed it to continue calls into question his legacy at the university.

Robert Anderson
This undated file photo provided by the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan shows Dr. Robert E. Anderson. (Robert Kalmbach/Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan via AP)

Kwiatkowski and Johnson said it was common knowledge among their teammates that Anderson abused players during the physicals they had to get from him, which Johnson said players jokingly referred to as “seeing Dr. Anal.” Both players said Bo Schembechler broke a promise to protect them that he made while recruiting them to the school.

“Bo promised them that if I attended the University of Michigan and played football that Bo would be a father to me and look after me like I was family,” Kwiatkowski said, referring to his parents. “We were a poor, working-class family and my parents were very worried about my future and being able to pay for medical bills. Bo promised my family that he would keep me safe, make sure I got the best medical treatment. We were sold.”

Kwiatkowski, an offensive lineman from 1977-79, said Anderson abused him on four occasions. He said that during his first mandatory physical his freshman year, Anderson groped his genitals and inserted fingers in his rectum. The former player said he approached Schembechler after one practice and told him about the physical.

“Bo looked at me and said ‘Toughen up,’” Kwiatkowski said.

Matt Schembechler, 62, said Anderson abused him during a 1969 physical that he needed to get in order to play youth football. He said when he told his father, who was then in his first year of his iconic run with the Wolverines, his father punched him in the chest.

“This was the beginning of the end of the relationship with him,” Matt Schembechler said Thursday about his father. “I hoped my father would protect me, but he didn’t.”

He said his mother Millie, a registered nurse, “didn’t give up,” inviting the athletic director at the time, Don Canham, to their home so he could describe the abuse.

“It was my understanding Mr. Canham terminated Dr. Anderson, but shortly thereafter, Bo had him reinstated,” Matt Schembechler said. Canham died in 2005, one year before Bo Schembechler.

A report commissioned by the university and released last month found that Bo Schembechler and other officials were aware of complaints about Anderson but he was allowed to remain at the school for decades.

Asked why they decided to come forward about the abuse, Johnson said it was important to put faces to the allegations and to make sure there could be no doubt that Bo Schembechler was aware of the sexual abuse. He also talked about how the abuse has affected his life.

“Because of my experience at Michigan, I did not trust doctors,” Johnson said, adding that he “had trust issues, relationship issues and intimacy issues” and that he “lost two marriages” because of the abuse.

Johnson, who broke down at one point, said he has “always been too promiscuous in an effort to prove to myself and to others that I was a man.”

The university said in a statement Thursday that it is committed to resolving claims made by Anderson’s victims and is continuing confidential mediation ordered by a judge.

“Our sympathy for all of Anderson’s victims is deep and unwavering, and we thank them for their bravery in coming forward. We condemn and apologize for the tragic misconduct of the late Dr. Robert Anderson, who left the University 17 years ago and died 13 years ago,” the school said in its statement, which didn’t mention Bo Schembechler once. “We are committed to resolving their claims and to continuing the court-guided confidential mediation process.”

It added that since Anderson left campus, the university has added several programs designed to prevent abuse.

Michigan’s current football coach, Jim Harbaugh, who played quarterback for Schembechler in the 1980s after growing up in Ann Arbor as the son of an assistant coach, was asked last week how the university should treat Schembechler’s legacy in light of recent reports related to Anderson.

“There was nothing that I saw in the times that I was a kid here, my dad was on the staff or when I played here,” Harbaugh told reporters. “He never sat on anything. He never procrastinated on anything. He took care of it before the sun went down. That’s the Bo Schembechler that I know.”

Harbaugh wasn’t available to speak Thursday about the latest revelations.

Bo Schembechler led the Wolverines from 1969-89 and had 194 wins at college football’s winningest school. His career record was 234-65-8, including six seasons at Miami of Ohio.

Another of his sons, Glenn “Shemy” Schembechler, didn’t immediately reply to a message seeking comment about his brother’s revelations. In the university’s report, he expressed doubt that his father could have known about the abuse.

FORMER COACH: SCHEMBECHLER WOULDN’T COVER UP ABUSE

As the Thursday press conference was nearing its end, one of Schembechler’s former assistant coaches came to his defense. Elliot Uzelac has a lengthy resume that includes two stints coaching alongside Schembechler at the University of Michigan in the 1970s and 1980s. He came out of retirement to coach high school teams in St. Joseph, Benton Harbor and, now, Berrien Springs.  

“These rumors about coach Schembechler avoiding discussion about Dr. Anderson, I don’t believe them,” Uzelac told News 8 during a brief phone conversation. “The Bo that I worked for would have never of done that. He absolutely adored his players and his son and I don’t see that happening.” 

Team photo courtesy University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library. Image modified by News 8 to highlight Elliot Uzelac and Bo Schembechler.

Asked if he watched Matt Schembechler’s press conference, Uzelac said he had not, but he had read news articles leading up to it the night before. 

“You have to understand that his son Matt, they’ve have always had an issue,” Uzelac said. “They’ve always had an issue and I’m not sure what the situation would be there, but I know that I don’t believe any of these accusations about coach Schembechler. I do not and that’s all I can say.” 

News 8 also talked with former University of Michigan athletes in West Michigan, at least one of whom is involved in the ongoing lawsuit against the university.  The athletes said they are still processing the new developments and are not ready to do interviews.  

STUDENTS WONDER WHETHER HALL SHOULD BE RENAMED

On campus in Ann Arbor Thursday, students said they were alarmed by the allegations.

“You never want these things associated with the university that you go to and when you kind of hear about these things being covered up or pushed away can be really concerning,” student Ben Juhasz, who is from Grand Haven, said. “Reading through the stuff that actually happened, the documented kind of interactions that the doctor had with the players and how Schembechler handled it was very concerning.”

“Even though the doctor and Bo have passed away, I still think it’s important to look into it for the sake of the families who were affected by it,” fellow student Alex Curwin agreed.

Schembechler Hall at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on June 10, 2021.

They said the university may have to consider removing Schembechler’s name from a football building and taking down a statue of the long-revered coach from in front of it.

“His name is one of the most popular things that you think of with success here with football, so it’s important that we kind of take a step back and as a university we try to figure out how to kind of resolve this issue,” Juhasz said.

“I think it depends like how severe the coverup was and like whether he was like a key player in it or if he was just in the background and may or may not have known about it, but if they clearly find that he was responsible for covering it up, I don’t think he can be representing the university at that point,” Curwin said.

Schembechler Hall at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on June 10, 2021.

Other students say it is hard not to believe the allegations with more people coming forward.

“It’s hard for me to think (Matt Schembechler is) making it up, so I really think they should look into it and if it’s true, they probably should try to distance themselves from the Schembechler name,” student Rob Kress said.

The university did not respond to News 8’s question about whether removing the statue or renaming the hall was a possibility.

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News 8’s Jacqueline Francis and Kyle Mitchell and AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Ann Arbor contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to delete a reference to Bo Schembechler dying in 2004. He died in 2006.

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