Maize and Blue Memories: Falk's 40 Years with Michigan Football
Jon Falk

Nov. 30, 2013

Falk's 40 Years with Michigan Football video icon

At the Michigan vs. Ohio State football game on Nov. 30, 2013, the U-M Athletic Department will honor three individuals who are retiring after building iconic careers with the Maize and Blue: Jon Falk, Bruce Madej and Frank Beckmann.

After 40 years, Falk will retire as head equipment manager following the 2013 football season. Madej, who was U-M's sports information director from 1982-2010 and is now associate athletic director for special projects, will retire June 30, 2014, after 34 years of service. And Beckmann, the voice of Michigan football, will retire at the end of this season after 33 years in the radio booth. is recognizing each of these men in the days leading up the "Big Game." The series started Nov. 27 with Madej's top personal moments of his career, continued Nov. 29 with Beckmann's favorite moments from his time in the radio booth, and concludes with the full-length version of the Falk feature from today's game program.

By Courtney Ratkowiak

And now, the end is near and so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I'll make it clear, I'll state my case, of which I'm certain.
I've lived a life that's full, I've traveled each and every highway,
And more, much more than this, I did it my way.

Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk recites those Frank Sinatra song lyrics from memory, leaning back in his chair in his office in Schembechler Hall. He's talking about his retirement after 40 years of serving the Michigan football program. And like so much else in his career, this decision to retire was influenced by advice from Bo Schembechler.

When Schembechler retired in 1989, Falk, even with no retirement date in mind, asked his longtime boss and friend for advice on retirement -- and Bo quoted that song.

When it's time to leave, do it your way, with nobody else needing to tell you it's time to go.

For 40 years, Falk has done it his way. And for all those years, his way has worked. He has worked for seven athletic directors and five football coaches. He has been a part of 36 bowl games, 17 Big Ten championship teams, 14 Rose Bowl teams and one national championship team. In 488 games over those 40 years, he has seen 353 wins, 128 losses and seven ties.

This Saturday (Nov. 30), when Falk stands on the Michigan Stadium sideline for the final time, one more statistic will be at stake: his all-time record against Ohio State. At one point in his career, Falk enjoyed a 17-9-1 record against the Buckeyes. Now, he is 19-19-1. His 40th Michigan-Ohio State game will be his last chance to leave Ann Arbor with a winning record against his most bitter rival.

But as much as Falk keeps track of the numbers, his stories are far more entertaining. From 1974 through the Wolverines' national championship season in 1997, Falk took detailed notes to remember those stories -- "just every time something was funny" -- and keeps those notes, along with his overall game tally, in a big file cabinet in his office.

He doesn't need the notes. The stories roll off his tongue as if he has rehearsed them a thousand times.

And of all his stories, Falk's favorite stories are about Bo.

Falk is the last direct link to Schembechler remaining on the Michigan football staff, and a big reason why the first stop for many former players is Falk's office in Schembechler Hall.

It's easy to see Schembechler's influence on the reputation Falk has built for himself in Ann Arbor. When listening to former Michigan players reminisce about Big Jon, it's easy to imagine they are talking about Bo himself.

"I think when I first met Big Jonny, I was in part dumbfounded, and in part in fear. I didn't know what I was getting myself into," said Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand, who met Jon while a student manager in 1987. "He clearly was the master of his domain, and he let people in there very guardedly.

"Any freshman, whether he was a football player or helping out, was on probation from day 1. There's a sense of accomplishment from those of us who have been around Jonny that you sort of graduate into Jonny's good graces. I think with Jon, it is about making sure that those people he lets into his circle are as committed to helping the program as he is."

Those who were able to graduate into Falk's good graces waste no words when describing his impact on their lives. In an email interview, Tom Brady called Falk a "living legend." Michigan coach Brady Hoke said that Falk is the "most loyal guy to Michigan football I've ever been around." Other former players consistently describe him as the program's gatekeeper, the ambassador, and "as Michigan as the winged helmet."

Hearing that, it's hard to believe the quintessential Michigan Man started as a boy worried to leave the city limits of Oxford, Ohio.

Jon Falk

After working as the team manager at Talawanda High School in Oxford, Falk commuted to Miami University and started working with the equipment staff. The football coach at the time was Bo Schembechler -- "a pretty rough guy" -- so Falk stayed away from him and quietly did his job. When Falk graduated in 1971, he took a full-time position as the Miami assistant equipment manager.

Two years later, Schembechler, who had left Miami for Michigan after the 1968 season, called the Miami athletic department. He wanted Falk, who he remembered as a student, to come to Ann Arbor and interview for the Michigan equipment manager position.

During the interview, Schembechler asked Falk, "What's your biggest dream? What would you love to do?"

Falk quickly answered -- his dream was to go to the Rose Bowl. Bo guaranteed that if Falk came to Ann Arbor, he would go to Pasadena.

"Bo told me, 'Let me tell you this. You come to Michigan, and there are gonna be doors you're going to get to that you never thought about getting to in your lifetime. But because you work at Michigan, you're going to get to that door,' " Falk said.

During the drive back to Oxford, Falk's excitement about the job turned to anxiety. He didn't think he could leave his mother and grandmother alone in Oxford, but his mother, tearfully, told him he needed to accept the job. The next morning, Falk called Schembechler.

"Coach Schembechler, my mother thinks I should go to Michigan," Falk told Bo.

"Your mother is a very smart woman," Bo responded. "See you in five days."

Later that week, Falk left his home in his red car, wearing his red Miami jacket, to start life in Ann Arbor. And it didn't take long for Schembechler's promise to Falk to ring true -- doors started to open quickly for the young equipment manager. Falk was able to fulfill his dream of going to his first Rose Bowl within five years.

Jon Falk

With the wins came the national exposure. That same season, during President Gerald Ford's 1976 visit to Ann Arbor, Schembechler decided the President should stay in Falk's house near the U-M Golf Course. Falk returned to his house once during the President's stay and walked in to find Ford sitting on the couch in Falk's living room. A few decades later, the whole Michigan football team, including Falk, met President Bill Clinton at the White House after winning the 1997 national championship. And after Falk suffered a broken leg on the sideline against Iowa in 2005, he came home one day to a brown envelope in his door -- from President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, who wrote that they had seen Falk get hurt on the sidelines and hoped he felt better soon.

The doors continued to open for Falk as he sealed his reputation as a confidante for countless Michigan legends. By the time quarterback Tom Brady arrived in Ann Arbor, Falk had already enjoyed many years of success. Whenever Brady, who was particularly close to Falk, asked him which ring was his favorite, Falk would always respond the same: "My best ring is gonna be my next ring."

Brady loved that, and he didn't forget it.

"I'll be darned if he doesn't go play for the New England Patriots, and I watch him at a press conference, and somebody goes, 'Hey, Tom, you've won three world championships now. Which ring's your best ring?'" Falk remembered. "And Tom says, 'Well, you know, there's an equipment manager at Michigan, Big Jon, and I don't know how many rings he has now, but he always said that his best Big Ten championship ring was his next ring. And you know what, that's pretty much the way it is.'"

Jon Falk

Falk had never been sure when he would be ready for retirement, but this year, he decided this would be his last chance for that next ring. He was ready to talk to director of athletics Dave Brandon.

And at the end of that meeting, when both men stood up to leave, Falk again quoted that Frank Sinatra song he had heard so many years ago from his mentor.

I've lived a life that's full, I've traveled each and every highway,
And more, much more than this, I did it my way.

Brandon got up, shook Falk's hand and told him, "You're exactly right."

"As I walked out the door, I realized Michigan football has been my life, my whole life," Falk said. "But it's time for me to retire. I guess it's about time for me to get home and see how my wife and kids are getting along, and maybe time for me to watch a football game once in awhile and see what it's like."

Jon Falk

Equipment Manager Falk to Retire Following 2013 Football Season (7/22/13)

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