Former Michigan football star 'angered' by Jim Harbaugh's defense of Bo Schembechler

Rainer Sabin
Detroit Free Press

Jon Vaughn’s suffering has lasted more than a year. The 51-year-old retired running back has agonized ever since realizing in March 2020 he had been abused by Dr. Robert Anderson, the former University of Michigan athletic department physician accused of molesting hundreds of patients over decades.

He has become outraged at the institution that gave him an education and the opportunity to play football but did little to stop a predator from, as he put it, “roaming free, unfettered.”

He has felt betrayed by authority figures he once trusted, including Bo Schembechler, the iconic coach Vaughn blames for being aware of Anderson’s misbehavior and failing to intervene.

Pain. Anger. Disaffection. All at once, those feelings rushed to the surface Thursday after Jim Harbaugh fielded a question from a reporter about how U-M should handle Schembechler’s legacy following the release last month of a WilmerHale law firm report that revealed multiple instances when former athletes told investigators they had informed the now-deceased coach of Anderson’s improper practices at the time they were happening.

Harbaugh, who played for Schembechler and now holds the same position he once did, defended the man who presided over the Michigan football program from 1969 to 1989 and served as the school’s athletic director from 1988 to 1990.

Michigan running back Jon Vaughn at team practice in Jacksonville, Florida ahead of the 1991 Gator Bowl.

"Bo Schembechler ... there was nothing that I saw in the times when I was a kid here, my dad was on staff or when I played here ... he never sat on anything,” Harbaugh said at a football camp at Ferris State on Thursday. “He never procrastinated on anything. He took care of it before the sun went down. That's the Bo Schembechler that I know. There's nothing that ever was swept under the rug or ignored. He addressed everything in a timely fashion. That's the Bo Schembechler that I knew."

[ Ex-Michigan football player's 1998 novel mirrors findings in Robert Anderson abuse report ]

Later that day, Vaughn’s phone rang and pinged with texts and emails. Several former Michigan teammates contacted him. So did past Wolverines players from other eras. Survivors of other sex abuse scandals reached out to him. Family members did, too. Vaughn estimated he had 20 to 25 conversations. Many of the them began the same way, according to Vaughn: “Did you see what the (expletive) Harbaugh just said?”

Vaughn’s fury spiked.

“I thought it was completely heartless,” Vaughn told the Free Press on Friday. “He’s not a representative of the players. So, why is that he makes these comments as if he is an authority speaking for all of us because he is one of us? You say you knew Bo one way and we say we knew him another — you have more credibility in that?”

Harbaugh and Vaughn just missed crossing paths at Michigan. Harbaugh’s last season with the Wolverines was 1986. Vaughn arrived on campus two years later.

But both became stars.

Harbaugh was an All-Big Ten first team selection in 1986 while Vaughn was the conference’s co-offensive player of the year in 1990. As alumni of the football program, they shared a common bond now frayed because of the Dr. Anderson scandal. Sides have been taken within the family of Michigan Men, according to Vaughn. In one camp are victims of Anderson. In another are loyalists protective of the university and Schembechler's name. Vaughn and Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, who once shared the same locker room as college players and smoked a cigar together at the Outback Bowl three years ago, haven’t talked since the Anderson allegations surfaced.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh at the Citrus Bowl vs. Alabama, Jan. 1, 2020 in Orlando.

Speaking of Michigan football alumni, Vaughn said, “This has fractured us tremendously."

Vaughn has received significant backlash for speaking out about his experiences with Anderson since he first recounted them publicly in an article published by ESPN’s The Undefeated last summer. Some former teammates have tried to impugn his character, Vaughn said. Threats have also been made by others, although he didn’t specify the source.

But Vaughn has remained vocal about his trauma. He even made a trip from his North Texas home to the Michigan Capitol last September to support legislation that would expand the ability of sex abuse survivors to pursue litigation. In Lansing, Vaughn acknowledged his suffering once again. He estimated he saw Anderson 45 to 50 times and was routinely administered a rectal or testicular exam. Vaughn’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer his senior year of high school and he said the program’s leadership — including Schembechler, his primary recruiter Les Miles and Anderson — were aware of her illness. In retrospect, Vaughn theorized Anderson used that knowledge to prey on his fears of the deadly disease to conduct his invasive exams. But Vaughn compartmentalized the memories from those visits in the decades that followed.

It wasn’t until March 26, 2020, that Vaughn realized what happened after opening a linked article detailing the Anderson allegations sent to him by a former teammate.

“It’s not like this is a badge or bill of honor,” he said. “That’s where the disconnect comes with the insensibility that Harbaugh has continually shown in his comments.”

Harbaugh has only publicly talked about the Anderson scandal twice — once in July 2020 and again on Thursday. In each instance, he didn’t express sympathy for the victims of Anderson, who was once Harbaugh’s family doctor.

“Took a physical for every youth sport that I played and also when I was here in college for football, yearly physical,” Harbaugh said last year. "Never saw anything inappropriate, nor did I ever hear anything that was inappropriate about Dr. Anderson. Never experienced anything inappropriate, never heard any time where there was anything inappropriate by Dr. Anderson."

Michigan running back Jon Vaughn carries the ball against  Maryland.

But the WilmerHale investigation found Anderson committed “sexual misconduct on countless occasions” during a tenure that spanned 37 years and his exams were a “running joke” among members of the football team. According to the law firm’s report, four student-athletes said they complained to Schembechler about Anderson’s methods.

“I will never speak out defending those who enabled and let wrong be wrong,” Vaughn said. “So, to have Jim Harbaugh, who is average at best in his career as a Michigan head coach, be an authority of what has already been what close to 1,000 victims … it is clearly in a lot of minds, in a lot of us survivors, that you’re against us.”

A day after Harbaugh made his comments, Vaughn’s pain and ire continued to burn. It’s uncertain when they will subside. The emotions remain raw as ever.

“I was not only angered but also hurt,” Vaughn said, “because we have to relive this every day.”

Contact Rainer Sabin at Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter