Sunday, April 05, 2009

Bo Told Frieder Where To Go Before '89 Tourney

Bo Schembechler wasn’t the athletic director at the University of Michigan for very long. But, not surprisingly, it was long enough for him to make his mark.

It was 20 years ago to the day, as I write this, when the Michigan Wolverines won the NCAA basketball tournament.

They did it under the guidance of an assistant coach, because Bo told the head coach where to go and exactly when.


The U-M team of 1989 is getting the short shrift around town. Much of the ballyhoo, and it’s hard to argue it, centers around the 30th anniversary of the 1979 champs from Michigan State. The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird battle of ’79; MSU vs. Indiana State. The start of a beautiful rivalry, one that carried over into the NBA.

The fact that MSU now appears in the 2009 Final Four, 30 years later, in Detroit no less, does absolutely nothing to abate the nostalgia.

Nor should it.

While the drama in the ’79 tournament occurred on the court, the storyline in 1989 got rolling before any of the teams played a single tourney minute.

Bo was about ready to retire as Michigan’s football coach. He was going to coach one more year. But from 1988 to early 1990, Schembechler added A.D. to his title.

So in 1989, Bo found himself in the spotlight even though it was basketball season. He didn’t go looking for it, though.

The Wolverines were coached by Bill Frieder, and had been since 1981. The basketball program had some success under Frieder. The man could recruit. He began pilfering most of the best high school talent from Detroit and Flint, two of the state’s basketball hotbeds. Sometimes right from under the nose of Jud Heathcote, coaching at rival MSU.

Michigan won the 1984 NIT title, the saccharin to the NCAA tournament’s sugar. It was a nice little championship, but not the big prize that the folks in Ann Arbor had in mind when they saw one great high school player after the other enroll.

The 1988-89 team piqued the hopes of the Michigan faithful.

Led by guard Rumeal Robinson and forward Glen Rice, U-M went 21-6 in the regular season. Frieder’s kids were one of the top-seeded units going into the tournament.

The college coach leaving one school to go to another is a drama frequently played out. I’ve always found it odd that when players choose to transfer, they must sit out one entire season before they can play for their new school. Yet coaches can come and go as they please. Sometimes without the inconvenience of having to tell the truth about their plans.

Darryl Rogers, in 1980, promised the folks in East Lansing that the scuttlebutt of him fleeing to the desert to coach football at Arizona State was a bunch of hooey. And he kept asserting that, almost to the moment that he boarded a plane for a press conference at ASU.

Nick Saban, a couple years ago, angry and his voice full of indignation, became defensive when reporters quizzed him about rumors that he was about to become the new football coach at Alabama. Saban assured the pesky reporters, and his employers, the Miami Dolphins, that there was no fire near that smoke.

A few days later, Saban was at Alabama, being introduced as the Crimson Tide’s new coach.

But that's OK; just as long as the kids sit out a year at their new school.

Coach Frieder, with Glen Rice--before finding out that honesty wasn't always the best policy

Even Schembechler, in the early-1980s, found himself being courted, by Texas A&M. But Bo was forthright, and didn’t deny the rumors. In fact, he went out of his way to let everyone know that he was thinking about it, hard.

So when Billy Frieder told his boss, Bo, on the eve of the ’89 tournament that an offer had been made for him to coach at Arizona State, and that he’d be taking the job as soon as he got done coaching the Wolverines, Schembechler blew a gasket.

Bo fired Frieder, on the spot.

“A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Bo famously declared. And in his eyes, Bill Frieder was only partly a Michigan man, now that he’d accepted another job, effective at the end of the season.

Assistant Steve Fisher was named interim coach, for as long as U-M would last in the tourney.

The “Michigan man” quote is legendary, and followed Schembechler to his death in 2006. It was practically used as part of his epitaph.

Now here’s the funny part: Frieder was a U-M grad. Fisher was not.

That’s OK; why should the facts get in the way of a good rah-rah speech?

So Steve Fisher, who few people had ever heard of even though he was in his seventh year as a Michigan assistant, was, in an instant, the U-M coach for the tournament.

A--ahem--"Michigan man." Kinda, sorta.

Steve Fisher: nobody could beat his coaching debut

The tournament commenced—Frieder kicked to the curb, the unknown Fisher coaching.

Michigan won their first round game. Then their second. In the Sweet Sixteen, Michigan continued to roll. In the game that sent them into the Final Four, U-M demolished Virginia, 102-65. All while A.D. Bo Schembechler grinned. His “Michigan man” was 4-0, two victories away from the brass ring.

In the Final Four, Michigan would have to face Illinois, who beat them twice in the Big Ten season. They say it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season. They were right; Michigan slipped by Illinois. They were in the championship game.

Michigan man” Fisher was now 5-0.

Finally, some drama ON the court, in the Final against Seton Hall. The game went into overtime. Robinson calmly hit two clutch free throws. Michigan won, 80-79. They were champs, under the interim Fisher.

Bo smiled some more.

For his efforts, Fisher was rewarded by Bo with an offer to drop the “interim” tag from his title. And Fisher, soon afterward, recruited the Fab Five and made it to two more championship games, though he lost them both.

But Fisher was forced to resign in 1997, the school rocked by the Ed Martin donation scandal that involved members of the Fab Five.

A true “Michigan man”, the kind that Bo Schembechler knew of, would never have gotten the university entangled in such a scandalous web.

Bill Frieder, U-M class of 1964, never did.

All Frieder was guilty of was being honest with his boss about a job offer.

And that's all Bo needed to make his mark as athletic director with so little time on the job.

1 comment:

Gambling Master said...

its a beautiful.