After Michigan's 102-65 rout of Virginia in the finals of the Southeast Regional in Lexington, Ky., the last piece of twine in the postgame net-cutting was saved not for 6'7" Glen Rice, the Wolverines' standout shooter, nor for Rumeal Robinson, their splendid playmaker, but for a slight, soft-spoken man in a dark suit who looks and sounds something like your neighborhood insurance agent. "I felt proud and honored that the kids would...let me cut the last strand," said Steve Fisher, blinking earnestly into the television lights and looking simply as stunned as anybody by his sudden celebrity.
Only three weeks ago Fisher was an anonymous assistant coach for the Wolverines. Today, while his former boss. Bill Frieder, is trying to hustle up recruits for his new employer, Arizona State, Fisher is the toast of Michigan, the guy who has done what Frieder could not do in nine seasons of guiding the Wolverines—take what is perennially one of the nation's most talented teams to the Final Four.
As Michigan fans chanted, "Fish-ER, Fish-ER" and "You're the man, Fisher, you're the man," in the waning moments of the win over Virginia, nobody was smiling more broadly than Bo Schembechler, the Wolverine football coach who moonlights as Michigan's athletic director. When Frieder announced—on the eve of the NCAAs—that he had accepted the Arizona State job, Schembechler replaced him immediately rather than let him coach the Wolverines in the tournament.
April 2, 1989
The decision seemed little more than a typical Bo-dacious fit of pique—"I want a Michigan man to coach Michigan," said Schembechler—and tantamount to forfeiting the Wolverines' chances of making the Final Four. After all, Fisher was a seven-year Frieder aide who had never been a college head coach.
After Saturday's lopsided triumph, Schembechler, his judgment vindicated, made a quick exit from Lexington, pausing only to visit the locker room to give his interim coach a bear hug and to congratulate the players. Although Schembechler says he won't select Frieder's successor until after the Final Four, it will be a major upset if he names anybody but Fisher.
"It makes you feel good," said Fisher of his current popularity, "but I'm smart enough to know that everyone loves a winner. With all the jobs open and all the publicity I've gotten, I'll probably be interviewed and become a head coach next year. That's my goal. I hope the job I get is at Michigan."
A low-key, button-down fellow of 44—his birthday was Friday, the day after the Wolverines whipped North Carolina 92-87 in the regional semis—Fisher is the first interim coach ever to take a team to the Final Four. His first act after the victory over the Cavaliers was to call his wife, Angie, and their 10-year-old son, Mark, down from the stands to join him in basking in the glory.
Before the season, Fisher, who had arrived in Ann Arbor with a modest rèsumè that included eight years as a high school coach in Illinois and three as an assistant at Western Michigan, decided that the time had come for him to go after a head job. He set a timetable of two years, never dreaming that opportunity would knock at 7:45 a.m. on March 15, only two days before the Wolverines' opening NCAA game against Xavier.
"Somebody from Bo's office called," says Fisher. "I went over and Bo was there, and he said, 'Fisher, you're going to coach the team in this tournament.' "
Michigan fans greeted the news with mixed feelings, though many had grown so weary of Frieder, whom they perceived to be a crack recruiter but an ineffectual coach, that they booed him at home games. The fact that Illinois had blown out the Wolverines 89-73 in Ann Arbor in Frieder's final game—earlier in the season the Illini had romped over the Wolverines 96-84—helped to smooth the transition.
At the time, the rout seemed to foretell a fifth straight early exit from the NCAAs for Michigan. Despite having such talented players as Gary Grant, Roy Tarpley and Antoine Joubert in recent years, Frieder never got the Wolverines past the round of 16.
But since the Fisher-for-Frieder substitution. Michigan has grown stronger and more confident with each game. After struggling to beat Xavier by five points and South Alabama by nine, the Wolverines arrived in Lexington to face North Carolina, which had eliminated them from the tournament in each of the last two years. This time, thanks mainly to 34 points from Rice, who repeatedly drilled jumpers with hands in his face and bodies flying at him. Michigan didn't fold down the stretch. The catalyst, as usual, was Robinson, who had 13 assists to go along with his 17 points.
With the Tar Heel demon exorcised. Michigan jumped out to a 24-12 lead over Virginia, which was coming off an 86-80 upset of the region's No. 1 seed. Oklahoma, and never looked back. Once again Rice was spectacular, scoring 32 points on 13-of-16 shooting, including four three-pointers in five attempts. Rice got off to a 6-for-6 start from the field, while the man guarding him. 6'3" Richard Morgan, the Cavaliers' shooting ace, was going 0 for 8. "My confidence on the defensive end was deflated, and that might have affected my shot," said Morgan later.
Virginia eventually switched tactics, using both a box-and-chaser and 6'5" freshman Bryant Stith on Rice. Nothing worked. "He has both size and range," Cavalier coach Terry Holland said of Rice, "and that's a combination that's very destructive and very hard to defend against."
Even when Rice took a breather, the Wolverines didn't miss a beat. Sean Higgins, a 6'9" sophomore swingman, came off the bench to score 31 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including 7 of 10 from three-point land. Before his career-high performance, Higgins was known around Lexington mainly because he is cited in the 18 allegations pending in the NCAA's investigation of the Kentucky program.
During his stay in Lexington, Higgins refused to talk about charges that Wildcat coaches had offered him improper incentives to attend Kentucky. But he let fly with an outspoken analysis of the reason for Michigan's sudden burst of brilliance. "One of the main reasons we're so loose is that Coach Frieder isn't here now," said Higgins. "When the head coach is here, you try to do everything right. But since we're used to Coach Fisher being an assistant, we're taking advantage of more situations because we're not afraid that Coach Fisher will come down on us like Coach Frieder would."
Wolverine center Loy Vaught described Frieder as "uptight" and "frazzled at times," and Fisher as "more laid-back" and "really cool." This sort of talk suggests that Michigan wouldn't be on its way to Seattle had Schembechler let Frieder coach in the tournament.
"I'm not going to lie to you." said Frieder after Saturday's game from a friend's home in Phoenix. "I'm going through some emotional things. I've been with them in thought and spirit, and I've talked to them every day. It shows the fact I left early didn't hurt them."
Fisher insists that the Wolverines aren't doing anything now that they didn't do under Frieder, other than giving guard Demetrius Calip more playing time, but it's obvious that the team has a fresh attitude. At the same time, Michigan isn't playing well simply because Fisher lets them do whatever they want. He used a timeout late in the Virginia game to scold Higgins and others for exulting too loudly on the bench. Afterward, while he and the players were waiting to do an interview with Tim Brant of CBS (who introduced him as "Steve Frieder"), Fisher told his players, "Let's show as much class here as we did on the floor."
So it's on to the Kingdome. where Rice, who had 125 points in the Wolverines' four tournament games, and Robinson, who had 30 points, 20 assists and only seven turnovers in the two games in Lexington, must continue to shine for Michigan to go all the way. If they do, their unlikely coach will get to snip another bit of twine and at the same time help Michigan make a final cut with the recent past.