In this presidentially decreed era of a kinder, gentler America, it's ironic that a football school would win the national championship in basketball. Furthermore, that university, which gave us Jerry Ford on the gridiron, risked all on the hardwood with an interim coach who looks like Jimmy Carter, and it was led by a player named Rice—no, not Jerry (of the San Francisco 49ers) or Tony (of Notre Dame), both of whom also were named MVP in a couple of fairly huge events this year, but Glen, who scored 31 points. Another guy from that university, name of Rumeal Robinson, who looks and plays like a fullback and normally shoots free throws like one (he converted 64.2% of his foul shots this season), stepped up to the line at the Kingdome in Seattle with three seconds left in the first overtime NCAA title game in 26 years and fluttered up two of the softest feathers anybody had ever seen so that his Michigan team could beat Seton Hall 80-79.
Maybe it was because all these goings-on were so mind-boggling that the Wolverines—specifically, Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, who moonlights as athletic director—still hadn't decided as of Tuesday morning whether to let 44-year-old Steve Fisher have the coaching job permanently. Win a Rose Bowl, as the Wolverines did in January, and you feel as if you can conquer the world—or at least send out a team of headless basketball horsemen, as it were, and conquer the NCAAs. Maybe Bo was waiting for Pete Rozelle to volunteer for the job.
However, as this latest in a decade-long series of tingling championship games (the average margin of victory in the 1980s was 4.1 points) proved, it doesn't seem to matter who's playing in the thing, not to mention who's coaching. This time it was P.J. Carlesimo—a guy with a beard—and a Hall of a team picked to finish seventh in its own league against the RRR boys: Rice, Robinson and Replacement (Fisher). Fisher must have felt even stranger when a local lawman nearly arrested him for being in the Michigan locker room without a credential before the final. Hey, a quintet of furniture refinishers could be playing the Kumquat Growers' Co-op, and if the NCAA put its logo near center court on a Monday night in April, we would still probably get something approaching:
•Michigan's brilliant senior forward, Rice, kiting in three-pointers from out near Mount Rainier. He finished with 12 baskets, 11 rebounds and those 31 points against the Pirates, and his 184 points in six tournament games broke Senator Bill Bradley's 1965 scoring record of 177.
April 9, 1989
•Seton Hall's senior guard John Morton whirling through the lane, acrobatically carrying the Pirates from 12 points behind. He had 22 second-half points—35 for the game—including all eight of the Pirates' points during one span to cut the Wolverines' lead to 61-59 with 6:19 to play.
•Forty-four of the dizziest defensive seconds this side of Roller Derby. That stretch brought the Pirates from a 66-61 deficit to a 67-66 lead with 2:13 remaining—snap, crackle, pop, just like that. Surely. Michigan would fold, just as Indiana, UNLV and Duke had earlier in the tournament against the Hall's frenetic second-half pressure. But no. Rice was still steaming. After a Pirate free throw, Michigan was behind by two, 68-66. with 1:12 to go. Did this splendid shooter, whose toughness had been questioned—he once said his proudest accomplishment at Michigan was "never getting injured"—wilt? Hardly. He waited for all of six seconds before drilling a three.
After Wolverine Sean Higgins converted two foul shots to put Michigan ahead 71-68 and Morton responded with his own clutch trifecta—"He was possessed out there," said Higgins of Morton—to tie the game with 25 seconds left, Rice had a chance to win it in regulation. Everybody from Rice himself to the Hall's Australian import, Andrew Gaze, thought he would. "I've never seen a release so quick," said Gaze, who has played in two Olympics. "'What an incredible individual. I thought it was down. Every time Glen released, I thought it was down." However, with one second remaining and Gaze remaining in his face. Rice's shot bounced off the rim.
With 2:50 to go in OT, Morton's trey put the Hall ahead 79-76, but two Pirate possessions with that lead came up empty: "Avast, mateys, trouble to starboard." Sure enough, Wolverine center Terry Mills posted right of the lane, turned and bulled in a banker to narrow the Hall's lead to 79-78 with 56 seconds to play. Michigan, which wound up with a 45-36 rebounding advantage, had owned the boards all night, and the Wolverines took possession of number 45 after Morton missed in the paint with 12 seconds left. They then put the ball as well as the game into Robinson's hands.
Robinson, a 6'2" junior, wanted the burden. "I've been coming down and passing the ball and hiding a lot on last-second shots," he said after finishing with 21 points and 11 assists. "This time I wanted it to be me. I was going to hit it if it was a free throw or not."
It was two free throws. Weaving across the lane with three seconds on the clock, Robinson collided with Seton Hall's Gerald Greene, an old friend from eastern playground days with whom he had been waging an unholy war all evening. Referee John Clougherty, who may be the best in the business—as Carlesimo would acknowledge later—blew the whistle that decided the championship. Perhaps Greene was guilty of nothing more than a simple hand check. Maybe the play should have been allowed to run its course; Robinson was about to pass. But the foul call might have been pure justice. Slightly more than a minute earlier Robinson had fouled Greene, but Greene had missed the front end of a one-and-one. Robinson didn't miss either of his chances.
On the Pirates' ensuing desperation pass, Greene collided with teammate Daryll Walker, whose rushed 21-foot shot had no prayer. "Maybe I ought to retire right now," said the semitemporary Wolverine coach, who kept referring to himself in the in-vogue third person. "Steve Fisher is unbeaten, untied and the happiest man alive."
There have been unlikely NCAA finalists before, but given the situations at Michigan and Seton Hall, there has hardly been a weirder pairing of coaches in a championship game than the one in Seattle. The Pirates had done enough losing as recently as last season to cause the Seton Hall student senate to call for Carlesimo's resignation. An alumni faction, concerned about Carlesimo's bachelor life-style, had expressed misgivings as well. During those trying times young P.J. (for Peter John)—who's 39 when wearing that russet shag of a beard he grew on a trip to Australia in the summer of 1987 but only 19 when clean-shaven—called up Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt to inquire if his whiskers had a bearing on his job security. "Both you and I know you're a helluva coach," said Gavitt. "If you like the beard, then——'em."
Which is how it happened that the Final Four was graced not only with the first bearded coach in its history but also with its first substitute teacher. "My biggest moment?" said Fisher, who took over the Wolverines the day before the tournament, after Bill Frieder had announced he would be relocating at Arizona State. "I coached a high school team [Rich East] in Park Forest, Illinois, that once won a prestigious Christmas tournament down in Centralia. Gosh, for a guy like me, they're all big."
By sundown on Saturday—after Fisher had made all the right moves, after Michigan had come from behind 17 times to avenge two regular-season losses to Illinois, after Fisher had ordered his wandering-on-the-perimeter pseudoguard, the 6'9" Higgins, to stay inside so that he could eventually put back the rebound that would give the Wolverines an 83-81 victory and advance them to the championship game for the first time since 1976—after all that, everyone who had neither been living under a rock nor taking part in spring football practice at Ann Arbor was wondering why in heaven's name Schembechler hadn't made Fisher the permanent coach. Then again, Saturday was April Fools' Day, not to mention Schembechler's 60th birthday. Happy birthday, Foo...uh, Bo.
Truth is, these new body-by-Fisher Wolverines bear no resemblance to the uptight, gagging Wolves of years past, or even to the ones who flat-out loafed in their most recent loss to the Illini, an 89-73 laugher at Ann Arbor in the regular-season finale. "The only things looser in Seattle are Boeing's cargo doors," wrote Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Art Thiel about the Wolverines.
As Michigan and Illinois entered the last 3½ minutes of their semifinal tied 74-74, Illini coach Lou Henson inexplicably removed Kendall Gill from the game. Free of Gill's oppressive defense, Robinson slashed down the pipe to feed Mark Hughes for a dunk. Robinson then stole a pass and dished off to Rice for another dunk. The basket was Rice's 12th of the game, but Michigan's 78-74 lead was hardly safe with the Illini's Kenny Battle, who had a game-high 29 points, still rattling around somewhere in the upper reaches of the Kingdome. With 2:28 to go Battle made Illinois's only three-pointer of the second half, and 1:54 later he put in another of his angled lefty jumpers to tie the score at 81.
Twenty seconds remained when Robinson rushed the ball up the court. With Rice stuck in a pilaf of defenders, Robinson passed to Mills, whose shot from the right corner with six seconds to play hit the front iron and bounced into the hands of Higgins, who has been connected to NCAA investigations of both Kentucky and UCLA. "I finally got my butt in the right place," said Higgins, whose simple rebound flip at :03 finished the Illini.
"We didn't think they would play that hard that long," said Illinois's Larry Smith after the Wolverines had held the Illini to 13 offensive boards and had out-rebounded them 45-39. "I've never seen a Michigan team play that way."
If Michigan is a team with a newfound love of labor, Seton Hall is traditional drudge and grind, as the Pirates proved by overcoming that 12-point deficit on Monday night and by coming from 18 points behind in their semi against Duke. After 11-plus minutes, the Blue Devils led 26-8. At this point the Dookies could be excused if they thought they had the tournament's best player in Danny Ferry, who ended up with 34 points; its deepest bench; the firmest will; and the longest staying power. But one out of four ain't good enough. Over the next 28-plus minutes, Seton Hall scored e-i-g-h-t-y s-e-v-e-n points. The final score of 95-78 seemed a cruel price to pay for Duke, which had beaten the old Big East beast, Georgetown, the week before, only to run into a brand-new one.
Afterward, Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Hall would have "more guys on the cover of Muscle Magazine [than we would]." Indeed, early on, Greene, who's 6'1", 175 pounds, smashed Robert Brickey, Duke's 6'5", 210-pound forward, to the floor on a breakaway, rendering him virtually useless and destroying the Blue Devils' fragile rhythm. "I tried to hold him up," said Greene, whose 17 points, eight assists and disdainful penetration broke down the Duke defense. "I'm sorry he was hurt, but when you're going for the national championship.... It was a big-time play."
By halftime Seton Hall had cut Duke's lead to 38-33. Then the Blue Devils came apart. Even Ferry became frustrated, chewing out the referees and once barreling into a courtside table, causing the NCAA coordinator of officials. Hank Nichols, to tip over in his chair. "Ferry's a great player who was still trying while the other players didn't seem like they wanted to play anymore," said Greene.
Can you blame them? Before the Hall was through, it seemed as if all nine of Carlesimo's brothers and sisters had joined the defensive chorus too. He has a nickname for each of them: Tutu, Cool Guy, Big Ed, Little Ed, Binky, Mumford, Big Boog, Pebbles and Cougar. Don't ask which ones are the guys.
As it turned out, the Pirates could have used a few Big Boogs and maybe even a Binky or two against Michigan, whose journey to Seattle was even more unlikely than their own. Frieder-free Michigan? Or Mission-igan? "We re-dedicated ourselves going into this [tournament]," said Higgins. "We thought we could win it. That's what the mission was all about. Mission accomplished."
Just wait till this team gets a permanent coach.
"I ought to retire right now. Steve Fisher is unbeaten, untied and the happiest man alive."