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The Right Man For the Job

April 17, 1989
April 17, 1989

Table of Contents
April 17, 1989

The Masters
NHL Playoffs
Greg Walker
The MVP Race
Dark Forces
Steve Fisher
U.S. Soccer
Tennis
Horse Racing
Movies
Giamatti
Point After

The Right Man For the Job

Athletic director Bo Schembechler finally named Steve Fisher basketball coach at Michigan—but what took him so long?

Here's what life is like after you coach a team to the NCAA basketball championship.

This is an article from the April 17, 1989 issue Original Layout

Traffic stops as you walk down South University Avenue in Ann Arbor, Mich. A flustered student desperately seeks your autograph, but the only piece of paper he can produce is his civil engineering syllabus. Across the top, it now reads:

ADVANCED PRESTRESSED CONCRETE
Best wishes
Steve Fisher
Go Blue!

You attend a state dinner at the White House and find yourself sharing a table with, among others, Barbara Bush, Bob Hope, Yitzhak Shamir, and a fellow you remember only as "a senator from Oklahoma—Mickey something." (He's actually U.S. Representative Mickey Edwards.) When talk at the President's table, where George Bush counts among his companions Jack Kemp and Shulamit Shamir, gets bogged down in Middle East politics, an usher squires you over so you might steer the conversation toward basketball. After dinner the 123 other guests leave, but you and your wife, Angie, spend the night in the White House, although not before the four of you—you and Angie, George and Barbara—take Millie, the presidential pooch, for a late-night stroll.

And here's what life is like not knowing whether you have a job at the University of Michigan.

You explain to your 10-year-old son, Mark, that he may soon have to say goodbye to his friends and enroll in a new school. You have no idea what to do about the nameplate on the door of the office of the man you replaced on an interim basis. The office remains vacant—you are still sharing quarters with another assistant—but the sign some mischievous well-wisher put up reads:

STEVE FISHER
U OF M BASKETBALL
HEAD COACH

During the dizzying days of mid-March—after Michigan's coach of nine seasons, Bill Frieder, announced he would be leaving for Arizona State, and after one of his two assistants, Steve Fisher, was appointed to guide the Wolverines through the NCAA tournament—the Fishers learned not to feel guilty about letting their answering machine field incoming calls, even when they were at home. But for most of last week the Fishers couldn't afford that luxury. The next call might have been from Illinois State, Fisher's alma mater, wanting to talk about its coaching vacancy. Western Michigan, a former employer, might have phoned with a similar inquiry. Why, even Wolverine football coach Bo Schembechler, who allegedly doubles as Michigan's athletic director, could have been on the horn with news of, well, of what? A statue of Fisher to be built on the Diag in the middle of campus? Instant induction into the Wolverine hall of fame? A lifetime contract as the Michigan basketball coach? Noooooo. An interview.

Schembechler finally came to his senses over the weekend. At a press conference on Monday morning, he officially gave Fisher the same sort of year-to-year handshake pact under which Frieder toiled. With revenues from a summer camp, a shoe endorsement contract, and radio and TV shows added to a base salary of $95,000, the deal is reportedly worth as much as $370,000—not too much less than Frieder's package.

The announcement spared the Wolverine basketball players the awkwardness of having to celebrate their annual banquet Monday night with the man known as Fish twisting slowly on a hook. But whatever took Bo so long? Last Friday his deputy, Jack Weidenbach, sought to justify the deliberate pace of events by saying, "The interviewing process will continue daily. We want to get to know him better." Sure. After all, Fisher has only been at Michigan for seven years.

A cynical person—not that such people should still exist after Fisher's going, in a span of three weeks, from replacing nets in practice to cutting them down in Seattle—might conclude that Bo had dawdled so long for one of the following reasons:

•The Football ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö‚à´ber Alles Factor. "Right now Bo is trying to compare our Rose Bowl victory with this," says Rumeal Robinson, the marvelous guard whose two free throws with three seconds to play in overtime beat Seton Hall 80-79 in the NCAA title game on April 3. "There's no comparison, but Bo's trying to do that because nothing can be bigger than football." Fisher, a low-charisma, low-profile guy by whom Schembechler needn't feel threatened, will now be more indebted to his boss than if Bo had acted immediately, in the wake of the euphoria of the title game. Which brings up...

•The I Am In Control Here! Factor. At the very least, credit Schembechler and his considerable ego with the best Al Haig impersonation in years. "I've never heard of an undefeated coach getting fired," says Wolverine basketball center Terry Mills. Of course not, but that's the point: Bo might have been the first guy with the guts to do it. The search committee, such as it was, consisted of Schembechler and Weidenbach—and, oh yes, a certain unofficial adviser. Which raises...

•The Oversized Red Sweater Factor. Schembechler and Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight are fast friends. Frieder and Knight, by contrast, are anything but chums. Their enmity stems from a sideline run-in several years ago and from Knight's veiled criticism of the way that Frieder has run his program. Although Michigan interviewed no one but Fisher, Schembechler spoke with Knight shortly after Frieder's departure, and Evansville coach Jim Crews, a former Knight player and assistant, received prominent mention in the press as a candidate for the Michigan job. That, of course, was before Fisher loosed his ruddy-cheeked, pigeon-toed, even-tempered charm on the basketball world. Still, if Knight had planted doubts in Schembechler's mind about the propriety of Frieder's stewardship, Bo might have been loath to appoint as coach someone from the Frieder regime before making certain that he was on the up-and-up.

Frieder is a monomaniacal, insomniac basketball nerd, not unlike the high school kid who would rather spend Friday night memorizing pi to 50 decimal places than partying. A favorite story among hoop folk has Frieder, a Wolverine assistant at the time, scouting Doc Rivers, a high school star in Chicago who's now with the Atlanta Hawks.

"If Bo Derek's a 10, then Rivers is at least a nine," said a rival recruiter as he and Frieder watched Rivers play.

"Hey, forget about Rivers," Frieder shot back. "Who's this Bo Derek kid?"

During this past season Frieder "baby-sat" Chris Weber, a 6'8" sophomore standout at Detroit Country Day School, showing up at many of the youngster's games. That's the kind of duty few head coaches at major schools condescend to do. Instead of schmoozing with alumni boosters, Frieder prefers to hang out with players, who take his phone calls at odd hours and refer to him as Frieder rather than by the usual honorific, Coach.

The Michigan basketball team's chummy relationship with Frieder couldn't have been more unlike the football squad's distant and wary dealings with Schembechler. "Even if Frieder wasn't always the coach we wanted him to be, he cared about us," says Robinson. "At times you got sick of him. He was everywhere. But it was better to have him around than to never see him."

After Schembechler decreed on March 15 that he wanted "a Michigan man to coach Michigan" and named Fisher as interim coach, Frieder told at least one Wolverine that his relationship with Schembechler had deteriorated to a point where he felt that he had to take the Arizona State offer, for fear he would not have a job at Michigan next season. In that light, his decision to bolt, which many people regarded as treason, becomes more understandable. Frieder heard boos after several midseason league losses. "As strong as Bo is, he could have made a statement earlier in the season that would've ended [the alumni disquiet]," says one former coach and close observer of Michigan basketball. "There was always this subtle, behind-the-scenes battle between them. And financially Bill was making a killing. None of it had to go back to the university. That drove Bo nuts." (Schembechler donates an estimated $100,000 from a shoe deal and summer camp to a fund for the education of his assistants' children.)

After Fisher took over and Michigan began to improve, several Wolverine players credited Fisher's slower hook and looser rein for their success. But perhaps the most salutary effect of the change had nothing to do with tactics or style. "You go to class every day and hear the same teacher," says Michigan assistant Brian Dutcher. "Then one day you get a guest lecturer, and what he says seems fresh. Steve wasn't doing anything much different, but the freshness came at the right time."

Could the Wolverines, who finished the regular season at 24-7 and placed third in the Big Ten, have gone all the way with Frieder? "I don't know," says Mills. "It's hard to say."

"It possibly could have happened," says forward Glen Rice.

But then a coach can only do so much. Perhaps the nadir of Michigan's season, the game that really brought the fans down on Frieder, was a one-point loss to Indiana in Ann Arbor in late January. Mills missed a three-point attempt in the final seconds, and Mark Hughes muffed a short follow at the buzzer. In the victory over Illinois in the national semis in Seattle, Mills again missed, with four seconds remaining, but this time Sean Higgins's put-back swished through the hoop. Hughes and Higgins were both in position, thanks largely to the Wolverine coaches hammering home the importance of weakside rebounding. Yet Higgins's shot went in and Hughes's didn't, which was Fisher's luck and Frieder's misfortune.

This isn't to say that Fisher didn't do some fine coaching during the NCAAs. With 20 seconds remaining in the Wolverines' semifinal, Robinson was rushing the ball upcourt for their final possession; Fisher jumped up and screamed at him to take his time, stopping the guard in his tracks. On several occasions in the championship game he spent the first 15 seconds of timeouts instructing his players to take deep breaths. And he always broke huddles with an upbeat word.

After Seton Hall forced the final into overtime, Fisher tried something different. "I thought they might be a little dejected," he says. "So I thought I'd say something stupid to lighten the mood." He told the Wolverines of a guy from Kalamazoo who had predicted the exact margin of Michigan's first-round win over Xavier and then had correctly forecast that the Wolverines would blow out Virginia in the finals of the Southeast Regional. On the day of the NCAA final the fellow had presaged a Michigan win in OT, with Hughes playing a vital role. So Fisher sent Hughes in for Loy Vaught, a starting forward. Says Hughes, "It just tripped me out."

Hughes didn't win the game for Michigan. "But, if you look at the tape," says Robinson, "I was passing the ball to Mark when I was fouled. Mark would have had the last shot."

As it happened, Robinson's free throws were the result of neither mysticism nor voodoo but of the workaday chores of an assistant coach. Notwithstanding Robinson's 64% shooting from the line, Fisher says, "I was comfortably confident he was going to make both of those. I flashed back to the Wisconsin game, when we were down one."

Robinson had blown two foul shots in the last nine seconds of that game against the Badgers, and Michigan lost. Over the next several weeks Robinson came to practice early to shoot 100 free throws a day. Rebounding for him, assessing his form, making sure he flexed his knees and didn't pull his upper body away from the line, was Fisher.

"Comfortably confident" might also describe the Fisher who, watching Seton Hall's Daryll Walker launch his last-second shot at the end of overtime, held a cup of water to his lips. As Walker's shot sailed through the air and glanced off the backboard, Fisher took a long swallow. Only then did he turn to the Wolverine bench and lustily pump his fist.

If Schembechler hadn't ultimately hired him, it wouldn't have been the first time the game had delivered Fisher, 44, a profound disappointment. He was a 5-foot, 104-pound wisp when he entered high school in the downstate Illinois coalmining town of Herrin (pop. 10,000), but he blossomed into a slick point guard who might have been a big-time college star had he not twisted his knee while slipping on an ice cube during his senior season.

Until a few weeks ago Herrin was probably best known for the Polar Whip drive-in, a hamburger stand (the basic burger goes for 25 cents) of such integrity that its owner, John Nesler, whose son Ron was a high school teammate of Fisher's, until recently cooked 480 burgers a day—no more, no less. Never mind that the Polar Whip's reputation would assure the sale of many more. John Nesler didn't care to make more burgers or more money, for he had enough to live on.

Congratulations Steve Fisher reads the marquee outside the Polar Whip these days. Somewhere behind the counter there is a lesson for Michigan, a lesson worth heeding not merely because the Polar Whip operates in the black and the Wolverine athletic department does not. It's a moral that bespeaks contentment and simplicity.

Last week, before Fisher's fate was resolved, Schembechler wasn't asking the Michigan players for advice. But if he were Bo, Robinson said on Friday, "I'd leave my ego at home and try to get the best coach possible. Not get a guy just because Bobby Knight said so. If he believes Steve Fisher is the best coach, give the man the job. If he doesn't think so, let the man know. But I wonder if Bo realizes that Steve won't be just 'Fisher' anymore. We realized that during the first NCAA game, when he was in the huddle and wasn't nervous."

Interim coach Fisher was cool enough to drink calmly at his most delirious and glorious hour. Bully for Bo, for finally realizing that permanent coach Fisher is amply qualified to lead Michigan basketball smartly into the '90s.

PHOTOPER H. KJELDSENIn the days following the win in Seattle, Fisher (waving) appeared with his players at a campus pep rally...PHOTOLANE STEWART...and, while waiting for Schembechler's decision, cheerfully obliged students who begged for autographs.PHOTOSUSAN BIDDLE/THE WHITE HOUSE...dined with Angie at the White House, where they spent the night and walked the President's pooch...PHOTOLANE STEWARTFisher knew that if Bo said no, sons Mark (left) and Jonathan would have to be told that the family was moving.PHOTOLANE STEWARTRobinson says Fisher had to wait because Bo wanted to show "nothing can be bigger than football."PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHAfter a week of tense silence from Schembechler, Fisher was at last Bo's, as well as the people's, choice.PHOTOAP/RICHARD SHEINWALD[See caption above.]