Long before Steve Fisher won an NCAA championship with someone else's players, before all the clamor began over his having to prove he could rustle up talent of his own, before every rivethead in the state of Michigan started believing that the man over in Ann Arbor couldn't land a salmon if he sat upstream with a trawling net—before all that, Steve Fisher had to recruit himself a wife.
What does it say about him that he really didn't even do that?
It seems that Angie Wilson, Fisher's longtime flame, slipped her beau a note of ultimatum one New Year's Day while he sat in front of the tube watching the Rose Bowl. "We've been dating for four years now," the note said, "and it's high time we either get hitched or go our separate ways." There were two boxes to check, one marked YES, the other NO. "I checked 'yes' and kept watching the game," Fisher says. "Angie went off to call her folks and start planning an August wedding."
That incident did not reveal the sort of monomaniacal intensity that drove Bill Frieder, Fisher's predecessor and former boss, to fetch the talent that Fisher eventually coached to a national title in March 1989, just three weeks after Frieder had abruptly jilted the Wolverines to take the coaching job at Arizona State. You know about Fisher from the previous paragraph. Now contrast that anecdote with this one about Frieder: It places him in a gym in Chicago in the late '70s, checking out Glenn (Doc) Rivers, then the city's top high school star and now a guard with the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers. "If Bo Derek's a 10," a rival recruiter says, "Doc Rivers is at least a nine."
November 25, 1991
"Hey, forget about Rivers," Frieder replies. "What about this Derek kid?"
That such obsessive behavior isn't a prerequisite for successful recruiting will become evident to Michigan fans on Dec. 2 when Fisher guides the Wolverines' freshmen class of Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson into its season opener against Detroit. Those who make a business of assessing such things hesitate to call Michigan's class of 1995 the greatest collection of freshman talent ever assembled, only because a year ago they were using such superlatives to describe North Carolina's five newcomers. "It's funny," says Bob Gibbons, a scout whose All Star Sports ratings of high school players are widely respected as the standard. "People say every year this guy Gibbons can't make up his mind. I still do think Carolina's was the best up to that time. And then Michigan comes up and beats it, in terms of sheer talent."
Adds Clem Haskins, the coach at Minnesota: "Michigan's freshman class alone has more good athletes than any team in the Big Ten. They're not better players yet, because they're freshmen. But they're better athletes."
Before signing Webber and Howard (both dynamic 6'9" post men, and Nos. 1 and 4 nationally in Gibbons's ranking of the high school class of 1991), King (a dell 6'4" shooting guard, rated No. 10), Rose (a slashing 6'8" perimeter player, No. 12), and Jackson (6'6" and perhaps the most versatile athlete of the lot, No. 76), Fisher had muddled through a miserable 1989-90 recruiting season, getting only one prospect of any note—Sam Mitchell.
Oh, folks could understand why Billy Curley, a 6'9" rebounder from Duxbury, Mass., might choose Boston College over Michigan; more than 200 of Curley's friends and relatives showed up for the Massachusetts high school title game. Nor was it mystifying that 6'10" Clifford Rozier of Bradenton, Fla., would choose the Tar Heels instead of the Wolverines when he had a grandmother living in North Carolina. (Rozier has since transferred to Louisville.) But when Eric Montross, a 7-footer from suburban Indianapolis with family ties to Michigan, chose North Carolina, Wolverine fans weren't in a forgiving mood.
Montross's father, Scott, had gone to Michigan, as had his mother, Janice. His grandfather, John Townsend, had been a basketball All-America for the Wolverines. And while one of Scott and Janice's two offspring would wind up in Ann Arbor, Eric's kid sister, Christine—a 5'10" international relations major—isn't exactly whom the faithful had in mind.
"When we didn't get Montross, everybody hung their hat on that," Fisher says. "They'd said the only way we wouldn't get Montross is if Fisher screws up. Well, I screwed up. But I kept telling myself that over the long haul, Michigan is too good a university not to get good players who are good kids. This year they may say, 'Can he coach the big names?' But they won't wonder if I can recruit."
How Michigan put together its class for the ages is a tale of hard work, luck, guile, storm clouds that turned out to be lined with silver and, inevitably, controversy. In the end, just as Murphy's Law governed the Wolverines' recruiting flounderings in 1989-90, some benevolent and compensating force seemed to watch over Michigan a year later.
It all began in Chicago last November with Howard, the star at Vocational High who had been MVP of the prestigious Nike/ABCD Camp during the preceding summer. Normally the rest of the Big Ten schools would virtually cede a player of Howard's stature to Illinois and its chief recruiter, Jimmy Collins. But Collins had been grounded from off-campus recruiting excursions while the NCAA looked into charges of recruiting improprieties—charges that resulted in two years probation—and Michigan assistant Brian Dutcher took advantage of the vacuum, developing a rapport with both Juwan and his grandmother Jannie Howard, who had raised him. (Jannie signed her grandson's letter of intent on the morning of Nov. 14, the first day of the early-signing period. She died that afternoon of a heart attack.) Says Fisher, "My only concern was that Juwan would believe the whispers from other schools, the things like, 'You don't want to go there and get double- and triple-teamed and finish eighth in the league.' Or, 'Fisher's on a one-year contract, and he didn't sign any big recruits last year.' [It's Michigan policy that all coaches work under one-year contracts.] Juwan was the key. To get someone with his name recognition was extremely significant."
Howard's signing certainly registered with King, who was attending Piano East High outside Dallas. King and Howard had visited Michigan over the same weekend that September and had taken such a liking to one another that they're roommates now. "Juwan made the first move," King says. "When he signed, I said to myself, Let's do this. This is pretty good!" Still, Kansas had made an impression on King. Only after King's hyperorganized mother read a story in U.S. News & World Report giving Michigan higher academic marks than Kansas did her son settle on the Wolverines.
Like King, Jackson, who attended LBJ High in Austin, Texas, was looking to showcase his skills by getting out of a state which he deemed a basketball wasteland. Michigan assistant Mike Boyd had been close to both King and Jackson, so when Boyd left Ann Arbor in September 1990 to become head coach at Cleveland State, each prospect might have thought twice. But the Michigan staff had prepared all its recruits for the possibility that Boyd might depart, anticipating that competing recruiters—"surgeons," as they're called in the trade, because they cut up their rivals—would be putting a negative spin on Boyd's departure. When Boyd phoned King and Jackson, saying that he still believed Michigan was their best choice, his words had particular credibility.
With Jackson's commitment, Michigan had concluded its out-of-state work, landing three coveted prospects during the early-signing period. Now the Wolverines' staff could turn its efforts to the two best players in the state, Rose and Webber, both of whom had deferred the decision about which school they would attend until the spring. The son of former Providence College and Detroit Piston star Jimmy Walker, Rose led Detroit's Southwestern High in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots last season. Yet as good as Rose was, Webber was better. He was not merely the consensus national Player of the Year; he was a once-in-a-decade talent, the kind that shows up in Michigan as often as a Spencer Haywood or a Magic Johnson.
Webber's legend had begun even before he enrolled at private Detroit Country Day in 1987. After watching Michael Jordan drop 63 points against the Celtics in a nationally televised NBA playoff game in April '86, Webber, then a 6'5" seventh-grader, told a friend he would score 60 and dunk 15 times in a game the next fall. Like a Baby Ruth calling his shots, he indeed dunked 15 times against Bethesda School and did Jordan one better by scoring 64 points. By then Michigan State had already begun looking at him, and years later Webber would nearly sign with the Spartans. "Without Rose and Webber, Steve Fisher still has a good recruiting year," says Mick McCabe, who covers high school sports for the Detroit Free Press. "But if Webber had gone to Michigan State, people would have said Fisher had lost control of the state."
But since they were 13-year-olds growing up on Detroit's west side, Webber and Rose had talked of going off to college together. In addition, each knew Howard and King. As a result of the never-ending circuit of off-season camps, tournaments and All-Star games, most of the top high school prospects now belong to an elite, close-knit club well before they begin their senior seasons. They have compared notes and laughed over the recruiters' most outrageous platitudes and maybe hashed over what it might be like to play on the same team together one day.
Other breaks were going Michigan's way. As the season unfolded, Rose's two top choices, Syracuse and UNLV, became suffused in the doubt of NCAA investigations. Meanwhile, Webber, who has four younger siblings, decided he wanted to stay close to home. And he had warmed to Fisher's positive style; he particularly liked how Fisher encouraged his players even as Michigan went 14-15 last season.
Perhaps just as important, Fisher had shrewdly left unfilled the opening on his staff created when Boyd left. Soon the scuttlebutt was rampant: Fisher was saving the spot for Perry Watson, Rose's coach at Southwestern and Webber's onetime summer league coach. Sure enough, after operating one assistant short all season and temporizing when asked if the job were being saved for Watson, Fisher announced Watson's hiring on May 25.
Mention quid pro quo in Ann Arbor, and everyone's Latin gets rusty. "No, it wasn't a done deal," says Fisher. "Others will say I'm feeding you a line of garbage, but when people started to say there was a deal, Chris told me, 'I like you and I like Michigan, and it doesn't matter who you hire as an assistant.' "
But as in most matters of player procurement in college basketball these days, people hesitate to dismiss the most conspiratorial scenario. According to Gibbons and his sources, "Watson maintained a constant vigil. He went to a lot of Chris's games, and at key times, when Michigan State would make a push, Jalen would always be there with him."
Adds an assistant coach at another school, one that wound up a bridesmaid in the courting of Webber and Rose: "The rules only allow us to see a kid play four times. I felt that Perry was more or less hired in October, only it wasn't released until the spring, and that allowed him to see Chris as many times as he wanted. Officially, was he on their staff? No. But if you polled a million people in the state of Michigan, most would say he was."
Deal or no deal, Rose and Webber committed to Michigan on the same day, March 23, on which each led his school to a state championship—Southwestern in Class A, Country Day in Class B. And regardless of what might or might not have gone down, Angie Fisher's reluctant groom had now earned his recruiting spurs.
That Fisher has finally taken a place in the ranks of the nation's first-class recruiters is clear from the way Webber worded his announcement of a choice of college. "Next year," he said, "I'll be a Michigan Wolverine—if I make the team."