by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

What am I doing here?

That’s what I was thinking as I ducked away from the reporters at the Seattle Kingdome Monday night, April 3, 1989. The bands were blaring. The teams were taking lay-ups. Basketball? What was I doing on a basketball court
— not just any court, but the NCAA championship game between Michigan and Seton Hall?

I tried to make my way to my seat.

“Bo! Bo!”

I looked up. It was Brent Musburger from CBS.

“How are you doing, Brent?”

“Bo, I’m glad I found you.” He pulled out some sort of ticket. “Here. Take this floor pass. After the game, if Michigan wins, how about coming up while we’re interviewing Steve Fisher, maybe put your arm around him, and announce to the world that you’ve hired him as head coach?”

I stared at him. “Are you serious?”

“You’re the athletic director, right?”


“You make the decision, right?”


“Well, this will be a great way to make the announcement, don’t you think?”

“Brent, you little rat,” I said. “I have to live with this guy for the next five or 10 years; I’m not gonna make a decision just so you can get good ratings on television!”

I looked around at the wildly cheering crowd. So this is what it meant to be athletic director. I had an interim coach who had won five tournament games; I had former head coach who was somewhere out in Arizona; I had television people wanting me to make a major decision on camera. And I had a basketball team that was playing out of its mind.

What am I doing here?

It all began for me with a late-night phone call nearly four weeks earlier. A local sports writer rang me at home. “Did you hear about Frieder?” he said.

Bill Frieder, who had coached our basketball team for nine years, had accepted a job with Arizona State the day before the Wolverines were to leave

for the first round of the NCAA tournament. He never bothered to inform me until after he’d been hired.

“I didn’t have Bo’s home phone number,” he told reporters. But that’s a bunch of garbage. You mean to tell me reporters can get me at home, and he can’t? Frieder told Steve Fisher, his assistant, that he had accepted the job hours before he left Ann Arbor Tuesday afternoon. I was in my office. He could have called me then! Instead, he called my secretary, Lynn Koch, at her home at 3:30 the following morning. He told her he had taken the job and again said he didn’t have my phone number. At 7 a.m. he reached Jack Weidenbach and told him.

Around 11:00 Wednesday morning — after the whole world knew about his departure — he finally called my office.

“Bo,” Lynn said, “Bill’s on the phone.”

I picked up the receiver, never even bothering to close the door.

“Yeah, Bill?”

“Bo, I tried to get a hold of you. I didn’t make my mind up until 3 in the morning so, you know. . . “

“You should have called before you went out there, Bill.”

“Well, look, don’t worry about a thing. They’ve provided me with a jet so I can fly directly to Atlanta, and I’ll coach the team in the tournament.”

“No, you won’t,” I said. “Your coaching is through here at Michigan. I’ve put Fisher in charge of things.”

Now, folks, that decision took less than 30 seconds to make. No way would I let someone who made a parallel move to another school coach one of our teams. Hey. No coach takes off to even look at a job — let alone to accept one — without first consulting the athletic director. I mean, that’s just common courtesy. Had Frieder come to me after the last game of the regular season and said, “Look, I’m interested in this Arizona State job,” here is what I would have said:

“Bill, if those people want you, they’ll wait until after the NCAA tournament. This is not a proper time for you to be looking at jobs. Finish your season here and then, of course, you have my permission to look at any opportunities you want.”

He didn’t do that. He didn’t come close. Even if he were moving, let’s say, into professional basketball or the corporate world, it might have been different. But to simply go to another school, and they couldn’t wait three weeks until the tournament was over? I say forget them. And if you don’t want to, we’ll finish the season with the assistant coach.

And that’s what we did.

And we won the national championship.

Why didn’t Frieder call me earlier? I don’t know. Was he afraid of me? No. Was he intimidated by me? Maybe. I have read a lot of stories about how poorly we got along, but the truth of the matter is, I had no major problems with the guy. He is different from me, and he just does things differently.

Remember, I did not hire Frieder; I inherited him when I took over as athletic director. Five years ago, I talked to him about gambling and playing cards at the Washtenaw Country Club, which he had done now and then. I didn’t think it was a good thing.

Outside of that, we had very few direct confrontations. But as soon as I became athletic director, Frieder apparently told people, “Bo’s out to get me.”

That is not true. Yes, there were rumors about his recruiting methods, but they were only rumors. Part of the problem was the way Bill looked — always frazzled, always on the go, talking fast. People don’t trust that. And he brought in a lot of big-name recruits, which made people suspicious.

Now, as athletic director, it is my job to make sure all our programs — baseball, swimming, tennis and the rest — are run cleanly and correctly. And there were things in the basketball program I was going to change. We were going to get some quality competition in the first half of the season, for one

thing. There were too many games against the likes of Tampa University and South Dakota State.

Also, I wanted our players to project a better image when they traveled; they had been wearing whatever they wanted — jeans, sweatshirts. I thought it would better represent Michigan if they wore Michigan sweaters. Shoot me. I’m old- fashioned.

I would not call that being out to get Bill Frieder.

Would you?

The team went to Atlanta, beat Xavier and South Alabama, although the Wolverines did not play particularly well. They came home to await the next round. I had flown down for the games and come back in between for football practice. I was living on that airplane. But it was important to be there. I went into the locker room after each win but didn’t say much, just, “Good job. Way to go, men.”

Along the way, I was getting to know Steve Fisher a little better. You have to understand, we did not know each other before the shake-up. It is not uncommon for a head football coach and an assistant basketball coach to be little more than “Hi, how are you?” acquaintances. I had been athletic director for only a year.

Just before they left for Lexington, Ky., and the second round, Steve asked me to talk to the team again. I was surprised. I really didn’t want to get in his way.

“Well,” I said, leaning forward, “if I talk to them, I’m going to speak my mind. And if I do that, you may have one less player when we’re finished.”

“That’s OK,” Fisher said, smiling. “I think it will be good for him.”

He knew who I was talking about: Sean Higgins, a 6-foot-9 sophomore guard with so much talent it could make you cry, but whose head was not in the game.

He was sauntering up and down the court, making mistakes, losing balls and not diving for them. He was also quoted in the newspaper that week saying he was thinking about transferring — or going pro — now that Frieder was gone.

When I got to practice, the kids were all sitting on the edge of the court. Steve introduced me, and I began by addressing each player, same way I do sometimes in football.

One by one I went through the team. Mark Hughes. Loy Vaught. Demetrius Calip. Finally, I came to Higgins. And I lowered the boom. “Now, Higgins, I’m going to tell you something. There isn’t a soul here that gives a damn what you do three weeks from now, a month from now, a year from now or five years from now! As a matter of fact, we don’t give a damn whether you get on the bus to go to Lexington! I’m gonna tell you something: If you want it, your damn release is on my desk right now! It’s written up! We can go get the son of a bleep and you can pack your bags. . . . “

I paused. “Or you can do down to Lexington and dive for loose balls! And when you’re taken out for a substitute, you run back to your coach, not walk! And you keep your head in the game, like your teammates. You bust your a– and see if you can be a basketball player. Otherwise, STAY HOME!”

His eyes bugged out of his head. I don’t think anyone has ever talked to that kid like that before. I don’t know what effect — if any — it had. I do know Higgins was diving for balls the next game. I do know he played well the rest of the way. He shot the lights out against Virginia. And he made the winning basket against Illinois to send us to the finals.

“Tell Higgins I said he played a hell of a game,” I whispered to Fisher after the North Carolina game.

And after the Virginia game, Higgins found me in the locker room and gave me a big hug. Put the clampers on me, as we say in football. I was a little embarrassed, but I was happy, too.

The point is, I wasn’t violating any trust by considering other coaches. Steve Fisher was originally an interim selection, and he knew that. My thought when Frieder left was that I would like to see an entirely new program. I wanted to hire people, to be sure things were done, always, in the best interest of the players.

Frieder’s program was run too loosely for my liking. There were too many hangers-on, for one thing, and that always worries me. Basketball junkies. Booster types. Sometimes they rode on the bus or sat near the bench. No good.

So before I made any hirings, I checked out everything I could about Frieder’s operation. As a football coach, that might be called none of your business. As an athletic director, it’s called your job. I asked a lot of questions of a lot of people.

Meanwhile, I began to hear good things about Fisher. And then, that championship game. Wow! Michigan came from behind, forced it into overtime and won by a point, 80-79, on two Rumeal Robinson free throws. It was a great performance, and it required some great coaching.

I headed down toward the locker room, trying to escape unnoticed. The CBS people found me and shoved a microphone in my face.

“Well,” the reporter asked, “does Steve Fisher have the job now?”

“I, uh, think he’ll be the first person we interview,” I said.

What the hell? I wasn’t going to give them an announcement just because they wanted one. Hey. My job is athletic director, not public relations director. I was thrilled with what Steve did, absolutely thrilled — and anyone who thinks that I am somehow jealous of the basketball team for winning a national championship has obviously never sat next to me at a basketball game. I am into Michigan; I don’t care what sport. I want us to win everything! You don’t get jealous of your own school, for Pete’s sake.

The point is, by the end, Steve had convinced me he would do a great job.

He certainly earned the chance. He is our coach now, I am proud of him, I support him, and I hope he goes all the way with the basketball team again this year.

And Higgins? I’m watching you. CUTLINE Bill Frieder and his wife, Janice, join a press conference in which Arizona State named Frieder coach.

Bill Frieder


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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