So much has been written, broadcast and debated about Brian Ellerbe — the job he has done with Michigan basketball, good, bad, whether he should get to keep it — and over and over, people keep missing the points.
First of all, his biggest accomplishment was not winning over his players, it was winning over his assistant coaches.
Second, the standards used to judge Ellerbe’s future should not be mere wins or losses, nor his success in this NCAA tournament. He should be judged by whatever standards got his predecessor, Steve Fisher, fired and gave Ellerbe the job in the first place — namely, is the program clean and pointed toward the right values? Otherwise, why was Fisher fired?
And finally, contrary to some images, this is not some nervous beginner hoping to smile his way into the full-time job. Brian Ellerbe may be 34 and new to the post, but he’s smart and he’s confident and he thinks he has earned it.
“Can you say to yourself you’ve done enough to be asked back as coach?” I asked him the other night in his office.
“Yes, without question,” he answered.
“Would it be hard for you to imagine not being the coach next year?”
“It would be very hard.”
Does that sound nervous to you?
Now, before you decide if you agree with his assessment, let’s ignore his 24-8 record and begin with his two greatest accomplishments, Brian Dutcher and Scott Trost. These are the two assistant coaches whom he leapfrogged when Michigan athletic director Tom Goss named him interim coach last October. The whole thing could have exploded right then. After all, Ellerbe was the newest of the three assistants. He had been on staff only a few months. He had been forced to crash at Trost’s place upon getting the job, sleeping in a spare bed in Trost’s apartment for a month. Together they watched ESPN and ordered takeout food.
Now he was Trost’s boss?
A tough pill to swallow. And what about Dutcher? He had even more right to be upset. Dutcher had been with Fisher from the beginning, nine years. They were close. They worked in tandem. Dutcher was Fisher’s right-hand man, his recruiting ace, his eyes and ears. He was already suffering with his old friend’s firing, now here comes Ellerbe, who barely knows how to drive around Ann Arbor, and suddenly he’s in charge?
This was a tinderbox. Everyone who understands college basketball knows players are often closer to the assistants than the head coach, because assistants recruit and get to know the kids as high-schoolers. With Fisher gone, the last allegiances of the Wolverines belonged with Dutcher and Trost
— not Ellerbe. Had Ellerbe alienated the assistants, the kids would never have responded.
He’d have been dead on arrival.
Instead, Ellerbe forged a sort of partnership-in-desperation with his assistants. He spent his first days as boss making sure he didn’t act like one. He let his colleagues know he needed them — especially Dutcher. Ellerbe knew how competitive Dutcher was. Heck, they used to recruit against one another, when Ellerbe was an assistant with Virginia. If they were chasing the same kids, Ellerbe would teasingly whistle “Hail to the Victors” whenever Dutcher showed up.
Now they had to whistle the same tune.
“I tried to put myself in Dutch’s position,” Ellerbe said the other night. “I tried to feel what he’d be feeling with me as head coach. So I immediately delegated things out, made sure I didn’t do everything or even try to do everything.
“The whole point with Dutch and Scott was to make everyone feel like it’s their team as much as it was mine.”
By focusing on “what we could do for the kids,” Ellerbe bumped the spotlight away from him, and with it, any hot lights of jealousy.
It was his first big accomplishment.
The second big accomplishment came in getting the players to rally. It took time. Don’t be fooled by the recent glow of the Big Ten tournament. The Wolverines were up and down all year. This is a team that beat Duke but lost to Bradley, that beat Michigan State but lost to Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, that won the conference tournament, didn’t win the conference title, but has captured its last six. Only a fool would predict its performance.
But when U-M jells, it’s a joy to watch. And if the Wolverines are peaking now, it’s due to Ellerbe’s deft touch. He has gotten a good deal out of his limited number of players. On Tuesday night, I asked him to break down the one thing he did or said to each player to elevate his game.
“Robert Traylor,” I began.
“I asked more from him. The more you ask, the more you get. More leadership, more scoring, run harder, be tougher. If you can’t ask your big guy, you’re done anyhow.”
“I told him I’m not judging you on what happened before I got here. I don’t know. I don’t care. I will only go by what I see. He appreciated that.”
“I told him to be more aggressive. Why not go to the basket more? You’re quick, you can jump, you can handle it. Go after it.”
Player by player, case by case, Ellerbe tried to bring out something special in his kids. Perhaps the fairest thing he did was this: He never asked them to win for him. “I didn’t want them to feel that kind of pressure. Besides, they should be playing because they love basketball, not to keep their coach. If I didn’t accomplish anything else in this job, I wanted to make sure the kids would look back on this year and say they enjoyed it.”
By the same token, he is not above using the indecision over his status as incentive. The other night, ESPN did a satellite hookup with Ellerbe, and Digger Phelps told the nation, on live TV, that Goss should “hire you right now” and eliminate the mystery.
As usual, Ellerbe ducked the question.
“I actually think it’s better this way,” he later told me. “I don’t want our players to exhale.”
This brings us to the final question, on what basis should Goss be making his decision? It is the worst kind of hypocrisy to fire Fisher — a guy who went to three Final Fours in nine years — then hire his replacement based on wins and losses. Fisher was fine on wins and losses. He was fine in tournament performances. People who say “Ellerbe gets the job if he gets these Wolverines to the round of 16” must have pretty short memories.
Winning is fine. But if Ellerbe can’t control boosters and behavior any differently than Fisher did, why on earth should he get the job? You might as well hire Fisher back.
Ellerbe knows this. He also knows he has had a clean slate during his five-month run.
“I’m not sure that I ‘corrected’ so much,” he admitted. “These weren’t bad kids to begin with. And I think they were definitely scared by what happened with (Fisher), so nobody was going to try anything.
“But they know what I expect of them in every phase of their life. Also, I’m not so much older than them, and I’m able to talk about having gone through some of the same things.”
The truth is, Ellerbe did benefit from the shock vibrations of Fisher’s firing, just as he benefited from inheriting three senior stars and three junior stars. He has handled those circumstances admiringly. How he handles the program in the future and how well he can recruit — the biggest question mark on his dossier — are still up in the air.
But as I mentioned, this is one confident fellow. “I think we have a chance to build something special here with me, Dutch and Scott,” he said. “We’re young enough to go after it but we’re experienced enough to know what we’re doing. We can make Michigan basketball a historic program, the way North Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana are historic, meaning you expect great basketball from them every year.”
Should he get the chance? Well, on the one hand, he’s very young, has one season under his belt, and is still making mortgage payments on an empty house in Baltimore.
On the other hand, he has some experience with fate. Early in his career, a coaching friend wanted him to meet his girlfriend’s boss.
“You gotta meet her,” the friend kept saying. “You’d really like her.”
Ellerbe never got around to it. Years passed. Finally, the friend married his girlfriend, and Ellerbe was in attendance. And there, at the wedding, he finally met the boss lady.
They were married less than a year later.
You want to battle that kind of fate, go ahead. My money says Brian Ellerbe keeps the job. Something tells me his light is about to turn green again.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.