He worked here under a cloud of suspicion. He leaves much the same way.
Nobody really knew Bill Frieder. Oh, they knew he could get basketball players, knew he could out-hawk and out-visit and out-telephone almost any coach in the country until the kid finally said, “Yes, you want me, I’m coming.” And they knew he could win games. He could harness the likes of Roy Tarpley and Gary Grant and Terry Mills and make winners — if not always champions — out of them.
But the thumping deep inside Frieder was always a bit of a mystery. We knew there was a basketball in there. What else? Was it greed? Was it obsession? Was it ego? Here was a frenetic ball of human energy, a teenage fruit market hustler, a guy who carried boxes of statistics around in college, a coach who knew the recruiting highways in his sleep — so often he would drive 50 miles to see some high school kid jump center.
But who was Frieder looking out for all that time? The school? His players? Himself? Now we are told, that on the lip of Michigan’s entry into the NCAA tournament, he has accepted a job at another school, Arizona State, and will be named coach there this morning — flying there, in typical fashion, on a last-minute flight — the same morning his players are flying to Atlanta to prepare for Round 1 of the world’s biggest basketball tournament. How could he do this? How could he do it now? How could he leave his players high and dry, crushing their spirit at the moment they need him the most?
The players? The school?
I have no comment on that until I talk to the man himself,” said Bo Schembechler, athletic director and football coach and, when this thing is finally figured out, probably one of the reasons Frieder left. Let’s face it. Working for Bo is damn tough, especially if you even contemplate bending the rules. Frieder’s terrific recruiting success has not been without its skeptics, and you can bet Schembechler, when he took the AD job, let Frieder know the law of the land: We do not cheat. We do not bend. We do not do anything that might embarrass the university.
On top of that, Frieder, who has been head coach since 1980, may well have felt like a second banana at Michigan, forever in the shadow of Bo’s football success. In most fans’ minds, Bo is the shining knight, the iron-jawed champion of college athletics the way they should be. Frieder, by comparison, seems thin and almost devious. Despite his teams’ success (two Big Ten titles, a National Invitation Tournament championship), his behavior at times — like proposing a $500 bet this season that U-M would lose to Illinois — has appeared childish by contrast. When Bo turned down Texas A&M seven years ago, it was hailed as a testament to his devotion and dedication. When Frieder became embroiled in a similar controversy last season with Texas, he came away only with a soiled reputation and a black eye in the media.
And then there is this image of “good recruiter, lousy coach.” Frieder appeared on a radio talk show recently, and before the caller even got the question out of his mouth, he had the answer. “I think if you look back on the records, you’ll see that only Indiana has won as many Big Ten titles in the time I’ve been here. . . . We don’t have to defend out tournament success to anybody. . . . I’m proud of these kids.”
Perhaps he got fed up with all that. Perhaps he grew tired of defending himself. Be honest. Any reputation is hard to shake, and his was not going to change much in this state unless he took U-M to the Final Four — which does not seem likely this year. Most long-time observers of his team know his kids do not play with the concentration or dedication needed for a championship. Mills. Robinson. Rice. Higgins. “How much better can the talent get?” skeptics
asked. So it must be the coaching, right?
Maybe Arizona State is a clean slate. Maybe from that desert vantage point, they look only at his numbers — which are excellent — and not at his failures. Maybe he left because, like many of us, he simply wants to be appreciated more. But he does so at a time when his actions — regardless of motive — can only be construed as selfish.
His players? His school?
Now, understand this. Bill Frieder is not a bad guy. He is not an evil guy. But he has his own way of doing things, and he rarely lets on to anyone his truest motives. He has had troubles at Michigan that have not been reported. He has shielded players from the media, and tried to control information flow. It is not fair to speculate — until he speaks — whether his reasons for leaving are purely emotional, financial or professional. I will bet you they are private. I’ll bet we don’t know the half of them. And I’ll bet you, when he does speak, many of us will not believe him.
This much is certain: To do this at this time of the year, the day the Michigan team is flying to Atlanta, does not show much concern for the kids he recruited. Couldn’t this have waited until after the tournament? Hasn’t this team endured enough questions during the regular season? Frieder, apparently, wasn’t even Arizona State’s first choice. He became so only after Purdue’s Gene Keady turned them down. Is he in that much of a rush to leave? Michigan’s success in this tournament was already questionable: How will they play with a substitute coach (if they use one) or with Frieder (if he stays),
knowing he is gone as soon as they lose a game?
Maybe Arizona State wanted to announce it today. Quick. Fast Encourage their incoming recruits. So what? Frieder owes something to the Wolverines players, the kids he hounded day and night, promising them a great experience at Michigan. If he wrote them letters as early as eighth grade, the least he could do is shield them from this kind of trauma until the season is over.
But then, they are not his players anymore. Should he be allowed to coach the team through the tournament? Schembechler said he would have to think that
one over. The sentiment will be no, cut him loose, if he doesn’t want us, we don’t want him. But will that help or hurt the Wolverines players in the long run?
It’s one of a dozen questions now. Was he trying to escape something? Did he have some conflicts with Bo? Was this simply a case of better money, better job?
He never let on. You never figured he would. I asked Frieder just a couple
of days ago about this whole Arizona State thing. “I’m not gonna talk about that during the season,” he said. And he laughed that cackle of laugh. To be honest, I never knew if he was laughing with us, or at us.
I guess most of never will. FRIEDER AT MICHIGAN SEASON RECORD BIG TEN IN TOURNAMENT PLAY 1980-81 19-11 8-10 (7th) 2-1 in NIT 1981-82 8-19 7-11 (tie 7th) 1982-83 16-12 7-11 (9th) 1983-84 24-9 11-7 (4th) 5-0, NIT champion 1984-85 26-4 16-2 (1st) 1-1, NCAA 1985-86 28-5 14-4 (1st) 1-1, NCAA 1986-87 20-12 10-8 (5th) 1-1, NCAA 1987-88 26-8 13-5 (2nd) 2-1, NCAA 1988-89 24-7 12-6 (3rd) * Totals 191-87 98-64 12-5