The people who run sports at the University of Michigan insist their basketball coaching job is a juicy plum, a sparkling treasure, a gem of a position that the best coaches in the business would lunge at if given the chance.

The funny thing is, they never get the chance.

For the second time in a decade, the reigns of U-M basketball have been handed to the guy who just happened to be on the horse. Back in 1989, it was Steve Fisher, taking over for a hastily departing Bill Frieder. Fisher was supposed to be stopgap. A one week Band-Aid. Instead, he won six straight games, a national title, and the big desk.

Then, on Friday, fate played deja vu with Brian Ellerbe, 34, who just a few months ago needed a map to find a pizza place in Ann Arbor. He was given the interim job after Fisher was fired last October. At best, Ellerbe was supposed to survive the year. Avoid chaos. Keep the seat warm.

Now we learn he’s not getting up.

“I’ve always said the best way to get a job is to do your own,” said a smiling Ellerbe, after being named the full-time man for what he says will be a four- or five-year contract. “We got the job because we worked for it.”

Hmm. I’m not sure about the “we” thing. He’s either talking about his staff, or he has multiple personalities.

But it’s not “we” that secured him the gig. It’s “he.” One man. And those of you who are asking this morning, “Why hire Ellerbe?” should remember when you asked “Why fire Steve Fisher?” and look in the same direction.

This was U-M athletic director Tom Goss’ decision.

And Goss may have been the best thing Ellerbe had going for him.

A Big Ten title

Remember that human nature is the same for athletic directors as it is for you and me. Goss chose Ellerbe to replace Fisher last year as one of his first official acts. A lot of people questioned Goss. But as the season wore on, the young coach gave his boss lots to be proud of. The Wolverines beat top-ranked Duke. The Wolverines beat UNLV. The Wolverines went 25-9 and won the inaugural Big Ten tournament.

During that time, Goss and Ellerbe developed a good relationship. They both speak plainly. They’re both bonded by being the “new” guys. And they both understand who’s boss. Goss is not above being comfortable with a man he already knows, he is not above a distaste for having to start all over, he is not above the small pat on the back he can give himself for seeing the future all the way back in October.

So even going into the “all-out search” that Michigan promised for this job, Goss had a warm spot in his heart for Ellerbe. This doesn’t mean he didn’t consider other coaches. He did. But you weigh Ellerbe against the other announced candidates, such as Kelvin Sampson of Oklahoma, a guy who’s never won a tournament game, or Tommy Amaker of Seton Hall, who has little more on his resume than a Duke letterhead, and hey. This isn’t like holding Ellerbe up to Dean Smith.

Which begs the next question: why not Dean Smith — or someone like him? Why not try to pry away Mike Krzyzewski from Duke, or Lute Olson from Arizona, or Denny Crum from Louisville, or Bob Knight from Indiana? (I know, he throws chairs, but some people think he’s pretty good.)

Well. The fact is, for all the chest-pounding Michigan does about its basketball job, it is still viewed around the country as second to football. Coaches know if they come here, they’ll be in competition with football, both for status, attention, and money. None of the “premiere” college basketball coaches have to put up with that. Krzyzewski, Knight, Smith before he retired, Rick Pitino before he bolted — these guys were kings of their campuses. Football was the also-ran.

And, on top of that, they earned mega-dollars. Over a million a year, when you throw in the whole package. That’s not gong to happen at Michigan. Not unless the football coach is making $2 million.

So for all the talk about polling the elite, the fact is, those guys were not coming to Michigan.

And when you start to move down the list, Ellerbe doesn’t seem as far from the light.

Here’s a kicker. I asked Ellerbe whether he had talked money with Goss.

“No, not yet,” he said, “I’m not money hungry.”

He’s on his way to being very popular with the administration.

The challenge ahead

“Like so many coaches who have come to Michigan,” said Goss in announcing Ellerbe, “he comes without a name.”

Well. He has a name. What he doesn’t have is a long reputation. He has one year of big-time head coaching under his belt, three years coaching Loyola
(Md.), some decent assistant experience, and some very ardent supporters. These include his wife, his assistant coaches, some national broadcast analysts, and several key Wolverines players.

No, he doesn’t have many victories or losses. But let’s be honest, Goss needed to be consistent here. He fired Fisher not because of victories and losses, but because he didn’t see eye-to-eye with him on “core values.”

If he hired Ellerbe for any other reason, he’d be a hypocrite.

“What’s your best quality?” I asked Ellerbe.

“Honesty,” he said, without flinching.

And if that is true, then you have the ground floor of sensibility in this hire. No one can tell you if Ellerbe will be a winner. I can’t. Goss can’t. Ellerbe can’t. You shouldn’t project too much on what he did this year. For one thing, this team was mostly an upper-class group. For another, it bore the talent stamp of Fisher’s recruiting. Any decent coach should have been able to win close to 20 games with these Wolverines.

But look at things in the big picture. Michigan’s big worry last summer was that the program was gaining an unfavorable shadow. Ellerbe has run a clean ship this past year, he brings no bad habits, and under his tutelage, the whispers about U-M have flittered away. That, in the minds of the people who run the school, is a success story by itself.

So the man on the horse will keep on riding. Will it work? Well, a big test will come with recruiting, which is the reason this all happened so quickly. Ellerbe admits recruiting “is the bloodline of every program.” But remember, he has experience recruiting for both Michigan and for other schools. He knows this game. And if he’s anywhere near as calming with mothers and fathers as he is with his players, he’ll woo quite a few high school stars.

I like the man. I like his comfort. I like his communication. I like the fact that, facing formidable odds — remember, the U-M players really didn’t know him when he took over — he managed to get his guys to believe in him, play hard for him, even say they would stay if he did.

Can I predict his future? Not hardly. But let’s remember something. If an unknown coach came from obscurity to lead the Wolverines to a Final Four, it not only wouldn’t be shocking, it wouldn’t even be the first time.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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