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

Not about race. Not about color. Not about image. Not about style. Brian Ellerbe is about to be fired as Michigan’s basketball coach for two reasons and two reasons only. Wins and losses. The lack of the former and the preponderance of the latter.

Never mind what some people are saying, that four years is not enough of a chance, that he is being unfairly judged, that because he is black, that the administration did not hand him the same things to work with as his predecessors.

What nonsense. I suppose Michigan didn’t give him a full tank of gas to recruit. U-M shrank his locker room. U-M stuffed gum in his whistle.

Come on. The sad truth is, the only reason race is being raised as an issue in Ellerbe’s dismissal — which officially could be announced as early as today
— is that even supporters know he did such a meager job of coaching, there is no defending it on its own merits.

A 62-win, 60-loss record? A 10-win, 18-loss season? No postseason? Be fair now. Those numbers do not cut it. And race should not be brought up during Ellerbe’s firing, because it wasn’t brought up during his hiring.

When Ellerbe was handed the U-M reins back in 1997 — despite never having coached a game at Michigan — no one suggested that an African-American athletic director, Tom Goss, was giving preferential treatment to an African-American coach, Ellerbe, while ignoring a white assistant, Brian Dutcher, who had been in the program for a decade.

No one said it because it was inappropriate then. And it is inappropriate now. Ellerbe is out because U-M lost to Michigan State by 51 points last season, and because U-M lost to Duke by 43 this season, and because U-M was bounced from the Big Ten tournament in the first round last week and because U-M lost nearly twice as many as it won and because, for the second time in four years, the school that not so long ago was in back-to-back Final Fours, now doesn’t even rate a measly NIT invitation.

Ellerbe could be purple and polka-dotted. With a record like that, he would still be fired.

How he got started

Now, it is true, he came in under strange conditions. Steve Fisher was axed just before the start of the 1997-98 season. The then-34-year-old Ellerbe, who had been hired by U-M during that off-season (after being forced out as head coach at Loyola, Md.), was one of the few options available to Goss so late in the game. Dutcher, in Goss’ mind, had too much of Fisher’s stench on him. Goss wanted someone who would be loyal to him, and who would stand for the “core values” that Goss spent every five minutes talking about.

Those core values were about academics, behavior and accountability. Ellerbe seemed willing to comply. So Goss stuck with him. The program bumped along. But when Ellerbe won the inaugural Big Ten tournament that season and earned an NCAA appearance, Goss removed his interim tag and signed him on for a real deal.

And that was the last real high point of Ellerbe’s career.

From then on, things have slipped, slid and gone astray. While Michigan State was becoming a juggernaut just up the road, Michigan was drooping like a dying willow, losing recruits as well as roster players. The Jamal Crawford chapter was embarrassing, but it also showed the dangers of relying on out-of-state recruiting, where your information and background checks are never as reliable. No one twisted Ellerbe’s arm in recruiting Crawford. He went for star power. He got burned.

Yes, Ellerbe had to coach with the shadow of an FBI investigation into booster Ed Martin’s behavior. No doubt coaches used that to recruit against Michigan. And its lack of resolution — heck, to this day there is still no resolution
— hurt Ellerbe.

On the other hand, Ellerbe still had all the advantages that come with the Ann Arbor job. He had that tradition behind him. He had that maize and blue. He had the baggy shorts. He had the TV exposure. He had Chris Webber and Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose out there in the NBA, serving as explosive recruiting tools to kids whose biggest dream is to go pro.

And, toward the end, he had the one thing that most enables turnaround coaches to do their turning around: He had playing time available.

Even coming off a losing season, Ellerbe could have gotten top players — the way Fisher got the Fab Five — with the lure of instant starting roles. That is the most powerful tool you can offer in today’s “I-wanna-start-now” basketball culture.

It still didn’t work.

The final details

So Ellerbe is out, as much for the bleak job behind him as for the bleak prospects for his future. Will anyone miss him a month from now? Sad to say, I don’t think anyone will miss him 20 minutes from now. No one seems excited around Michigan basketball these days. The current athletic director, Bill Martin, has himself described the team as lacking a visible sense of direction. And Ellerbe hasn’t helped his cause, with an attitude that floated from distant to quiet to condescending to cocky.

The basketball program became a ship adrift, and Michigan does not leave its craft dead in the water for long. So once the small print is worked out in a good-bye package for Ellerbe, the search for a new man will begin.

A word here about a candidate and a concept. People have mentioned Rick Pitino, the former Kentucky, Providence, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks coach. I know Pitino. He is a fine coach. I have no idea whether he wants this job at all — nor am I recommending him.

But I have heard people say he wouldn’t come to Ann Arbor because Michigan doesn’t want a basketball coach that would threaten the profile of the football coach. That, to me, is as much nonsense as the Ellerbe race thing.

Since when are the basketball coach and the football coach in competition for profile? Their games would only overlap perhaps one week a season. There are plenty of U-M commercial opportunities to go around. Lloyd Carr is beyond such petty jealousy.

Personally, I think the idea of a high-profile basketball coach and high-profile football coach is an enormous draw for a university. Both use the other’s games to draw recruits. Michigan could become a “super” sports school, known as a place where the best players in two sports went, the way New York is known as a town where the top basketball, football and baseball players want to be. How can that possibly hurt?

In any case, this is the first time since Bill Frieder in 1980 that U-M gets to hire a basketball coach under semi-normal conditions, instead of an emergency, an interim man and a forced hand.

So U-M should choose wisely. It should choose the right man, with the right plan, judged by the right reasons. Not about race. Not about color. Not about image. Not about style.

About winning and losing.

The reasons Ellerbe is out should be the reasons a new guy is in.

Otherwise there is something to complain about.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.


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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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