It was 20 past midnight. My phone rang.
“It’s Frieder,” said the voice in the receiver.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“In a hotel room in Ann Arbor. This is the first chance I’ve had to return your call.”
Now, I don’t do too many after-midnight interviews. But with Bill Frieder, you take when you can get. First, however, you take a very large gulp of coffee. Because any encounter with him, even over long-distance telephone, is like driving straight into a truck’s high-beam lights.
“I haven’t been to bed much,” he said quickly. “We had the big win Saturday and I was up most of the night, and the next days were so busy, meetings and practice and team announcements, a 6 o’clock press conference, a 7 o’clock staff meeting, 8 o’clock the players were back and . . . “
He went on, but my first pencil broke.
No surprise. Frieder’s mind works like a high-speed printer, anyhow, and this was some week, even for him. On Saturday, his Wolverines upset No. 3 Purdue to close the regular season. On Sunday, they were seeded in the NCAA tournament and will play Navy tonight. And Monday, Frieder landed a surprise recruit — Sean Higgins, one of the nation’s top prep players — after a ruling nullified his commitment to UCLA because, he claimed, he was coerced into signing.
“So what about this kid?” I asked.
“Oh, naturally, I was thrilled,” Frieder began. “Not only for us but for .
. . uh . . . for . . . listen, what’s your number?”
“My number? But you called me.”
“I threw it away already.”
I told him. He hung up. Two minutes later he called back. “Where were we .
. . ?” he said. A maize-and-blue ribbon?
But OK. You don’t get medals for speed-talking in college basketball. The problem is, Frieder doesn’t get many medals, period. “A great recruiter, a lousy coach,” goes the common criticism.
I never understood that. Only two coaches have won the Big Ten title outright this decade. Frieder and Bobby Knight. Only two have done that back-to-back in 20 years. Frieder and Knight.
The job Frieder has done must be given some kind of ribbon, when you realize in this “rebuilding” year, he lost two giant bricks — freshmen Terry Mills and Rumeal Robinson — to academic restrictions. It wasn’t his sales pitch that converted a push-it-inside team to a guard-oriented, perimeter-shooting squad or provided victories over powerhouses Iowa, Syracuse and Purdue.
Now it’s true, Frieder’s high-wire schtick is not for everybody. His recruiting devotion can be downright scary. He will travel 500 miles just to wave at a kid as he comes out of the locker room. “For me,” he admitted,
“landing a recruit is a bigger thrill than winning a big ball game. Maybe I’m too exhausted after a ball game. I don’t know.
“But, oh, this time of year. I love it. Boy, this team, they haven’t always paid smart but they’re playing smart now. They haven’t always played together but they’re playing together now.”
Yes, I agreed, they have been high and low. Last week alone, U-M had its worst game — a blowout by Illinois — just before beating Purdue.
“Wellll . . . ” Frieder said, winding up. He then proceeded to race through all the victories and losses of this season, complete with scores.
I broke my second pencil. Hop, skip and some pain
So tonight is the opening round of the big tournament, and Frieder faces the old dilemma. If Michigan reaches the final 16 — or better — the accolades will come. If not, the criticisms will resurface. And so what? Last year, two days after U-M was upset in the second round by Iowa State, Frieder was out at a high school recruiting.
This year will be no different. I guarantee you. On Monday night, with Navy and Higgins and all that ahead, Frieder flew across the state just to watch a high school junior play in a tournament. When he landed back at Ann Arbor, he ran across the landing strip toward his car.
“You know those blocks of wood that keep the airplane wheels in place?” he said. “I tripped on one and did three somersaults and scraped my arms and hands and knees and legs.
“Then all my papers flew out of my briefcase. It was real windy, and I had to chase them down. Everything. My folder on Navy, my folder on recruiting. Some of it’s still out there.”
“My luck, it’ll fly straight to Jud Heathcote.”
And he laughed. My watch read 1:15 a.m. Beautiful. Here was Frieder in some hotel room, with papers on his desk, scratches on his body, bags under his eyes — getting ready to prove once more he can coach them as well as reel them in.
“When I got in my car I started going 70 in a 30 m.p.h. zone,” he said.
“Then I thought maybe that fall was a warning from above. Maybe I should slow down.”
“I put my seat belt on,” he said.