The Michigan basketball players walked slowly to the airport gate, some talking, some joking, some, like Rumeal Robinson, wearing headphones to tune out the world. If you expected anger, grief — well, there was none. No tears. They had lost their coach to a better offer, they had been stiffed two days before their biggest tournament, but if they learned anything from Bill Frieder, Papa Hoops, who had kissed them good-bye on the evening news, it was to take care of yourself, baby.
So they were going to Atlanta to play in the NCAA tournament. And they would not let the hurt show. Not here. Not in an airport. A half-dozen TV cameras rose like condors and flicked on their lights, ready to film the new orphans.
“Yeah, it was complete and total surprise,” said Loy Vaught, shrugging,
“but I guess I understand. He called me late last night and said he had no choice, he had to take this job or lose his chance.”
“Yes, I was shocked at first,” said Terry Mills, digging his hands into his very high pockets. “But it was a career move. For his family. If you’re only making $96,000 and you’re a great recruiter, why not take $300,000 and be a great recruiter someplace else?”
Betrayed? Yes and no, they said. Angered? Yes and no, they said. They wore the semi-smiles of confusion as they huddled near the wall, trying, in their conspicuousness, to be inconspicuous. Who knew what to say? In the previous 20 hours, these tall college athletes had (1) learned their coach was on a flight to Arizona when he was supposed to be watching film with them; (2) been visited by Bo Schembechler, the football coach/athletic director, who said the old coach was out, and the interim coach would be Steve Fisher, the former assistant coach; (3) been told by the interim coach that things should stay the same.
And now they were flying away to play basketball. In the whirlwind of Bill Frieder’s shocking split from Michigan after nine years as head coach, the one question no one asked enough is the one question too often overlooked in messy divorces:
What about the kids? 20 minutes to decide “Well, you see, I got the call Tuesday afternoon,” said Frieder, addressing the press in Arizona on Wednesday. Charles Harris, the athletic director at Arizona State, “offered me the job. He said, ‘I want to go to my people and tell them I’ve got a basketball coach. Do you want this job or do you want me to give it to someone else?’ I said, ‘I need some time to think about it.’ He said, ‘You’ve got 20 minutes.’ So I made a decision.”
What kind of school gives its future coach 20 minutes? How much could Arizona State really have wanted Frieder if the school was willing to drop him should he have asked to coach his Michigan team through the NCAA tournament — which is the right thing to do, isn’t it? Aren’t you supposed to admire a man like that? Aren’t you supposed to respect a guy who says, “I can’t desert my boys. If you want me, please wait a few weeks?”
This is what Harris said: “The most important thing is to get a coach so we can start recruiting.”
What about the people Frieder recruited last year and the year before and the year before that?
What about the kids?
Here is how they found out. Rumors began swirling late Tuesday afternoon. Vaught, a senior, told some teammates: “If coach isn’t there at the meeting tonight, I think he’s gone.” The players gathered in the film room shortly before 9 p.m. and began eyeballing the door. In came an assistant. Another assistant. No Frieder. A collective whistle of doom blew through the room. Two hours later, they watched the news and saw their coach’s face — the man who had written them countless letters in high school, phoned them, wooed them, promised them a great experience if only they would say “yes” to Michigan — that face, pasted next to the image of a Sun Devil, above the letters ASU.
And finally, hours later, in the dead of night, phones would ring, one at a time, stirring the players from sleep. It was coach, calling from out west. Hi guys. Let me explain what happened here. They made me a great offer and I had to accept it immediately. Sorry. I don’t want this to affect you in the tournament. . . .
Nice way to teach the word “responsibility.” Request to Bo gets cold ‘No’ “THIS IS MICHIGAN. LET’S BE CLEAR ABOUT THAT. AND MICHIGAN WILL SURVIVE. . . .”
And this is Bo Schembechler, who can turn any news conference into a visit with Gen. Patton. Here was the third piece of the puzzle. The future. Frieder had requested to coach the Wolverines through the tournament when he finally reached Schembechler Wednesday morning. (He claimed he couldn’t call Bo the night before because Bo’s phone number is unlisted and Frieder doesn’t have it. He called Bo’s secretary instead, at 3:45 a.m. That ought to tell you how close Frieder was to his athletic director. Or how afraid he was of a confrontation.)
Anyhow, Bo turned down Frieder’s request. Cold. “I don’t want an Arizona State guy coaching this team. A Michigan man will coach this team. Steve Fisher is our coach for now.”
Take that. Schembechler was not only indifferent at Frieder’s departure, he seemed almost giddy. He promised to pick a good coach, said the job was the best in America so it shouldn’t be hard, but the task right now was to get those basketball men ready to face Xavier on Friday.
As for Frieder? He’s history. Schembechler visited the abandoned players and urged them to concentrate only on the future now. He called upon tradition, Wolverine pride; he marched back and forth and inspired them with personal promises that he, Bo, would take care of things. In one day, the basketball team had become an adopted brother of the football team. Bill Frieder, it was implied, would not be missed.
“Bo, we understand Frieder will be in Atlanta,” a reporter said. “If you saw him down there, what would you say to him?”
Schembechler thought for a moment, then raised a hand in a friendly wave.
“Hi, Bill,’ he said.
Bye, Bill. A devious move in the night And that brings us back to the players, standing at that airport gate, their old head coach gone, their new head coach, for the time being, handing out tickets. “I got some aisle seats, and a few windows,” said Fisher.
“Coach Frieder used to get us in first class,” joked a player.
“Yeah,’ said another, “what about that?”
They were kidding. Blowing off steam. The cameras were whirring all around them, the whole scene was unnatural, and they were doing their best to seem relaxed.
What about the kids? Above all else, that is Bill Frieder’s shame. And Arizona State’s. College sports are supposed to be a shade less devious than professional; after all, these players aren’t paid. You’re supposed to teach as well as coach them. But what are we teaching by stealing away in the middle of the night? Oddly enough, Vaught, Mills, Mark Hughes and Mike Griffin all said they wouldn’t have minded if Frieder coached them in this tournament. “It’s a business thing,” said Griffin.
That is not much of a tribute to college coach. But that is sports. They go for money. They go when they want to. And everyone must pick up the pieces. As the players boarded the plane in a wash of camera light, a middle-aged woman with a shopping bag sidled up to a reporter.
“Did that coach, what’s his name, leave?” she asked.
Yes, she was told, what’s his name was gone. CUTLINE A FRESH START FOR BILL FRIEDER Above, Bill Frieder and his wife, Janice, enter a news conference Wednesday where Arizona State announced that Frieder would be its basketball coach. Left, Michigan’s interim coach, Steve Fisher, and his son, Mark, 10, leave a news conference in Ann Arbor. More coverage in Section D.