A few years ago, in writing the book “Fab Five,” I discovered that Steve Fisher had paid a friend of Juwan Howard’s a tidy sum to coach at Fisher’s summer camp. This stunned me. Hiring this friend — who then brought young Juwan to Ann Arbor as a camper — and even interviewing this friend for a coaching position at the University of Michigan, was, to me, unseemly, and perhaps an NCAA violation.
So one night, at Fisher’s house, I confronted him about this incident. He was uncomfortable, admitted what he’d done, but said, “It happens all the time in college basketball.”
Still, he worried about the book’s publication.
He needn’t have worried. The book came out, the Free Press ran an excerpt about the incident — and nobody at Michigan did anything. By Christmas, Fisher had at his house a stack of the books, which people had asked him to autograph.
Times change. Reins tighten. This weekend, Fisher was fired as head men’s basketball coach. He was fired without a major NCAA stain on his napkin. He was fired, even though U-M’s own internal investigation could conclude no serious wrongdoing.
He was fired for one reason and one reason only.
New bosses. Who wanted to make a statement.
“I had an open mind when I began my meeting with Steve,” insisted Tom Goss, U-M’s new athletic director, who gave Fisher the ax Friday. “He could have said some things that would have kept me from” firing him.
I don’t buy it. Too many people have told me they knew Fisher was gone last week. And anyone with eyes could tell that Goss and President Lee Bollinger, at last Thursday’s press conference, were hemming and hawing like schoolkids hiding a secret.
They knew. They wanted to make a change. They saw the basketball program and its recent investigations as embarrassing to the university, and the only way to make the embarrassment go away was to make the coach and his staff go away.
“You know what this is about?” said one insider who asked not to be identified. “It’s about the alum from Michigan at the watercooler being embarrassed when he’s talking to the alum from Michigan State. That’s all.”
That may well be true. But then, doesn’t much of what happens in college sports begin with the verve of the alumni at the watercooler? My belief is Goss and Bollinger want to hold Michigan to a higher standard of behavior and academics. I think they want Michigan basketball to be like Duke basketball — or at least the general perception of Duke basketball.
Consider Goss’ response when I suggested that many of today’s top high school players — particularly those from poor, inner-city backgrounds — have people like Ed Martin swarming around them: “Maybe I don’t want those kids then. I think there’s other kids out there. Maybe the pool is getting smaller, with the few quality schools going after the same kids. But we need to be able to sell Michigan and the program to those kids.”
Sounds to me like they want Mike Krzyzewski and Grant Hill.
Firing Fisher won’t make that happen.
A bit fuzzy
Now, I want to be clear about what Fisher did and didn’t do. That is almost impossible, seeing how unclear Fisher has been about it all. I have known Steve for a long time, and while he is humble and polite and pleasant and folksy, he does have a way of getting fuzzy when it involves potential embarrassment. He has always been quick to shrug and say, “I’ll be honest with ya . . .” and then tell you something that you wonder about.
His fuzziness with some of the investigators may have hastened his departure. Then again, Fisher may be fuzzy because he honestly didn’t know. And if he didn’t know, it’s because his players weren’t straight with him. And this is where I find it a tad hypocritical to hear how current and ex-Wolverines wept at the news that Fisher had been fired.
Wait a second. If players like Robert Traylor, Maurice Taylor and others have indeed done what reports allege they have done, who do they think is responsible for Fisher’s ousting? No matter how wrong Fisher may have been in this whole thing, I promise you he told those players, more than once, to stay away from boosters with money, stay out of potential conflicts, don’t let outsiders get too close.
So if any of his current or former players did those things — and they are shedding a tear today — they are the worst kind of hypocrites. And college isn’t teaching them a thing.
Having said that, it’s always the coach who takes the fall. And Fisher is being blamed for an atmosphere more than an incident. The atmosphere may have begun in the early ’90s, when Fisher and football coach Gary Moeller were desperate to recruit talent to stay on top. Some athletes were recruited who probably shouldn’t have been admitted. What followed were incidents that gave the school a black eye, things Michigan wasn’t used to, things with alcohol, police, money, investigations.
With Moeller gone, and Fisher now history, the higher-ups can claim the school is back on a “Michigan” track. It didn’t help Fisher’s case that his recent teams hadn’t won a Big Ten title nor gone very far in the NCAA tournament, something U-M supporters have come to expect.
I do know this much: Fisher was not fired because he scribbled someone else’s initials on a complimentary ticket list for booster Ed Martin. That is likely nothing more than routine — no worse than a secretary signing a boss’ name to a memo — and it is not forgery, nor a criminal offense. “Far too much has been made of that,” Goss admitted Sunday. “That was not the reason Steve was let go.”
No, he was let go because of two key things, according to Goss. Accountability and responsibility.
“Those were the areas in which I did not receive sufficient answers,” Goss said.
In retrospect, Fisher may have stoked these flames when he went on vacation last week, despite Goss’ warning that the investigation might come through any day.
“Were you upset that he went anyhow?” I asked Goss.
“Put it this way,” he said slowly. “If it were me …I would have postponed my vacation.”
Get the picture?
Bosses keep changing
What this whole incident comes down to is something to which any adult can relate: New people came in, and they wanted to do things their way. Their rules. Their agenda. If you talk privately to Fisher’s staff members, they gripe that the new athletic director doesn’t know them and doesn’t understand what’s really going on in the field. Isn’t this common wherever new bosses take over?
Fisher might still have a job if Jack Weidenbach were still the athletic director. Or if James Duderstadt were still the president. Those were the guys in charge when the Fab Five was in motion, and the guys who didn’t seem to be in any rush to hold Fisher over the fire for the Juwan Howard stuff in my book.
Times changes. Reins tighten. Steve Fisher — who did not return phone calls Sunday, but will tell his side of the story today at a news conference — was not the worst guy on the planet, nor was he a saint. His biggest mistake was probably letting the industry standard of behind-the-scenes college basketball set the bar for what he would and wouldn’t tolerate at Michigan.
It turns out the new bosses want a higher bar — or at least want to tell people they’re aiming for one — and they just used Fisher as a human pole vault stick.
We’ll see soon enough, how what goes up comes down.
Mitch Albom will sign his book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Book Nook in Brighton, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Little Professor in Plymouth and 7 p.m. Friday at Webster’s in Ann Arbor.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.