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

TO: T. Amaker

RE: New Job

Dear Coach Amaker:

First off, is it Tom or Tommy? You’re getting a new start, you might as well pick your moniker. Personally, I would lose the Tommy thing, since it makes you sound like a kid, and what you’ve taken on is definitely a man’s assignment.

Anyhow, welcome to the University of Michigan. The good news is there’s a terrific tradition. The bad news is you have to go back a ways to find it. The Wolverines’ hoopsters are coming off their worst season in nearly 20 years. Interest is as low as a Nasdaq stock. Football is so dominant that a story about the quarterback leaving to play pro baseball got more coverage than anything the basketball team did all year. And oh, yeah — there’s your competition up the road, the Spartans, who are getting a fair amount of attention.

So you stepped into a big, deep puddle here, Tommy, Tom, Coach, but nothing that can’t be overcome with time, perseverance and a 7-footer with a soft touch.

Besides, you’re obviously well-liked by the folks who hired you. (You reportedly interviewed Tuesday and got the job Wednesday.) Here are a few things, right off the bat, that I see you have going for you with your new bosses:

* 1) You’re from Duke. Don’t let them kid you, they’re nuts about that in Ann Arbor. Michigan folks have this thing about Duke, they hate the Blue Devils, all the while wishing they were the Blue Devils. Trust me. Anytime things get hairy, you can say, “Well, at Duke we always used to do it this way . . .” and they’ll roll right over.

* 2) You’re From The Outside. The problem at Michigan, in recent years, has been embracing coaches from a less-than-embraced lineage. It goes back to Bill Frieder, who was a character, then Steve Fisher, his assistant, who was only supposed to take over for a couple of weeks, until he won a national championship and U-M couldn’t exactly fire him.

The pooh-bahs were never thrilled with Frieder’s act, and they weren’t thrilled with Fisher’s, either, especially after he brought in the Fab Five. They were only the best recruiting class in college basketball history. But the alumni and influential boosters hated their baggy shorts and — ugh — trash talk.

Problem was, those guys went to two national championship games. Once again, the powers that be bit their tongues and grumbled in the corner.

Fisher was finally fired in a swirl of controversy over how he ran his program. At last, U-M figured, it could get the coach it really wanted! Only problem? It happened just before the season, and all the great coaches were committed. So they gave the “interim” job to the only assistant left standing, Brian Ellerbe. And when the season was done, then-athletic director Tom Goss handed him the full-time gig — even though many of the pooh-bahs didn’t like Ellerbe much, either.

So you see, Tom, Tommy, Coach A, you’re the first guy they’re really hiring from scratch in nearly two decades. Remember that. You can use it to your advantage.

* 3) You’re young. Players like that.

* 4) You dress nicely. U-M likes that.

Beware the folks in green

OK, Tom, T-Bo, Thomas, Coach ‘Maker. That’s the upside. Now here’s the hurdles you face.

* 1) Michigan State. If the Spartans win this Final Four, you’re going to be chasing their fumes for a while. As long as Tom Izzo stays put, everyone is going to want to play in East Lansing. You know the feeling. Think of North Carolina State trying to out-recruit Duke lately. It’s possible, but damn tough.

* 2) Ed Martin. If you don’t know his name, you will by tonight. He’s the booster with the long shadow. No one is quite sure of everything he did to U-M or its players, or if he’ll ever face justice, but that doesn’t stop recruiters from using it against you.

* 3) In-state Recruiting. In recent years, Michigan has gone national in its talent search, often with disastrous results (look up “Jamal Crawford” in the files when you get here). Meanwhile, the local kids have headed to Michigan State or gone to other places — such as Shane Battier’s exodus to, ahem, Duke. You will need to change this pattern to have any chance around here, Coach Tom, Coach Tommy, Big A.

There’s reason for hope

All right. That’s the lay of the land. The good news is, there’s no place to go but up. I know you’ve only been to one NCAA tournament as a head coach, and your players at Seton Hall weren’t exactly choirboys this past season. Still, you spent nine years under the Jedi Master, Mike Krzyzewski, you were great at dishing assists as a player, and you’ve got a degree in economics, which should come in handy when trying to buy a house in Ann Arbor.

Obviously, U-M thinks a lot of you to give you a five-year deal worth as much as $900,000 a year. Goodness. A few years back, the thought of giving the U-M basketball coach anything more than a whistle might have been considered indulgent.

Here’s a hint. High school kids still love the maize and blue. They love the look of the baggy shorts. They love the pictures of Chris Webber and Jalen Rose hugging after those old Fab Five victories. Use those things. Call those guys up and see whether they can help you recruit.

Oh. And make friends with Lloyd Carr. Unlike Seton Hall and Duke, folks around here know a little bit about the college football team.

In the meantime, welcome. Enjoy. Educate. Win.

As they said in Casablanca, this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship, Tommy, Thomas, Tom-Tom, Am-Way.

Wait. How about …Mr. T?

Nah. Forget that.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or 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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