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

You got the job, kid. The news was hardly a surprise. By the time the press conference began Monday morning, you couldn’t find anyone in the state who didn’t know Steve Fisher would be named head basketball coach at Michigan. After all, he had just guided the Wolverines to six wins and a national championship. A national championship? No other coach had ever done that here. You got the job, kid.

Was there ever a doubt?

Well, yes. There was. And the fact is, there should have been. Everyone loves a fairy tale, but let’s be honest: If someone told you four weeks ago, when Bill Frieder left for Arizona State, that this apple-cheeked assistant
— what’s his name, Fisher? — would be put in charge of the Michigan program for good, you would have balked.

“Who the heck is this guy? Why don’t they get a proven coach, like Mike Krzyzewski of Duke? Or Rollie Massimino of Villanova?”

Well. Here is the question today: How much different a coach is Fisher now

from four weeks ago? Did he suddenly age 10 years? Does he suddenly have a decade’s worth of head coaching experience? Is he suddenly a proven recruiter?

No one wanted to think about that stuff during the intoxicating championship run. No one needed to — except the guy who had to hire Fisher: Bo Schembechler. He would be hiring someone, he knew not for a week or a month, but for years to come. A big move. On top of that, he had to wonder just how much Bill Frieder was inside Steve Fisher. After all, Fisher did work for the man for seven years. And if there was one thing Schembechler did not want, it was a clone of Frieder, the whirling dervish who left people dizzy and suspicious during his reign.

“We’re looking forward to a fresh approach from Steve Fisher,” Schembechler said in introducing his coach.

Fresh as in “new.”

As in “out with the old.”

And yet here is what everyone wanted to know Monday: What took Bo so long? Why did he even need to wait seven days? Brent Musburger, from CBS, actually tried to get Schembechler to make the announcement immediately after the championship game in Seattle because he thought it would be good television. Bo said: No thanks, Brent. Those weren’t his exact words.

But understand something. Schembechler and Fisher barely knew each other when the roof caved in four weeks ago. “I think the most time we spent together prior to that was a plane ride,” Fisher admitted Monday, “and we both fell asleep.”

So the first words of substance that Schembechler said to Fisher were:
“You’re coaching this team.” He then tried to get to know him. And remember, this isn’t the football coach interviewing the basketball coach, it’s the athletic director interviewing the basketball coach. What that means is anything Fisher does or will do reflects on his boss. And therefore, the No. 1 priority was that Fisher be clean — in his recruiting and in his personal life — because Schembechler will not tolerate even the hint of scandal, especially when it might blemish his reputation.

In the days following Frieder’s departure, Schembechler began to hear ugly whispers about the way Frieder conducted his program. Maybe they were false. Maybe they weren’t. Never one to take a chance, Bo investigated everything. That’s not snooping. That’s what any athletic director would do.

On top of that, Schembechler wanted to make sure Fisher was tough enough to coach this team for the long haul.

And that took time. “I was in no rush to hire anyone,” Schembechler said.
“All the scholarships for next year’s basketball team were taken care of. If I wanted to, I could have delayed this thing for a month.”

That he didn’t is tribute to Fisher, who clearly passed Schembechler’s white glove test. Were there other coaches considered? Yes. Rick Pitino from the New York Knicks was a highly regarded candidate. So was Krzyzewski. Schembechler talked to people about both of them, but did not speak with either personally.

And Bobby Knight was never in consideration. Anyone who said that should have his head examined.

The choice, in the end, was Fisher. Why? 1) Schembechler was impressed with the way Fisher guided the team during the tournament. 2) He was impressed with the obvious difference between this coach and the last one. 3) He was impressed with what Fisher said during numerous morning meetings in Bo’s office — in which they discussed how the program would be run; up front, clean, devoted to the kids. And 4) despite his often gruff exterior, Schembechler still believes in loyalty and earning your keep. Fisher was a Michigan man. An outsider was not.

So this morning Steve Fisher, a little bit Jimmy Carter, a little bit Don Knotts, is the new coach. And Wednesday he goes to the White House, no longer The Interim Man. Michigan is grateful for his capturing a championship, but Fisher should be grateful as well. After all, a head coaching job is not a reward for a tournament. It’s not a sweepstakes prize. What the Wolverines did the last few weeks was spectacular, but some would argue that the team — already loaded with talent — was emotionally juiced and blessed with a fairly easy draw until the Final Four.

That doesn’t take away from Fisher’s accomplishment. But a ring and six victories does not prove he can recruit or coach through slumps. What about next season, when the inevitable letdown occurs? What about four years from now, when Frieder’s blue-chip recruits are gone? Let’s be honest. The last time Fisher was head coach of anything was 10 years ago — in high school.

Fisher’s story is wonderful, we all love it. It makes us believe in the little guy, it makes us believe in being No. 2 and trying harder. But you shouldn’t be surprised that Schembechler and Jack Widenbach wanted time to think this all over. They are taking a certain risk here. Sure, the U-M coaching seemed superior in the NCAA Tournament. But only the years to come will prove if it was Fisher, or the good light he was standing in.

“I said last week you’d have to pinch me to convince me I’m not dreaming,” Fisher said Monday, smiling at the crowd, “and I still feel that way. This is the culmination of my dream.”

You got the job, kid.

Now comes the hard part.


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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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