In the end, he did the smartest thing. And, more importantly, the decent thing
— for both the University of Michigan and any other school involved. Robbing one basketball program to feed your own would never fly, not in the land of
“core values” that Tom Goss has rechristened the maize-and-blue.

“With all the coaches I interviewed, it kept coming back to one question,” the U-M athletic director said Friday. ” ‘What will you tell the players you’re leaving behind?’ I never got a good answer.”

That’s because there isn’t one. The only true answer is “I’m looking out for myself.” And why hurry to teach college athletes that? They’re learning it fine as it is.

Last resort. Best option. I’m not sure Tom Goss had his flight plan quite ready when he fired Steve Fisher two weeks ago. But once up in the air, this was really the only place he could land. Oh, he interviewed many candidates. Three dozen, if you count all the phone calls. Guys who were working. Guys who had been fired. Head coaches. Assistants. Alumni.

But let’s face it. Michigan wants a top-notch coach for its basketball team, and no top-notch coach is going to walk out on his program in the first week of practice. If he’s that good, he doesn’t have to, or he doesn’t want to, or, more to the point, he wouldn’t do something like that because of high moral standards.

And high moral standards is how we got in this situation to begin with, right?

“I figured I needed to go in another direction,” Goss admitted.

The direction he went was out the door and down the hall. He hired Brian Ellerbe, the assistant coach who has been running practices, to take over the team on an interim basis. A one-year arrangement. Ellerbe has been a head coach before, at small Loyola of Maryland, where in three years he lost more games than he won.

But at this stage, won-lost records hardly matter. If Goss was going to stay within, Ellerbe was his only choice. Having just been hired this summer, Ellerbe had no stain from whatever went on that made Goss fire Fisher in the first place. The other two assistants, Brian Dutcher and Scott Trost, had been with Fisher before — Dutcher goes back to when Fisher first got here.

And the unspoken part of Goss’ sentence is, if Steve Fisher is no longer worthy of running this team, then his left- and right-hand men aren’t either.

Last resort. Best option.

Looking for answers

“I’m as surprised as you all are,” said Ellerbe when introduced to the press Friday. “I found out about this at 2 this afternoon, so I may not have answers for the questions you guys have.”

Well, that certainly holds for the biggest question of all: Can he coach? We don’t mean in theoretical sense. We mean at this level. Big Ten. Head man. He will not only be leading the Wolverines against such teams as Duke, Indiana, Michigan State and Purdue, he also will be the guy to recruit new players. And selling them on a program whose future is a question mark will be a nifty trick indeed.

“I look at this as a great stepping stone for the rest of my career,” said Ellerbe, who is 34 and has also been an assistant at Virginia, South Carolina, George Mason, Bowling Green and Rutgers. “This is one of the premiere programs in the country. It’s a great opportunity.”

Give him credit for good eyesight.

Everything else, he will have to earn.

Still, several things are accomplished with this move. First of all, it does take the Michigan players into account. We were in danger of forgetting about them, and that’s wrong, even if some of them may have been directly involved with what got Fisher axed in the first place.

The fact is, asking players to meet, accept and play for a new coach and staff in the first week of practice is unrealistic. And while Ellerbe is somewhat new himself, he has at least been around over the summer. He was Fisher’s hire, which will make some of the players happy. More importantly, under Ellerbe, Dutcher and Trost can stay around. Players are often closer with assistant coaches than they are with the head man, since the assistants do most of the recruiting, thus forging the initial relationship.

Seeing Dutcher and Trost each day will appease the players’ anger. And Ellerbe, in private, will always be able to tell his team “Let’s do this for Fish” and feel a connection.

So that accounts for the players. As for the school? What else could Goss really do? He admitted he interviewed Roger Reid, whose son plays for U-M, and who had been fired by Brigham Young University, thus posing no robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario. Many thought Reid would be hired, because he flew in Thursday night.

But although he interviewed, he did not get the job. I don’t know why. My guess is that Goss was not impressed enough to hand away the keys for any length of time. It’s like a shopper who decides to buy a car late in the model year. There are some good bargains out there, but the temptation is to wait until the new models are out and you can increase your options.

“I got a real education in this process,” Goss, the former football player, admitted. “Looking back, it was probably something I deserved. I know more about basketball now than half the people out there.”

The education is just beginning, Tom.

New start for Wolverines

For now, the miniseries “Fisher Is Fired” has ended. Goss can put down the phone. The team can start paying attention in practice. The sword of an NCAA investigation still looms over the program, but that is out of U-M’s hands for now. The Wolverines will not be considered favorites to do anything this year, which may mean they will surprise people.

“I absolutely feel Brian can be a good coach,” Goss said. “I didn’t want to lead him on. I said to him I’m hiring you as my interim head coach for one year. But if Brian happens to do a great job, sure, he can be considered for the permanent spot.”

The carrot has just been hung in front of the horse.

You know, when you think about it, this is awfully eerie, the parallels in this whole affair. Fisher got his job 8 1/2 years ago when his boss, Bill Frieder, was removed by a guy like Goss, a new, headstrong athletic director named Bo Schembechler. Bo told Fisher, “You’re my head coach for the tournament.”

As with Ellerbe, there were no promises. As with Ellerbe, the interim guy was young, unpolished, with little expectations. And of course you know what happened.

Fisher won six straight games and a national championship.

“Have you considered what you’d do if history repeated itself?” Goss was asked.

For the first time in a while, he laughed. “That,” he said, “would be interesting.”

Notice he didn’t throw a job offer in there.

The story goes on …

Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie” 8-9 p.m. Tuesday, Barnes & Noble, Grosse Pointe; 8-9 p.m. Wednesday, Barnes & Noble, Toledo, Ohio; and 7:30-8:30 p.m., Waldenbooks, Flint. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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