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

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. They had lost their coach to a better offer, they had been stiffed two days before the NCAA tournament, but if they had learned anything from Bill Frieder, Papa Hoops, who kissed them good-bye on the late night news Tuesday, it was take care of yourself first, baby.

So they were going to Atlanta to play. 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.

No tears. Sorry.

“Yeah, it was complete surprise,” said Loy Vaught, the senior center, 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.”

“It was a career move,” said Terry Mills, the sophomore forward, digging his hands into his very high pockets. “If you’re only making $96,000,” which is Frieder’s base salary at U-M, “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. Just business. Isn’t that how you’re supposed to answer these questions? In the last 24 hours, they had (1) learned their coach was on a flight to Arizona when he was supposed to be watching film with them; (2) been called by their coach after midnight to be told he had taken another job; (3) been visited by Bo Schembechler, the football coach/athletic director, who said the interim coach would be Steve Fisher, the former assistant; (4) been told by Fisher that things should stay the same.

And now they were flying away to play basketball. Look out for yourself, baby. It was the theme repeated all day long, by all the adult parties. But in the whirlwind of Bill Frieder’s shocking split from Michigan, the one question

not asked enough was, not surprisingly, the one question usually overlooked in messy divorces:

What about the kids? 20 minutes to decide Bill Frieder had coached Michigan for nine years. He accepted his new position after 20 minutes of deliberation. “I got the call Tuesday afternoon,” he explained 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 U-M 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?”

Instead, 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? Stuff them, Harris figured. He had a job to do. Find a coach. Get him in before the start of the tournament. Why? Because he had set that up as a deadline and he was tired of waiting.

Look out for yourself, baby.

But what about the kids?

Here is how they found out. Rumors began swirling late Tuesday afternoon. Vaught told some teammates, “If coach isn’t there at the meeting tonight, I think he’s gone.” The players gathered for a meeting shortly before 9 p.m. But instead of concentrating on their film, they were eyeballing the door. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. No Frieder. A collective whistle of doom blew through the room. Two hours later, they watched the news and heard their coach’s name. The man who had written them countless letters in high school, phoned them, wooed them, promised them great things if they came to Michigan
— and here he was, being announced as the new coach of the Sun Devils, 2,000 miles and a world of trust away.

Hours later, in the dead of night, phones would ring, one at a time, stirring the players from sleep. It was Frieder, 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. . . .

Great way to teach “responsibility.”

Look out for yourself. Request to Bo gets cold ‘No’ And that, sadly, is what will be taken from all this. Michigan began to look out for itself Wednesday as well. After waiting until Wednesday morning to call Schembechler — he claimed he didn’t have Bo’s home phone number, which should tell you something about their relationship — Frieder offered to continue coaching the team through the tournament. Bo refused.

“A Michigan man will coach Michigan,” Bo declared.

He then made plans to fly to Atlanta himself, to boost the team, and to search for head-coaching candidates. Already he has visited with Robinson, Mills, Glen Rice and the rest. He urged them to concentrate only on the future. He called upon tradition, Wolverine pride; he marched back and forth like the football coach he is and inspired them with personal promises that he, Bo, would take care of things. Bill Frieder, it was implied, would not be missed.

“We understand Frieder will be in Atlanta,” a reporter asked Bo at the afternoon news conference. “If you see him down there, what will you say to him?”

Schembechler thought for a moment, then raised a hand in a friendly wave.

“Hi, Bill,” he said.

Bye, Bill. A lesson in deviousness 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. Robinson said nothing. Rice said nothing. Others chatted with reporters and signed autographs.

What about the kids? Above all else, that is Bill Frieder’s shame. And Arizona State’s. College sports are supposed to be a little less devious than professional, aren’t they? You’re supposed to teach as well as coach. 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 may be the saddest tribute of all. Gone, apparently, are the days where school spirit and team pride were the glue for a college basketball team. Gone are the days when a coach would say, “My players first, my personal fortunes next.” Maybe it was foolish to ever think that. Maybe Frieder was doing the best thing for his career. You look out for yourself, you take what you can get, and remember to close the door behind you. Or don’t. Doesn’t matter. Everybody’s doing it.

As the Michigan players boarded the plane for Atlanta, their tournament, their future, a middle-aged woman with a shopping bag sidled up to a reporter near the gate.

“Did that coach, what’s his name, leave?” she asked.

Yes, she was told, what’s his name was gone.

“Hmmm,” she said, and walked away. CUTLINES: 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.


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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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