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1989 and beyond: How Michigan's national championship was its best moment and biggest curse

BY JASON KOHLER
Daily Staff Writer
Published March 17, 2009

On April 4, 1989, Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler stepped to a microphone inside Crisler Arena to address 10,000 frenzied fans.

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The ‘89 basketball team celebrating after the win that got them into the championship game.
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Students swarm the streets after the NCAA National Championship win.
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Police in riot gear watch unruly crowds on South University Avenue after the Michigan won the national title.
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Steve Fisher, Michigan's interim basketball coach, Steve Fisher leads the team to the Final Four.
SAM WOLSON/Daily

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He could barely speak without being interrupted by impromptu cheers.

The night before, the Michigan men’s basketball team had knocked off Seton Hall 90-89 in overtime to cap an incredible run and capture the NCAA National Championship.

In his 20 years at Michigan, Schembechler had never won a national title as the football coach. It was the only championship he oversaw as Athletic Director.

“I’ve been around here a long time, and this championship by this basketball team will go down as one of the great accomplishments in all of Michigan athletics,” Schembechler told the crowd.

Two decades later, with the basketball team in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years, few students are aware of the dramatic events that unfolded on the way to the title.

Few remember forward Glen Rice scoring 184 points to set the record for most points in an NCAA Tournament. Or forward Sean Higgins’s put-back against Illinois with just a few ticks left in the semifinals. Or guard Rumeal Robinson hitting both foul shots on a one-and-one with three seconds left to win the national title.

Perhaps few would believe that before Michigan State and Ohio State became known for drunken riots, eight students were arrested as a mob took over South University Avenue, flipping over cars and swinging from live power lines in a celebration after the championship game.

Instead, students remember the Fab Five and the ensuing scandal surrounding a booster’s monetary gifts to star players that crippled the program for years. True Michigan basketball fans can still hear the chants of “NIT, NIT” from opposing fans.

But it all relates back to a group of underdogs that banded together, led by an interim coach and inspired by a football coach to “shock the world.”

“No students remember,” said Associate Athletic Director Bruce Madej. “That was 20 years ago. Anyone who was born and going to school can’t remember it anyways.”

A FATEFUL HIRE

Three days before the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with Xavier, Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom saw Michigan coach Bill Frieder board a red-eye flight to Arizona.

The journalist promptly called Schembechler to inquire why his basketball coach was traveling across the country on the brink of the team’s biggest game of the season.

Schembechler didn’t know.

A day later, Frieder announced he would be leaving Ann Arbor to take the top job at Arizona State. He planned on finishing out the tournament with Michigan before packing up for the desert.

Schembechler had other plans — he fired Frieder before he could resign, famously saying, “A Michigan man will coach a Michigan team.”

Assistant coach Steve Fisher was hired as the interim head coach. All of a sudden, Fisher was the only person to ever coach his first game in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think you get nervous every game, whether it's your first game as interim head coach, or you're in your 20th year as a head coach,” Fisher said in a phone interview in January. “I didn't weigh a lot to begin with, but I lost 10 to 15 pounds in those three weeks in doing the whole process of what we had to do.”

With Frieder out, Fisher wasn’t sure of his role. So he turned to the one man he knew every Michigan athlete respected — Schembechler.

Schembechler sat the team down in the bleachers on the south side of Crisler Arena and told him his expectations. He went down the line complimenting every player. He paused when he got to forward Sean Higgins, who the Ann Arbor News had reported would transfer if he wasn’t pleased with whoever was selected as the new coach.

“If you want out, be my guest,” Schembechler recalled in the book “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” co-authored by University lecturer John U. Bacon. “I have the transfer papers right upstairs on my desk. We can go up there this minute, you can sign those papers, and we’ll have it done by lunch.”

Higgins was caught off guard. But the Ann Arbor native wasn’t willing to say no to his childhood idol.

“We were like, ‘Wow,’ ” Higgins said. “We had never been talked to like that by anyone. Our coaches were more laid-back, and Coach Schembechler came down with his old football mystique and gave it to us. It fired us up a bit because he had that raspy voice and had the respect from us also. It did something to us in that it ignited us.”

Schembechler followed the team from stop to stop as it made its way through the tournament. He had no choice. He didn’t want the athletes to unfairly bear the brunt of the media hoopla surrounding Frieder’s departure.

“If he didn’t come, all the pressure would be on the players and he was the one that had to take the questions,” Madej said. “If Bo’s there, they’d ask him. If he wasn’t, then they’d ask the players. We had to fly Bo in. And he’s a football coach at the time.”

The Wolverines narrowly defeated Xavier 92-87. But if the outcome had been flipped, the future of Michigan basketball would have been vastly different.

“At the time, Petey Gillen was the Xavier coach, and he was the one that they thought would succeed Frieder,” Bacon said. “If they had won, Petey Gillen would’ve been the next coach at Michigan.”

The more Fisher won, the more fans wanted Schembechler to hire the former assistant coach. But the Athletic Director had no such desire—he didn’t like some of the people associating with the program under Frieder and wanted to go in a new direction by hiring someone from the outside.

Indiana coach Bob Knight was rumored to have counseled Schembechler to hire a big-name guy.

“I’m not sure if Bo would have hired Fisher if we didn’t win that last game and win the championship,” Madej said.

The night before Michigan’s opening game of the tournament, Fisher skeptically asked Madej if he even had a shot at getting the job.

“Just win six games and it’s yours,” Madej replied with a straight face.

Fisher did just that.

Back in Crisler during the post-championship game rally, in front of a crowd holding signs that read “Fisher: 6-0”, Schembechler patiently waited for students to settle down as he finished his speech.

But he kept being cut off. The crowd wouldn’t stop yelling, “Fisher, Fisher”.

Bo had no choice.

“I told Schembechler, ‘You’re Athletic Director, you make the decision,’ ” James Duderstadt said, who was University President at the time. “ ‘But if you are not going to hire Fisher, give me 48 hours to get out of town.’ ”

THE INFAMOUS FAB FIVE

Schembechler hired Fisher a week later to usher in a new era of Michigan athletics, the effects of which still haunt the program to this day.

In the Athletic Department, there was no doubt that Fisher was a good in-game coach, but there were questions regarding his ability to recruit.

“Obviously, with the Fab Five, he was able to do that,” Duderstadt said.

In fall of 1991, Fisher put together possibly the most heralded recruiting class in the history of college basketball.

Michigan became the first team to ever start five freshmen in the Final Four.

Duderstadt called the Fab Five a phenomenon. The quintet captured the imaginations of sports fans at a time when ESPN and television sports journalism were blossoming.

The Fab Five were the first to wear baggy pants. They bragged. They trash talked. They brought streetball to the court.

But despite going to two straight championship games, they never won it.

“They were something very unusual in college basketball, and they affected all of college basketball, whereas the ‘89 team was a very talented team that was very well-coached that happened to win it all,” Duderstadt said.

The players on the ‘89 team often get mistaken for the Fab Five. When forward Terry Mills was once asked if he was a part of the Fab Five, he responded, “No, we were the team that won it.”

Mills and his teammates often refer to themselves as the “forgotten team”.

“We like to consider ourselves the team that got the job done,” Rice said. “We didn’t get nearly the hype that the Fab Five got or the notoriety. Our legacy that we want people to remember is that we set our minds to go out and accomplish winning a National Championship. We put ourselves on a mission and we went out and got it.”

TAINTED LEGACY

“I told the players to look at the spot for the 1989 championship banner because it was reserved for Michigan,” Fisher said, looking up into the rafters as he addressed the crowd at the championship rally.

A banner was hung at midcourt, where the Big Ten Championship banners currently hang, but it wasn’t visible to fans sitting in the current student section.

For many students, it was out of sight, out of mind.

And the legacy of all Michigan basketball players was tarnished when the star of the Fab Five, Chris Webber, was discovered to have allegedly received $280,000 in cash and gifts from booster Ed Martin while he was a student at Michigan.

Martin was one of the “shady characters” hanging around the program that Schembechler was worried about when he hired Fisher.

A six-year investigation uncovered that three other players received money from Martin.

Michigan went on probation for two seasons, withdrew from postseason consideration in the 2002-03 season andwas penalized one scholarship for four years. It also erased the team’s records for all or part of five seasons, including the Fab Five years.

And it cost Fisher his job in 1997.

And the scandal all dates back to one shot in 1989 — the one that earned Michigan a national title and Fisher his coaching position.

With three seconds left in the National Championship game and down by one, Michigan guard Robinson was fouled driving to the basket. If he would have missed his first free throw, the game probably would have been over.

Robinson had made just 67 percent of his free throws in his career and had missed a free throw earlier in the season against Wisconsin that lost the Wolverines the game.

In the huddle during a timeout before the foul shots, no one talked to Robinson. They left him alone and gave him no encouragement — they just knew he was going to make them.

Robinson coolly made both and Michigan returned to celebrate in front of a packed house in Crisler Arena.

“Because of that shot, Steve Fisher stays on and Steve Fisher’s a nice guy, but the Fab Five was the best and worst thing that ever happened to them,” Bacon said. “That’s when coaches lost control, in my opinion. It became so player-driven, so talent-driven. … I hate to say it, but they have not won a Big Ten title since I was a student, and I am not a young man any more.”

It’s been over 23 years since the last conference title.

And although the ‘89 team indirectly led to the scandal, none of the players were ever found to have taken money.

“It’s unfortunate for one, what happened,” Higgins said. “But adversity makes you stronger. That’s what it did for us. You have to come down sometime. And everyone was hunting for us anyway. I mean, the NCAA was trying to get us back when we played. But we were squeaky clean.”

Many fans have associated the scandal surrounding Webber and the other players who received money with the ‘89 players just because Fisher coached both teams.

Many in the Athletic Department would disagree.

“No relationship whatsoever between those teams,” Athletic Director Bill Martin said. “These are the guys that won it. They did it. And that’s the pleasurable part about it for us. And that’s why we have a banner up there with a light on it.”

But it wasn’t until 2001 that the National Championship banner was moved from the rafters in midcourt to its current location in the south corner of Crisler, visible for every fan to see.

And Higgins, who returned to Crisler for the first time in January since leaving for the pros, couldn’t help but marvel at it.

“That’s the biggest one right there,” he said. “That’s the one that decorates this place.”

RETURNING TO GLORY

On Jan. 17, 2009, as Michigan hosted Ohio State, the 1989 National Championship team was honored for the first time in Crisler Arena since their post-championship game rally.

There were no speeches. No impromptu cheers. And students who either weren’t alive in 1989 or were too young to remember it stood up and recognized a forgotten team.

It was a rich ovation from a student body that hadn’t experienced an NCAA Tournament game in over 11 years.

And though Michigan lost by seven to the Buckeyes that day, the moment was still special for the current batch of Wolverines.

“It’s sort of like seeing your older brothers come to the game for the first time, so you try to give them something to be happy about,” junior forward DeShawn Sims said after the loss. “But unfortunately, we couldn’t.”

The celebration at the Ohio State game was organized by an Athletic Department that is trying to reestablish the tradition of Michigan basketball, remind students that losing seasons are not the norm and encourage students to purchase season tickets.

But last Sunday, it was a different kind of rally that united students for the first time in years to celebrate the basketball team.

In a moment not all that different from the celebration after the 1989 championship, students gathered with the team to watch the NCAA Selection Show.

As team after team was announced before Michigan, the doubt of the last 11 years began to surface.

“I was so nervous,” fifth-year senior guard David Merritt said. “My stomach was turning over just to think that there was a chance we wouldn't make it.”

And then Michigan’s name flashed on the screen and the Wolverines began dancing around the court, exuberantly hugging one another.

Martin called it one of the top moments in the rebuilding of the basketball program. He also said the joy of making the tournament feels all the better after the despair of not making the tournament for more than a decade.

To the players on the 1989 team, it seemed only a matter of time before the Wolverines returned to the Big Dance.

“Michigan has tradition, so I always knew they would come back, in terms of the basketball program,” Higgins said. “Just because of the expectation here in the Athletic Department.”

And on the night of celebration, an 18-year-old freshman looked up in the rafters and dreamt about having a chance of putting another banner up there.

“It’s all we’ve worked for,” guard Stu Douglass said. “Just to have that chance is something I’ve dreamt of all my life.”


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