Bell: Berque and Co. looking to take the next step

BY SCOTT BELL

Published April 5, 2007

Ever since your arrival in Ann Arbor, you've probably had to put up with other schools always wanting to beat "Mighty Michigan." It's the team everyone loves to hate and hates to lose to.

But why?

Are Michigan's fans especially condescending? Not really. Nearly every school has its fair share of fans with "We're-better-than-you" blinders on.

Do Wolverine athletes continuously say things to fire up their opponents? Nope. The media relations people are too smart to let that happen.

So why do all other Big Ten teams seem to always want to knock off "Mighty Michigan?"

It's simple: winning.

Since the Big Ten's formation, the Wolverines have dominated most of the sports they've competed in at one time or another.

Other teams resent that. A lot.

Because of this, Michigan students rarely get the opportunity to pull for a true underdog.

Feel like you've missed out so far? Well, today's your chance for a little role reversal.

A few decades ago, the Michigan men's tennis team was the epitome of a dominant Wolverine squad. Around the Schembechler era in football, Brian Eisner's tennis teams were creating quite the legacy for themselves. In 1982, the Maize and Blue claimed its 16th straight conference title.

The two decades that followed were pretty much the complete opposite: 20 years, just two Big Ten Championships and pretty much no sign of the swagger the once-dominant program had.

Toward the end of Michigan's downward spiral, Illinois claimed the Wolverines' now-vacant throne atop the Big Ten tennis world.

One of the keys behind the Illini's ascent was then-associate head coach and current Michigan head coach Bruce Berque.

Berque was on board with Illinois from 1999 to 2004, when he helped lead it to multiple Final Fours, including a National Championship in 2003. The Illini won 64 straight dual matches during Berque's tenure - an NCAA record.

But even though there were indications that then-Illinois head coach Craig Tiley would step down in a year or two, creating an opening for Berque to take the reins of a top-tier program, when Michigan came and offered Berque the head coaching job in 2004, it was an offer he couldn't resist.

"I just felt like the situation at Michigan was simply too good to pass up," Berque said. "There was no way I could end up possibly regretting going to such a great athletic and academic school like Michigan with great facilities. . It was still tough to leave, but I just felt it was time for me to take advantage of a great opportunity."

Going from the top of the mountain back down to the middle of it isn't what most people consider a great opportunity.

Berque took over a Michigan program that had finished in ninth and seventh place, respectively, in the two years before he took over the team.

But Berque, now in his third year at Michigan, has helped lead Michigan back to prominence.

This week Michigan entered the nation's top 20 for the first time in more than seven years, thanks largely in part to the Wolverines playing what Berque calls "some of the best tennis they've played all year."

The team has won five straight duals since a disappointing loss against Penn State at the start of conference play.

They're not quite the "Mighty Michigan" everyone circles on their calendar just yet, but another step in that direction could be taken today at 6 p.m. at the Varsity Tennis Center.

That's when No. 19 Michigan will host No. 8 Illinois in one of the biggest matches in Ann Arbor in a long, long time.

But before you start envisioning a fired-up Berque thirsty for revenge against his former team, think again. To him, it's just another step his team needs to take to reach the next level.

"It's certainly not a grudge match for me. It's a big match for us just because they're a highly ranked team," Berque said. "It's not personal. I won't take any personal pride from beating Illinois any more than I would from any other good team.

"I think we're pretty well recognized as a team that's slowly but surely improving. Anytime you have two top-20 teams playing against each other, there's going to be some great tennis being played."

Finding an incentive to play with heart won't be hard for this upperclassmen-led squad. Berque said ever since the Penn State loss, the seniors especially have taken more ownership in their preparation for matches. And with the possibility of moving into the top 16 and hosting an NCAA regional on the line, Berque admitted he won't have to spend too much time on a pre-match pep talk.

For those filing into the Varsity Tennis Center for the first time tonight, don't expect your typical country-club-esque crowd, either. As the team keeps improving, the stands keep filling up and the crowds keep getting louder.

Earlier this season, Michigan set a new attendance record against Texas with 442 people. Berque and his team expect this number to fall tonight and think the home-court advantage could be what's been missing in Michigan-Illinois battles of the past.

But the most important thing that's been absent in the Wolverine-Illini matchups in the past few years has been parity.

Illinois has won 12 straight matches, a streak that stretches back to 1996.

In the past three years, Michigan's been closing that gap. Has it completely closed yet? That could be determined tonight.

"We're a team that's kind of on the rise and is really hungry to put an end to all of the beatings," Berque said.

Sounds like a team that's not willing to settle for "good enough."

Sounds like a team that wouldn't mind a return to the "Mighty Wolverine" distinction.

Sounds like your window to root for an underdog is closing.

- Bell can be reached at scotteb@umich.edu.