"We were rock stars, man:" An oral history of the 1989 Michigan basketball championship

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 11:20pm

Michigan defeated Seton Hall, 80-79, in overtime to capture the program's lone NCAA Championship.

Michigan defeated Seton Hall, 80-79, in overtime to capture the program's lone NCAA Championship. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Aria Gerson, Theo Mackie, Ethan Sears and Jacob Shames wrote and reported this story.

 

The Michigan men’s basketball team walked into practice, only to find its coach missing.

It was the week before the 1989 NCAA Tournament, and, after a blowout Senior Night loss to Illinois, the Wolverines should have been focused on the road ahead. Instead, their world turned upside down. Athletic director Bo Schembechler fired coach Bill Frieder after he took the head coaching job at Arizona State. In his place, Steve Fisher was appointed the interim.

Such a dramatic upheaval so late in the season could have easily derailed a season that had seen the Wolverines lose only seven games. It could have halted Michigan before the team really got a chance to get going. But instead, Michigan rose to vanquish its demons — losses to North Carolina in the previous two postseasons and two regular-season setbacks against Illinois — and ultimately win the whole thing.

Thirty years later, it remains the only national title banner hanging at Crisler Center. And Sunday, players and coaches from that team will reunite to honor that historic season before Michigan faces Michigan State on Sunday. The Daily spoke players and coaches to piece together the story of a one-of-a-kind season.

“It’s 30 years later, and people still talk about it,” said Terry Mills, a junior center on that team. “Every time I come to the arena, I’ll walk out of the arena, you got people there like, ‘Thanks for ‘89.’ ”

This is the story of how, somehow, it all worked out in the end:

Michigan came into the 1988-89 season ranked third in the country. Expectations were high after the Wolverines had bowed out in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina the season prior and brought back most of their core.

Mills: It was either win it all or it was a bust.

Sean Higgins, Michigan forward, 1986-1990: That’s all we talked about preseason, start of the school year, is that we had that talent and the ability to win the whole thing.

Glen Rice, Michigan forward, 1985-1989: We wanted to just come out, try and represent ourselves and the team as best possible. Just try to come out, compete, win as many games as possible.

Chris Seter, Michigan forward, 1987-92: We knew we had Terry, Loy (Vaught), Mark (Hughes), Rumeal (Robinson) and Glen. Oh my god, right? Those are five pros.

Mills: When you’ve got all these McDonald’s All-Americans on your team, the expectations are gonna go through the roof.

Seter: Loy was one of the best rebounders I’ve ever seen in my life. Mark was just a big body. A great defender, a great position player. And Mark was just a great floor leader. Mark was a great motivator and leader. Glen led more by his actions. He would just get mad and score 40 points.

The season started with the Maui Classic, where Michigan beat Vanderbilt and Memphis before the season’s first test, a date with then-No. 4 Oklahoma. The Wolverines won the tournament by defeating the Sooners, before rolling through a less-than daunting non-conference slate.

Mills: When we actually beat (Oklahoma), we looked at ourselves like, “Well, we can beat anybody.”

Higgins: It was a necessity for us to play those teams that were, if you will, somewhat inferior to us. I think that it gave us a chance to really find ourselves somewhat before we went into conference play.

Sitting pretty at 11-0, the Wolverines went to Salt Lake City for the Utah Basketball Classic. Ranked second in the country, their first game was against Division II Alaska-Anchorage. They lost, 70-66.

Rice: We may have gotten a little too big for ourselves at that time.

Mills: Iowa had lost, and Iowa was No. 1 or something like that. … We’re kinda like, “Man, we can go in here and win this game, win these couple games, and we’ll be No. 1!”

Higgins: That really woke us up.

Mike Boyd, Michigan assistant coach, 1978-90: Looking back at it, eventually you’re gonna lose. It’s a sad situation that you lost to that team, but eventually we were going to lose.

Still, Michigan entered Big Ten play at 12-1, one of the favorites in a conference that included another Final Four contender in Illinois. The Wolverines dropped a game in Champaign in mid-January, starting a stretch in which they won just one of four games.

Higgins: I think we did have some sort of false sense of identity going into the Big Ten season, just because we hadn’t been tested other than just that Oklahoma game.

Mills: It was always games that went down to the wire that we lost, one way or another.

Seter: The question was, could we gel and could we come together? And could we win consistently?

Boyd: It took us a few games to understand, who is a go-to-guy, who’s going to knock down the three when we need it, who’s going to be the rebounder?

Higgins: What happens sometimes when you have teams with so much talent, you kind of disregard the little things that are important in terms of winning.

With the talent-laden roster falling into place after the inconsistent start to Big Ten play, Michigan won five straight games down the stretch. But the Wolverines had one final regular season test: Illinois, at Crisler Arena, on Senior Night.

Rice: That was one of the worst teams you could play on a very emotional night like that.

Higgins: Glen was pretty much the only senior. And he had his whole family at the game.

Rice: The other players on your team, they think, “Wow, this is our guy, our brother, and he’s not gonna be here anymore after this year.” So everybody gets emotional, and you get sidetracked.

Mills: Sean kinda jogged my memory and was like, “Remember in the Illinois game when Frieder had told us before the game?” And I was like, “No, what are you talking about?” And he was like, “Remember, he had told us it was Glen Rice’s Senior Day and we wanted to send Glen Rice out the right way against Illinois. So the rule was, we wanted to have five passes before any shot went up but we wanted Glen to shoot it.”

Higgins: That whole game then backfired on us.

Mills: You can’t play a game like that. It’s almost like if I got a layup, “Where’s Glen?”

Rice: They jumped on us, and man, it was painful from that point on.

Illinois dominated, winning 89-73 — the Wolverines’ worst loss of the year.

Bruce Madej, Michigan sports information director, 1982-2010: We got booed off the court. I’ll never forget walking through the tunnel and people are just yelling at Frieder and the team as we’re coming down.

Mills: We were almost embarrassed to come out of the locker room.

Boyd: That was the big wake-up call right there.

Mills: We go back to watch the game, had the VCR tape in, and I think midway through the second half, it was so bad that (the broadcast) went to something else.

Following Michigan’s Senior Night loss to Illinois, Frieder accepted an offer to coach at Arizona State.

Rice: We had an understanding of what Frieder was thinking about doing. Frieder didn’t keep anything from us.

Higgins: Coach Frieder was a businessman, first of all. He was a businessman before he was a coach.

Joe Czupek, graduate assistant coach, 1988-89: (Earlier in the year), we were coming back from a charter somewhere. And we had won and everyone was in a pretty good mood and Frieds was kinda joking with the staff.

… Frieder was talking (to assistant coach Brian Dutcher) about, “Hey Dutch, if I go to Texas, are you coming with me?” And, “Oh yeah, I’ll come.” ... It was just kinda jovial and playing and we were really feeling pretty good. And it kinda planted the seed in my head.

Madej: I put on my answering machine — “This is Bruce Madej,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I know what you’re calling about, but I’m tired, and I need my sleep, because it’s going to be a long day tomorrow, and I gotta get this done. So if you need an official statement, the University of Michigan athletic department does not have any comment on this, period.” And I said, “Call me in the morning.”

Mills: We get a call at maybe one in the morning, two in the morning from coach Fisher. Frieder is saying, telling us that he’s accepted the job at Arizona State.

Higgins: It was a shock.

Madej: I have my clock radio set to WJR on, and all of a sudden, first thing, J.P. McCarthy says, “Well, last night, big rumors going on that the University of Michigan is going to lose Bill Frieder to Arizona State just days before the NCAA Tournament.” … He says, “We couldn’t get an official statement, but we got Bruce Madej’s answering machine.”

And I’m sitting there going, “Oh, God.” And they played the whole thing. My wife goes, “That isn’t our answering machine.” And I just say, “Suzette, it is.”

Higgins: We walked into practice one day and coach Fisher gave us the news.

Rice: Frieder’s intentions were to remain a Michigan coach until that season was over with. But then (athletic director) Bo Schembechler just had other ideas.

Seter: There was angst between Bo and Frieder. … You could tell it wasn’t perfect.

Madej: (Schembechler) says, “A Michigan man is going to coach the Michigan team.”

 

Steve Fisher became Michigan's head coach just two days before the team's first-round game against Xavier, following the dismissal of Bill Frieder.

Steve Fisher became Michigan's head coach just two days before the team's first-round game against Xavier, following the dismissal of Bill Frieder. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

 

Schembechler fired Frieder, giving Fisher the role as interim head coach. Then, the legendary football coach addressed the team.

James Voskuil, Michigan forward, 1988-93: Fish was like, “Hey, everybody. Grab a seat.” This is where it got really interesting.

Mills: Bo got us all around, he challenged everybody. One at me, one at Glen, one at Sean. Typical Bo, ranting and raving.

Voskuil: We’re in the first six rows, and every guy takes up three or four seats and we’re all spread out. And he’s like, “No. Sit next to each other in the first three rows, like I asked.”

Rice: Bo was just very direct.

Voskuil: Picked out every guy. Knew everybody’s name. I’m a freshman. He chews me out for, gosh, I don’t even know what. It was like, not sitting in the right seat. He went up and down. Finally, he got to Higgins.

Mills: I think Sean had talked about, something about, he wanted to transfer, he didn’t want to be here no more. And Bo was like, he’s tired of hearing that. He was like, “If that’s what you wanna do, I got the papers on my desk. Let’s go right now.”

Voskuil: Asked Higgins if he was a Michigan man. He goes like, “Well, what are you talking about?” “Hey, no, no, no. I didn’t ask you to ask me a question. I asked you if you’re a Michigan man.” So, at this point, it’s dead silence.

Madej: I’m going like, “Holy.” So this is not what you would call a pump-up speech at this point. This is like — he was calling him out.

Voskuil: He had plane tickets in his hand ready for anybody that didn’t give him the response he was looking for.

Mills: I remember Glen telling him and said, “Coach, all you’ve gotta do is buckle up and get ready for this ride.”

Rice: Bo was Mr. Michigan himself. So you damn right we wasn’t gonna go out there and let him down.

With Fisher in charge, Michigan arrived in Atlanta for the NCAA Tournament. Just six games stood between the Wolverines and their ultimate goal — but the Frieder saga wasn’t going away just yet.

Mills: We landed, who did we see? Coach Frieder.

Czupek: Coach Frieder addressing the team — I don’t know if closure is the right word, but it seemed like that was good.

Mills: He was waiting on us. He talked to us. He shook our hands and stuff like that.

Boyd: Instead of the media being concerned with our next opponent in the tournament, they were so concerned with, “What do you think Bill Frieder’s thinking?”

Mills: A lot of people thought, “This is a vulnerable team. This is a team broken right now. They’ve lost their coach, they don’t have nothing to play for, they may quit in the first game.”

Rice: When I tell you we said we were on a mission to shock the world, that was our focus.

Mills: I always say that when people lose something, they become a dangerous team.

Michigan got through the first two rounds, beating Xavier, 92-87, and then South Alabama, 91-82. In Lexington for the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels awaited.

Higgins: They knocked us off the two previous years, so we really wanted to get at North Carolina. We wanted to get at them bad.

Rice: We’d be lying if we didn’t understand the implication of that moment.

Seter: Glen was so positively intimidating, in my opinion. He was so, so focused and driven that I don’t think anybody wanted to let him down.

Voskuil: Compare Glen’s leadership to some of the stuff we had three years later, and you can see that that guy brought it.

Rice: I already knew I was on. I’ll be honest with you, going into the tournament, I already knew that Glen Rice was a different player.

Seter: Glen was just nasty.

Mills: We got under their skin. It was like, whether you beat up on us before, now all of a sudden, when you don’t comply and don’t act the way we want you to act, then they get frustrated.

Rice: Everybody was talking about, “Oh, they got this great shooter in Jeff Lebo.” And he was a great shooter. But I was really determined to let them know there is no way in the world he can be in my house as a shooter.

Led by Rice’s 34 points and eight 3-pointers, Michigan won, 92-87. Their next matchup was with Virginia in the Elite Eight.

Madej: And all of a sudden, this thing just takes off.

Rice: I knew Sean Higgins was gonna have a really good game, because he was always saying, “Yeah, man, some guys are on that other team who think they’re better than me.”

Higgins: I ran into (Virginia point guard) John Crotty at the McDonald’s (All-American) Game on the elevator going up to our hotel rooms. John was from New Jersey, I was from the West Coast. He told me I was overrated. I was ranked No. 3 in the country.

Seter: Sean never stopped talking. Come on! Sean?

Higgins: I just had a personal vendetta against him. And so we blew those boys out.

Mills: I was like, “These guys can’t fucking hit us and they’re fucking scared of us!” I said, “The guy can’t even look me in my eye!”

Rice: We almost played a perfect game.

Mills: I was like, “You think some fucking guy who plays quarterback is gonna guard me?” And I think the guy was a quarterback from Virginia, Matt Blundin.

Seter: Whatever Sean said that night, he backed it up.

Higgins: I scored 31 off the bench in 20 minutes.

Michigan went on to crush Virginia by nearly 40 points, 102-65. Blundin went on to play backup quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions.

Mills: We turned on the TV and they were showing our fans in Ann Arbor climbing poles. That’s when they were down on (South) University, just all up on the lights and everything. For us to see that on TV, they were like, “Well, this is what’s going on in Ann Arbor.” We’re looking in like, “Damn! We made this happen? We’re making people do this?”

Higgins: We were still happy and still celebrating. I said, “Hey, listen fellas, let’s not get to the Final Four if we’re not gonna win the whole thing. Let’s win the whole thing and then we can celebrate.”

Mills: (Schembechler) came in the locker room, and he was congratulating us. … His speech was something like, “You know who I want?” And he said, “I want Illinois, that’s who I want.”

Rice: We come to find out we had to play them (in the Final Four) — oh my god. It was almost like getting a brand-new pair of tennis shoes and you just couldn’t wait to wear them. Well, we just couldn’t wait to play them.

Mills: I want to play them again still to this day.

In addition to the beatdown on Senior Night, the Illini had beaten the Wolverines in Champaign earlier in the season. Now, at the Final Four in Seattle, Michigan had its chance for revenge.

Rice: Illinois probably was one of the most athletic teams in the country that year. They had guys who could play. You’re talking about Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Lowell Hamilton, Marcus Liberty, Stephen Bardo and Kendall Gill.

Mills: We just wanted to control the tempo of that ballgame. We just said, at that time, “They’re the Flying Illini but we’re taking the flying out of them.”

Czupek: I always used to tell (Rice), “Don’t start something you can’t finish.” … And I remember one of the practices that week before we left for Seattle, he kinda whispered to me, “Hey, Smoke, no reason to start something we can’t finish.”

Rice: We understood what we had to do, and compete and keep them from getting second-chance points. Keep them off the boards with their athleticism and length, and do what we do on the offensive end.

Seter: It was a different team … because Frieder was gone. Because Glen had simply proven over the last four games that he wasn’t gonna be stopped.

 

Rumeal Robinson hit two free throws with three seconds remaining in overtime to give Michigan the final lead of the NCAA Championship Game against Seton Hall.

Rumeal Robinson hit two free throws with three seconds remaining in overtime to give Michigan the final lead of the NCAA Championship Game against Seton Hall. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

 

With 26 seconds left and the score tied at 81, Michigan had the ball.

Higgins: The play was for Rumeal to get something going to the basket, and he got cut off on a (baseline) drive on the opposite side of the floor.

Mills: I just kinda got myself in his vision so he could see me. Because I knew we had to get a shot up.

Higgins: Rumeal, being as athletic and as good as he was, found Terry on a skip-pass over the court.

Mills: I thought the shot was good.

Higgins: I thought that it was gonna go in because he got his feet lined up and he got a good look at the basket.

Mills: It went down and then all of a sudden I see the ball just come back up.

Higgins: Just to be on the safe side, I got myself in position for a rebound.

Seter: I don’t even know how he got the ball.

Higgins: A lot of Illinois fans, they say that I pushed off on the rebound, but I didn’t. Nick (Anderson) just didn’t box out.

Voskuil: Higgins was in the right place in the right time and threw it up.

Higgins: It hit nothing but the net.

Boyd: I jumped up off the bench.

Higgins: My high school coach was laughing when I hit that shot. After the game … he came by the hotel and he was like, “You’ve been hitting that baseline shot your whole life.”

Rice: We beat them how they had beat us throughout that year. On offensive rebounding, with length.

Boyd: I think some of the guys felt that that game was for the national championship.

Rice: That was a great deal of satisfaction.

But that satisfaction couldn’t last. Michigan had a short turnaround and one final hurdle to clear — Seton Hall, which had beaten Duke in the other national semifinal.

Seter: Coming into the weekend, it was, the odds were it was gonna be an Illinois-Duke final. And it ended up being a Michigan-Seton Hall final.

Voskuil: I think the confidence was very high going into Seton Hall.

Rice: I had no idea who they were. No idea.

Madej: I go into the locker room (before the national title game) and all these guys sitting, and there’s Glen Rice on the training table. You know what he’s doing? Taking a nap.

The game was a back-and-forth affair. Rice was lights-out as he had been all tournament, but Seton Hall’s John Morton matched him bucket for bucket. Michigan led, 37-32, at halftime, but the Pirates refused to go away.

Rice: Mike Griffin was doing a hell of a job on Andrew Gaze as far as defensively. We were very thankful that (Gaze) had one of his worst shooting nights.

Mills: We kinda felt like we had control of that game the whole way, and John Morton just kept hitting shots out of nowhere.

Rice: He was some kind of player.

Seter: There was anxiety in that building. I felt it. I was like, “Holy —.” I don’t think anybody expected Seton Hall to be in that game.

Once again, as seconds ticked away in regulation, the Wolverines found themselves in a tie game with one last shot — this time for the national championship. It went to the player who had gotten them there in the first place.

Rice: It was for me, coming off a double screen from the baseline.

Boyd: The bottom line is this: if we got the ball to him, it was a rare miss.

Rice: When I got the ball, Gaze was kind of still in front of me, so I tried to get a little spin move and then shoot the shot then.

Mills: Glen has been on fire in the tournament. We felt if we could get him a look, then we’re gonna win that game.

Rice: It just rolled right off the rim. I was like, “Oh, my god.” I’m thinking right away, this is a shot I hit in my sleep.

Mills: For him to get a clean look like that and miss it is like, “Oh my god, now we’ve gotta go to overtime.” So it wasn’t a problem. We weren’t down on ourselves.

Rice: Just wasn’t meant to be. So we said, “That’s okay, we’re still here, we’re still in good shape.”

Mills: We were just saying, “This is our game, we’ve come too far.”

Rice: We knew it was gonna be close and needed something special that had to happen.

Seton Hall took a 79-76 lead in overtime before Mills nailed a two-point jumper with one minute left. The Pirates then ran the clock down to 10 seconds, but missed a shot that would have put them back up by three. Rice grabbed the rebound and passed to Robinson.

Higgins: Rumeal coming down the floor, he got tripped up during the course of him trying to get to the basket. … Just a hit to try to impede his progress.

Referee John Clougherty called a foul on Seton Hall’s Gerald Greene, sending Robinson to the line with three seconds left.

Madej: You don’t see calls like that made. It’s like, they let ‘em go.

Boyd: It was a foul.

Seter: I think everybody remembers the same thing. The ref should’ve swallowed his whistle, and he didn’t.

Higgins: It was a bonehead play. Gerald Greene should’ve played off of Rumeal a little bit.

Rice: That was ballgame. Because quickly, right away, I remember, “Oh, my god, this kid has prepared for this.” And it is so ironic that it’s on the biggest stage of the year. I was like, “He was made for this.”

Voskuil: When he went to that free throw line, that’s when it got a little bit scary.

Higgins:  You go back and revert to Wisconsin (earlier in the season), where Rumeal missed two free throws to win it.

Mills: After that game (Robinson) had said, he told coach Fisher, “I need you to work with me on my free throws and I’m gonna shoot 100 free throws after practice every practice after that.”

Rice: The only thing I had told Rumeal was that, “Look. It’s sad that you missed the free throws. It happened. But what you gotta do is just make sure when that opportunity comes around again — and it will come around again — you need to be ready for it.”

And he just looked at me and said, “Yeah, I’ll be ready.”

The junior stepped to the foul line and calmly sank the first free throw.

Madej: You could just see it in his eyes. They were just so focused.

Rice: I don’t think there was one person that thought that Rumeal wasn’t gonna make those free throws.

Voskuil: Rumeal was clutch. He always has been.

Robinson eyed the rim, took three dribbles and swished the second. Michigan was just three seconds and one defensive stop away from its first-ever national championship.

Mills: I can remember that timeout coming. … It was, everything was pretty much like, “After Rumeal makes these free throws, this is what we’re gonna do.”

Rice: They made that long pass up the floor and those guys — you know, he shot it and it bounced off the side of the backboard. I was like, “That’s it. We’re national champions.”

Higgins: I was like floating on a cloud. I was running around everywhere, I didn’t know what to do with myself.

Rice: I don’t know how the hell Rumeal Robinson got down there so fast, but he was the first one who jumped on me.

Higgins: I remember a couple of my teammates, they were like sobbing, crying. Even though I was crying, tears coming out of my eyes and I didn’t even know it.

Rice: It was like a five or six-year-old’s birthday party when he’s running around and he busts the pinata and candy flying everywhere, and you see everybody just running around, scattering, just happy as hell.

 

Glen Rice scored 184 points in the NCAA Tournament and was named the MOP.

Glen Rice scored 184 points in the NCAA Tournament and was named the MOP. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

 

In his last go-around as a Wolverine, Rice was named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after he scored 184 points over Michigan’s six postseason games, a record that stands to this day.

Madej: Glen’s All-American status, I think, was not cemented until that run.

Seter: It’s never been done before. That’s just amazing.

Rice: When it hit me, it was like, “Shit. Oh my god, I’m leaving.” It was my last time going on the court in college at the University of Michigan with these guys.

But the Wolverines didn’t need to worry about Rice’s pending departure just yet. Once they got back to Ann Arbor, the celebrations really began.

Mills: Everybody reeked of alcohol when we got on the plane. We didn’t sleep.

Higgins: I don’t know if we even went to class. It was on campus, like I said, we were rock stars, man.

Mills: We’re just thinking, “We won it, it’s time to party.”

Higgins: We had celebration month. And we celebrated for months after that. And so I think a couple of us had to go to summer school because we celebrated too much.

Mills: I’m almost gonna say that it wasn’t any work or anything that was required. It was almost like everybody had a pass. I’m talking about all students. … “Hey, take off today! They won a national championship!”

After the season, Schembechler hired Steve Fisher as the permanent head coach. Glen Rice was named an All-American as a senior and went to have a 15-year career in the NBA.

Michigan has played for a national championship four times since. However, the Wolverines have yet to equal the triumph of the 1988-1989 team. The memorable NCAA Tournament run that spring remains the program’s crowning achievement.

Higgins: My dad used to always tell me that you’re gonna have that experience you’re gonna talk about for the rest of your life. And here we are, 30 years later, still talking about it.

Madej: I’ll be on my deathbed going, “How did we pull that off?” Just an amazing, amazing, six-game run.

Higgins: It was the biggest triumph and accomplishment to this day, other than becoming a father to my children.

Rice: I looked at Mark Hughes, and we hugged, and said, “Yeah. That’s it for us.” And we just looked and — mission accomplished, buddy. That was it.

That was the end of our story as far as basketball players at Michigan.