Steve Fisher can remember it clearly.
As fans took their seats in the Seattle Kingdome before the 1989 NCAA National Championship Game, Fisher looked on as Michigan men’s basketball star forward Glen Rice laid on a training table.
Team trainer Jerry O’Connor wrapped Rice’s ankles like he did before any other game. But this time, even with the pressure to finish his third-seeded Wolverines’ unexpected Tournament run, Rice was particularly relaxed.
So relaxed that he was sleeping.
O’Connor pointed to Fisher and laughed as the eventual Most Outstanding Player of the tournament lay as calm as ever before the biggest game of his life.
“You could sense a growing belief in confidence in a group of guys that they were on the brink of achieving something that had never happened to them or the program,” Fisher said.
Rice led Michigan to its first and only basketball title by scoring a record 184 points in the Tournament.
Rice and most of his teammates will be honored Saturday for their 1989 NCAA title when the 24th-ranked Wolverines face Ohio State at Crisler Arena. The current team will wear dark blue replicas of the 1989 uniforms to celebrate the 20th anniversary.
Fisher, now the head coach at San Diego State, won’t be in attendance for tomorrow’s festivities. He was fired in 1997 amid accusations involving former booster Ed Martin.
But Fisher still keeps in contact with many of his former players, including Rob Pelinka, Terry Mills and Sean Higgins.
“Those kids are no longer kids,” Fisher said. “They’re in their 40s now. It doesn’t seem possible.”
Then-Athletic Director Bo Schembechler named Fisher interim head coach on the eve of the 1989 NCAA Tournament after then-head coach Bill Frieder accepted the head coaching job at Arizona State with the plan to join the Sun Devils after the Tournament. When Schembechler discovered Frieder’s plans, he immediately fired Frieder and replaced him with Fisher, famously saying “a Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man.”
Known as a true teacher to his players, Fisher led the Wolverines past Virginia and No. 1 seed Illinois to advance to the championship game against Seton Hall.
“It truly happened in such a quick fashion, you had no time to worry or get nervous,” Fisher said.
And as Michigan and Seton Hall went into overtime, there wasn’t room for nerves.
The Pirates fouled Wolverine guard Rumeal Robinson with three seconds left in the extra frame and the Wolverines down one. Robinson had been in the exact situation earlier that season against Wisconsin when both his free throws clanked off the rim.
After the Wisconsin loss, Fisher remembers Robinson telling him, “I’m not going to ever let that happen to me again.”
The next time was different. Robinson drained both shots to put Michigan up by one. The Wolverines won the game, 80-79 (OT).
“They took a timeout to try to make him a little extra nervous, and I could just see in his eyes that he had a calmness about him,” Fisher said of Robinson. “He meant what he said — he was going to make them.”
Most of the current Wolverines aren’t old enough to remember Michigan’s title run, and six weren’t even born at the time. But Michigan coach John Beilein said his staff emphasizes the program’s history to the team.
“(Freshman center) Ben Cronin, born in (1989), once asked me, ‘Was Michigan ever good in basketball?’ ” Beilein said with a laugh.
Fisher is in his 18th season as a head coach and has dealt with his share of joy and turmoil. But Fisher said his greatest memories are the personal experiences he shared with his family and players. His oldest son Mark, who he once held in his arm as his team cut down the nets in 1989, is now an assistant coach with his father at San Diego State.
Fisher said he doesn’t feel like it’s been 20 years since Michigan’s historic run. And if you ask him, he’s okay with it.
“I think that’s the beauty of it,” Fisher said. “It seems like you can close your eyes and relive many, many of the moments that transpired in that magical run that we had.”