From day one, Tommy Amaker had a plan. Not everyone understood it. Not everyone believed in it – especially the outsiders, the media, the radio-talk show hosts.
But the Wolverines did, and that’s all that mattered.
I know I was skeptical.
In my first ever meeting with Amaker – in August of 2002, before he coached his first game for the Maize and Blue – I asked him what he had learned from his turbulent days as coach for Seton Hall.
While there, he proved he was a masterful recruiter, grabbing a top 10 class. But his top catch – the extremely talented, yet cocky, freshman Eddie Griffin – thought he was bigger than the team, bigger than the coach, bigger than the program. Griffin is no longer there, and neither is the black eye he gave teammate Ty Shine, but the memory still remained in Amaker’s mind.
Amaker told me then that he learned from the mess that he needed to “be himself” and “give the team what the team needed.”
At first, I thought it was a typical PR-spun diatribe of ideology – typical of many head coaches. After all, in his introductory press conference, he preached his “five virtues.”
But after seeing him give the Wolverines exactly what they needed over the last two years, Amaker should be given something he deserves – National Coach of the Year honors.
He inherited a team with no hope, no wins, no confidence, no discipline, no sense of the word “program,” and he put it in a position to win a Big Ten title.
And he did it before most anyone expected.
They needed discipline.
The Wolverines in the infamous “Ellerbe era” lacked direction both on and off the court. Some got arrested. Others got suspended or dismissed from the team entirely. And their actions on the court weren’t any better as they finished 10-18 in Ellerbe’s final season. According to one player, Ellerbe “never had a practice plan.” That probably didn’t help.
But they did having a “losing culture.” Coincidence? I think not.
In comes Amaker, and it didn’t take long for the Wolverines to know who was running the show. He organized 6 a.m. workouts in the summer – even lifting weights with them. He ran them hard. He rode them hard. He demanded perfection in every drill of every practice. You didn’t touch the line, you did it again. It was that simple.
No one could cut corners.
That meant an All-America candidate, hometown hero LaVell Blanchard, was just as accountable as a walk-on. Starters were benched for lazy practice behavior. Walk-ons were rewarded for hustle and heart – two things Amaker demanded from everyone.
As one player says, “he weeded out all those people who didn’t want to come on ship. He only wanted those people who bought into it.” Five players have been dismissed or transferred under his watch.
The media blasted Amaker for sacrificing victories, for being stubborn and for not explaining himself.
But the only people Amaker felt needed to “buy in” to his long-term plan were the players.
They needed trust.
It wasn’t just that anyone could have come in and told the Wolverines to “jump” – and they’d automatically say “how high?” Amaker had something that one player admits “not many coaches have.” He had a certain aura, a credibility – as a former player and constant winner. When Amaker invited the guys over to his house for cookouts, it was hard for the Wolverines to miss the coach’s showcases of championship rings, trophies and awards.
He told them they weren’t just playing for themselves – they were playing for each other, they were playing for the program. He tried to create a “family atmosphere” of togetherness – knowing it would help bring cohesiveness and accountability.
And to the players, he started to make some sense.
“It’s hard not to believe in a guy who’s been there before and knows what it takes,” senior Gavin Groninger said.
They needed to ‘believe’
Amaker’s first year may not have been considered successful on the court. His 11-18 mark was just one game better than Ellerbe’s the year before. But he laid the groundwork, knowing it would pay dividends eventually. He just didn’t know it would come so soon.
Five talented freshmen came in and immediately bought into Amaker’s plan. Even after the 0-6 start, the sanctions and the suffering, Amaker looked them in the eyes and told them they were “special.” He told them to start over, at 0-0. He told them they were a championship-caliber team.
They not only believed, they proved it.
And Amaker deserves his due.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org