When I sat down to see who had walked away with the Big Ten’s postseason awards, I pretty much saw what I had expected all along. Illinois’ Brian Cook, Purdue’s Willie Deane, and Wisconsin’s Kirk Penney all received their due for their success. Michigan’s “big three” managed to bring home some hardware. Everything seemed to be turning out right.
That is, until I got to the Coach of the Year award. Now Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who took the award for the second consecutive season after his team secured its first outright championship since 1947, certainly coached his Badgers well this season.
But Tommy Amaker did more than coach his team well. He did more than bring in wins and turn his team into a contender for the conference title. He did more than bring in talent. Amaker changed the face of a program desperately in need of a facelift. He took a team on the rocks and got it to do something it hadn’t done in years: believe in itself.
Amaker brought hope to the future of the Michigan basketball program, and created a basketball buzz around Ann Arbor that this campus hasn’t seen since the early ’90s. He stood his ground despite criticism from all over the country about his coaching methods on the court and his team’s performance last season. He should have been named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
To say that many Big Ten coaches were deserving of the award would be a fair statement. But to say that any coach was more deserving of the award than Amaker this season would be ridiculous.
Michigan was one of just two teams (Purdue being the other) to go from a below-.500 record in 2001-02 to a winning record this season. More importantly, the Wolverines were in contention for the conference championship until their loss to Illinois on March 1. And if it wasn’t banned from the postseason, Michigan would more than likely be a lock for The Big Dance.
Whether he likes to admit it or not (and he doesn’t like to admit it), Amaker was the backbone of this turnaround. He was given the responsibility of putting all the pieces – old and new – together, and creating a cohesive unit out on the floor. It was his job to breathe life into a program void of any direction or knowledge of how to break out of a losing mindset.
And even though nobody seemed to want to make it easy for him, he succeeded in every way.
After a promising showing in last year’s Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines were hit with postseason sanctions before the season could even tipoff. That, coupled with six straight losses and two players (Dommanic Ingerson and Avery Queen) gone from the team, put Amaker in, to put it lightly, a bind.
As it stood, the Wolverines were 0-6 and were banned from the postseason (which is a major motivational factor for most teams). They had the depth of a kiddie pool and the confidence of a mouse.
For most people, it would take a visit from Rocky Balboa himself to get them to stay motivated for the remaining 23 games of the season.
But somehow, someway, Amaker knew what needed to be said. And his team responded. His theory of wiping the slate clean and starting fresh seemed a bit surprising. After all, no matter what you always know that you lost those six games. But his team had bought into his system. This was clear from day one.
Amaker’s ability to motivate his players looks even more impressive given what happened at St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies decided not to play in the final two games of the season when they found out they couldn’t go to the postseason. Amaker’s players knew the entire season there would be no promised land, but they never quit working.
The Wolverines had bought into Amaker as a person, a leader and a mentor. The system worked, and Michigan is now a winning program again – which is how it will probably stay for years to come.
Ryan’s Badgers had their share of struggles early in the season too, and Ryan did a tremendous job of pulling them out of a hole. But to compare the situation in Wisconsin with that in Michigan would be like comparing night and day. Unlike Ryan’s situation, Amaker’s task was daunting and would have overwhelmed most people. Plus, with Wisconsin coming off of a conference title, the urgency to change was much stronger in Ann Arbor.
Amaker deserved to be recognized as Coach of the Year for the about-face he pulled with Michigan this season. His team’s late season struggles because they wore down should not factor into the decision. In the big picture, he did more for his program than any other coach did for their this season. He deserved to be recognized for his perseverance and faith in his own methods and his players. Regardless of wins and losses, Michigan basketball has changed for the better.
Naweed Sikora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org