As Cazzie Russell walks around the Junge Family Champions Center with his infectious laugh and kind, welcoming voice, one can’t help but wonder how this man, Michigan basketball’s only three-time All American, isn’t more involved with the program.
How a prototypical Michigan Man isn’t doing something – anything – to help the program that developed him into the No. 1 draft pick in the 1966 NBA Draft.
How Russell, who is credited with “building” Crisler Arena, is coaching a school thousands of miles away from Ann Arbor.
A school, the Savannah College of Art and Design, that’s thrilled just be playing in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
“Someway, somehow you’d love to be able to help out your alma mater,” Russell said during a pre-game dinner for himself and the first team ever to play at Crisler Arena. “You couldn’t write out a better script saying, ‘You know what, I played here. I’m going to get a chance to maybe experience giving something in the form of coaching back.’ But nothing was ever said, so .”
His answer trailed off and Russell looked sad. He didn’t go into more detail – in fact, another question was asked before he had a chance to finish.
But the unfinished sentence speaks volumes. It seemed he didn’t even know why he wasn’t helping Michigan in some way, whether by coaching or recruiting, despite showing interest in the head-coaching job in the past.
It’s not clear if Russell requested to be involved while Bill Martin was athletic director. But whether Russell last inquired 10 years ago or 10 days ago, the Wolverines should ask him to become a goodwill ambassador for the program.
Before this season, I barely knew who Russell was.
After less than 15 minutes listening to him speak, I wasn’t just in awe, but I realized how much he could help Michigan coach John Beilein rebuild the program, too.
He helped Michigan win three straight Big Ten Championships and make two consecutive Final Fours. All this right after the Wolverines suffered four straight losing seasons.
He has turned a program around. And he said he would like nothing better than to help his alma mater.
Michigan is nowhere near an elite basketball school. The only way Beilein has a chance to compete is if he convinces players to ignore the limelight of the top programs and come to Ann Arbor with the desire to build an elite program.
Russell understands this idea. He spurned the nation’s two best teams at the time – Cincinnati and UCLA – to start something new with the Wolverines.
There is no one better to show recruits that coming to Michigan is worth it.
It’s not fair to Russell or to Michigan that his gravitas is now limited to major basketball reunions.
It’d be foolish to say Michigan would be a winning team if Russell had been hired as head coach after Tommy Amaker or even several years ago. Transitions are almost always rough, especially with so little momentum heading into the new regime.
The Wolverines need someone to remind recruits about Michigan’s rich basketball tradition before the Ed Martin scandal and the Amaker era. They need a connection to years past, when Big Ten Championships weren’t a pipe dream.
Like they did more than 40 years ago, the Wolverines need Cazzie Russell.
“I watched the other night, Michigan-Michigan State, I turned it off,” Russell said. “It’s tough to be one of the top programs in the country and then you go through that period.”
Many fans have already tuned out this season and maybe even the entire program.
Russell is the man who could help everyone tune back in.
– Bosch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.