Not yet two months into the job, Tommy Amaker was still familiarizing himself with Ann Arbor, with his new work-place, with Michigan.
He made an appointment to meet Coach Bo in May. He walked over to Schembechler Hall, named for the legendary Coach Bo himself, to shake hands and talk with the most Michigan of Michigan men.
“It still kind of jolts you how forceful and how passionate (he is) about Michigan. I love that,” Amaker said. “He still has fire, passion. Even with a peon like myself who he”d never met before, he”s leaning across his desk, clenching his fists, talking about Michigan. You still feel the passion from him.”
Schembechler, now regarded as the icon for Michigan sports, had no prior association with the University before taking over a struggling football team in 1969. But every football, basketball and hockey coach hired after that had some connection to Michigan.
Four years ago, Amaker, who has no ties to Michigan, was looked at as a candidate to replace Steve Fisher. But then-Athletic Director Tom Goss promoted Brian Ellerbe, who Amaker calls a friend from when both lived in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Amaker ended up at Seton Hall.
“I was happy to see (Ellerbe) get the position,” Amaker said. “Things didn”t work and years later, here we are. It”s funny sometimes how fate can happen.”
On March 29, after Athletic Director Bill Martin”s screening committee gave him the o.k., Amaker became the first coach of a revenue sport without any ties to the school since Bo Schembechler.
“If I could ever become half of Coach Bo, I would be a very happy man,” Amaker said. “That”s a pretty tall order. That says a lot about the history and tradition of our school and our athletic teams.”
The history and tradition are not lost on Amaker. In fact, they are integral parts of this new attitude, the new mantra that he is brining to Michigan basketball.
Be passionate. Be prepared. Be honest. Have fun. Be Michigan.
Amaker has been saying those words over and over, to his players and anyone else who cares to listen to him talk about his new program. The words run around the inside of a brightly lit dome inside the team”s new lockerroom to drive those points home. All the while, Amaker bombards his athletes with symbols of the past.
There are photographs of All-Americans on the walls leading to the lockerroom. The banners that hang in the rafters were made more visible to the players when on the court. There are pictures of old Michigan players together on the court, hanging in his office.
“I love the pictures of when guys are huddling together or picking someone up off the floor. It shows a level of effort, a level of teamwork. I want to kind of convey that message,” Amaker said. “There are so many subtle ways that you can deliver messages and that”s one way that we”re going to try to do things with words, with phrases, with thoughts for the day, with pictures.
“Just the little things without always having to beat someone over the head with it saying “teamwork, teamwork, teamwork.” There”s always something around that”s going to emphasize that, confirm that. That message is always conveyed in everything that they see.”
The youth and intensity of the 36-year old Amaker has had an infectious, trickle-down effect, taking over the team. Riddled with both off-court and on-court problems for the past several years, there is now a palpable, renewed enthusiasm about Michigan basketball.
“Everyone”s excited about being here. There”s almost an energy. You can feel the excitement,” tri-captain Chris Young said. “It started out being coach Amaker, just the way he is, his excitement and enthusiasm. But after that it kind of rubbed off on the captains. After that, it kind of rubbed off on the juniors and the sophomores and the freshmen.”
“Everybody”s doing it, you have to buy into it,” said another tri-captain, Leon Jones. “There”s no other choice.”
The pervasive buzz about Michigan basketball extends to the fans on campus, in anticipation of something great from Amaker and his program in the near future, if not the immediate present.
“I think any time there”s a change, sometimes what comes with that is there”s some hope. It”s nice to be a part of that influx of hope right now,” Amaker said. “This program is never going to be contingent on one person whether it”s going to be a player or a coach. Everything here is bigger than one individual.”
The hope also stems from Amaker”s past accomplishments and background. At Seton Hall, Amaker took the Pirates to four consecutive postseason appearances, including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament in March of 2000. Meanwhile, Michigan has missed out on postseason play for two of the past three years.
Amaker drew some criticism for barely reaching the NIT and losing in the first round with last year”s best recruiting class in the nation. But there”s no denying that Amaker grew up in basketball with a winner”s mentality.
A four-year starting point guard at Duke, Amaker reached the NCAA Tournament from 1984-1987 with coach Mike Krzyzewski at the helm. He continued his success with the Blue Devils as an assistant under Krzyzewski from 1988-1997. They were national champions in 1991 and 1992, and only missed the tournament in 1995, when Krzyzewski was ill.
There is a hope and for some a belief that since the revered Krzyzewski begat Amaker, that Amaker will be able to turn Michigan into Duke.
“I am very proud of my past, my associations and my background. I”m very proud of that. I worked hard to be a part of that,” Amaker said. “I just also think that we are Michigan, we”re going to be Michigan and we”re not going to compare ourselves to anyone. We”re going to create who we are. I feel very comfortable and very confident that when we do that, we are going to be as good as anyone.”
While still acknowledging that Duke is a good team to try to follow, Amaker doesn”t feel like he even has to look outside of Ann Arbor if he wants to see how to build a program. “I feel like there are models right here,” Amaker said. “We have so many models here that our basketball program can emulate. I”ve learned a lot.”
Amaker has received advice and support from several of the varsity coaches. He particularly recalls his sit-down with Red Berenson who, like Bo Schembechler and now Amaker, was hired to revitalize a program fallen on hard times. Berenson has done for the hockey team what Amaker was hired to do for the basketball team make it a winner again.
“He told me “I remember a number of years ago when I came here to be the hockey coach. We struggled for a few years,” he said. “But one thing I will tell you is that people are excited that you”re here. Don”t waver and worry about all the wins and losses. Just do things the way you”ve been taught to do them. Do them the right way.”
“You have to win and ultimately that”s what you”re judged on, but he feels that Michigan is a place that takes a lot of pride in those things, too. To hear him say those things to me I was very appreciative and it also meant a lot to me that he would take the time to share his thoughts like that.”
By looking to his fellow Michigan coaches for advice, by discouraging comparisons to the Blue Devils, by saying “Let”s be Michigan,” it seems Amaker is actively shedding the label as a Dukie that some may still put on him, as he tries to become a Michigan Man.
“I”m not going to put the crown on him just yet,” Bill Martin said of anointing him a Michigan Man. But, he added, everything”s in place for him to become one.
Amaker said that he can still recall when Schembechler said at a press conference that a Michigan Man would coach the Wolverines in the 1989 NCAA Tournament. Schembechler dismissed Bill Frieder, who said he was leaving after the season to coach Arizona State, and made Steve Fisher coach. Fisher, of course, led Michigan to the National Championship.
Forget being Duke. Forget even being hockey or football. Just be Michigan basketball.