Let”s settle a primary issue before it is raised. Columnists should not be in the business of recommending a specific candidate for high-profile personnel openings. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the vain (what if your man turns out to be a dud?), to the pragmatic (if your man isn”t hired, what are you saying about the boss?), to the sensible (you simply don”t have all the info that the decision makers have).

Paul Wong
David Den Herder

To these ends, it would be foolish for me or anyone that”s lived in a dorm room within the last five years to insist on a particular man to head up Michigan basketball.

More appropriate, I think, is commentary on a particular type of man, and on a particular type of attitude that fairly represents the best interest of this university.

Where have we been? What do we want? What”s the best way to get it?

Where we”ve been: We, Michigan, have had a volatile basketball program. Not volatile in that “disturbingly unstable” kind of way, but volatile in Webster”s 4a definition: “Unable to hold the attention fixed because of an inherent lightness or fickleness of disposition.”

Cazzie Russell”s success in the 1960s was followed by seven seasons without an NCAA bid. Michigan won it all in “89 and saw two more Final Fours in the “90s. But scandal tore it apart in 1997, and four years after “changing the program,” it is almost implausibly despicable.

What we want: Clearly a point of contention. Those that don”t realize the Athletic Department operates on an independent, self-sustaining $45 million annual budget think they”re pissed that the University is wasting money on basketballs when it could be buying more computers. Others who might understand financial truths are still distraught, feeling that Michigan”s reputation should be rooted solely in academia, not in the Neanderthalic world of sports.

But I think the appropriate outlook one that has come to define this university, at least for me is that we, Michigan, are given to pursue the most complete and excellent institute of higher education that we are capable of achieving. Included in such an institution are intercollegiate athletics, which demonstrate the societal value of the spirit of competition, of leadership and acute physical aptitude.

And with that philosophical clarification, a dose of reality. Athletic director Bill Martin recently told a group of bottom-line Business School students that athletics is “the most highly visible department” at the University. He said, perhaps hyperbolically, that it accounts for “99 percent” of Michigan”s public image.

“I”m not saying that is right, I”m saying that is life,” Martin said.

So, intrinsically, Michigan ought to field the most excellent basketball team it is capable of. But the importance here is magnified, because the high visibility of the program reflects greatly on the standards of our institution as a whole.

I”m not saying that is right, I”m saying that is life. And it is fitting that Michigan appoint a man qualified to resuscitate and stabilize its basketball program so that the standards which guide this university are reflected through the man and his program for years to come.

The best way to get it: Despite recent misery, the success of Michigan Basketball Past is still shining brightly enough to attract the highest profile of eligible candidates. That”s important, because it will take a high-profile personality to accomplish Martin”s goal of competing for a title “in two years.”

There is no more time for gambling.

Rick Pitino, the celebrity Kentucky stud and Celtics dud, appears (overtly) to be a perfect man for the job. His record in the college ranks is impeccable 352-124 with four appearances in the Final Four and a national title. He wants to coach in college again.

There are a few reservations. Some see Pitino as a gun for hire willing to show up, rescue a program for a few million clams and be on his way. How long would he stay? How respectful would he actually be of the Michigan name?

In response to those concerns, Michigan may need to soften just a bit the ego that keeps its standards so high. The Wolverines should not be too proud to hire a man that may have past loyalties.

When you”re drowning, don”t be too proud to accept the help of a lifeguard.

Stability in a program comes from winning and creating a family atmosphere. A Pitino departure in five or six seasons would not have a destabilizing effect, so long as program cohesiveness can be maintained. Presumably, that transition would be a peaceful one, as it was at Kentucky in 1997. No firings, no shameful resignations none of the volatility that has scarred Michigan”s past.

Rick Pitino in Ann Arbor: A move that would instantly put hoops on the same glorious level as Michigan football. A move that would save the program a move that could make us proud again. How could it be wrong if it feels so right?

This isn”t prom night and Martin will be going on more than a feeling in the following weeks. According to some reports, Pitino may have already decided that his personality is a better fit in Louisville. Martin, on the other hand, may decide that a different coach”s personality is a better fit in Ann Arbor.

Plenty of ins, plenty of outs to this process, and we are not privy to all. But I am sure about one thing. Martin knows he needs a homerun. If it is not Pitino, it will be a move in the same spirit. The Wolverines need a distinguished expert a proven winner a man that won”t have to learn anything on the job.

It is a mandate from the giant gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be.

Perhaps Tubby Smith, the Kentucky coach with a national title of his own. Perhaps alum Rudy Tomjanovich, the Houston Rockets and Dream Team III coach. Maybe Tommy Amaker, rising Seton Hall coach and Mike Krzyzewski protg. Maybe. There are plenty of expectations, but far from plenty of options.

Martin is working off a short list because, simply, there is no such thing as a long list. Not this time. Michigan can”t afford it.

David Den Herder can be reached at dden@umich.edu.

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