I don”t know if there”s any sport where emotions boil quite like they do in college basketball.
An atmosphere riddled with tension is created by fans, by consistently frantic last-second endings, and of course by the grueling competition. Anyone who listens to the commentary of the sensational Dick Vitale or Bill Raftery can tell that this sport thrives on the dramatic.
With so many emotions and so much stress building during Michigan”s painstaking 2000-“01 season regarding the future of coach Brian Ellerbe, passions on all sides have gone unchecked by cool reason. Everyone concerned with the program from players to media to coaches to spectators has had his vision blurred at one time or another by the heat of battle.
Now the season is over, and so is Ellerbe”s tenure as Michigan”s basketball coach.
It”s time to take a step back from the X”s and O”s of basketball and consider how the loss of a job affects a life.
Here”s one reason to feel sorry for Brian Ellerbe, and one reason to harbor no pity:
At 8:57 on a Tuesday night in January, as Michigan State brings in Matt Ishbia, the last man on its bench, because the Spartans have domineered the Wolverines for nearly two hours en route to an easy victory, it seems the proper time to bellow the phrase, “Fire Ellerbe.”
With the season finally over, it”s tough to think about Ellerbe, packing up his belongings and moving out of Weidenbach Hall, pausing every few minutes to savor the good memories he”s collected in four years, and not feel bad for the guy.
Firing Ellerbe isn”t like making a transaction in fantasy baseball, this is a real man who will have to find a real new home and a real new job to provide him with personal fulfillment.
The way Ellerbe exited makes me even more condolent. To be honest, for much of the season, I saw Ellerbe as rather snide and standoffish. At the very least, it was clear he didn”t trust the press, even when dealing with seemingly trivial subjects.
But as the year waned, I saw Ellerbe in a new light. Fielding a bombardment of questions about his future, phrased and rephrased in every possible pattern of words, begging him to make a story, he became poised and graceful.
“How does all the speculation about your job affect you personally?”
He wasn”t concerned for himself, men had triumphed in the face of greater misfortune, he was concerned for his family. Next question.
“Do you think the University has given you a fair shake?”
He thinks Bill Martin, Lee Bollinger and Michigan have had integrity throughout the process, and he”d like to think that he has integrity as well, that”s why he isn”t getting involved in the hoopla.
Watching the press search for a reaction and seeing Ellerbe respond with class each time will forever change my memory of the man.
The flip side: It”s hard to feel too sorry for a man who is making hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to coach college basketball.
I know plenty of people who would not only perform that task for free, they would also be willing to saw off their limbs if it could assist their candidacy.
I certainly hope that Ellerbe isn”t presently sitting somewhere, simmering about what was taken away from him rather than reflecting on the unbelievable opportunity he was given.
And his coaching life isn”t over, nor is he poor or homeless. All over the country Ellerbe is a renowned recruiter, and he will surely land at least an assistant”s job quickly. There will again be a chance for Brian Ellerbe to rise to lead a Division I basketball program to learn from the mistakes he made as a young coach at Michigan and become great.
So with that, I say don”t hold a heavy heart, Michigan, toward Brian Ellerbe, who couldn”t win consistently but never represented this school without class, even under the most adverse circumstances.
Nor should you, Brian Ellerbe, hold a heavy heart toward Michigan, which gave you every chance it could while you were here, and wishes you well in all future endeavors.
Dan Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org