In three years, Halle Wangler has played just 20 minutes while donning a Michigan uniform, but she’s content with that.
In 18 games, the fifth-year senior guard has scored only one basket for the Wolverines, but that doesn’t matter to her. She wouldn’t want to be remembered for how many points she scored anyway.
What matters to her is being remembered for how she made people feel.
“I’m a very loud and energetic person,” Wangler said. “That kind of shows (other players) that it’s not just work. It’s just having enthusiasm, love and passion that you show through your work ethic or just being on the court and what you do.”
The road to Michigan was by no means an easy one for Wangler. But for her, basketball is therapeutic. It has always been an outlet for her to escape daily life, and having that opportunity with the Wolverines is one she has dreamt of as long as she can remember.
Michigan has rooted itself deeply into the Wangler family for the past half-century, and it’s why Halle felt like it was the right place to be. Her father, John, played quarterback from 1976 to 1980, and now her brothers play under that same banner.
While her father and brothers are bound to the gridiron, Halle found a place of her own — the hardwood of Crisler Center. It was almost by a stroke of luck that Wangler ended up playing at Michigan under fourth-year coach Kim Barnes Arico, but luck doesn’t explain it all.
If football in Ann Arbor is a religion, Wangler never skipped church. As a kid, the Royal Oak, Mich., native always went to games with her family, and John’s connections to the program allowed his daughter to meet his former teammates at the alumni tent outside the Big House.
Wangler also met her father’s former coach, Bo Schembechler, who held her at football games and regularly spoke with the Wangler family.
At home, Halle’s grandparents went “the whole nine yards” and have decked out their Christmas tree in maize and blue since the ’70s. According to John, they truly “force-fed” the Michigan tradition to the Wangler children.
“Growing up, it surrounds you,” Halle said. “It becomes a part of who you are.”
Oddly enough, though, Wangler had the Michigan State bug up until her early teens.
In her green and white phase, Wangler had a signed photo of Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo as well as an autographed basketball in her room. By chance, she played for an AAU team called the Spartans alongside current Michigan State forward Aerial Powers.
Eventually, Wangler came to the conclusion that Michigan was where she was meant to be. In a household built around the block ‘M’, it was almost inevitable.
“It was a battle, a tug of war for her affections,” John said. “In the end, she came to her senses.”
John Wangler never wanted to push his kids into athletics. If they gravitated toward them, he’d do everything in his power to help them be successful. But at the end of the day, he just wanted them to do whatever they were passionate about.
Jack and Jared ultimately picked football and now have spots on the Michigan roster at wide receiver and linebacker, respectively. Sierra is now a freshman at the University, but isn’t involved in collegiate athletics.
For Halle, having a basketball in her hands just felt right.
“There’s nothing worse than if your parent wants it more than the child does,” John said. “That was never the case. I’m happy with my career and enjoyed every second of it. I don’t have to live through my kids.”
According to John, “genes and ability can only take you so far” in athletics. To him, the number one thing he needed to instill in his kids was a work ethic. If the four Wanglers could put the time in and be willing to work at something, they were going to be great at it.
Once a Michigan quarterback under Schembechler, John knew exactly what it took to be great.
After John worked his way to the top of Michigan’s depth chart, future NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor sacked him in the 1979 Gator Bowl, rupturing two cross ligaments in his knee and sending him on a long journey toward recovery.
John returned for a fifth year once his knee healed, but being less than 100 percent made him so frustrated that he considered quitting the team. At one practice, he wasn’t playing well and Schembechler told him he was the “dumbest quarterback in the history of intercollegiate football,” to which John replied, “That’s a long time, coach.”
Given John’s arduous recovery, Schembechler knew the worst possible punishment and kicked him out of practice. But that, coupled with a major tongue-lashing in Schembechler’s office the next day, didn’t stop Wangler from fighting his way back to the top.
That year, the top was leading Michigan to a 1981 Rose Bowl victory in Pasadena, Calif.
Twenty-five years later, when Halle — then a seventh grader — had a bad game, she didn’t get a “good job” from her father. Instead, he cut right to the chase.
“You’ll be an average player,” John told her, the same way Schembechler would have told him.
“Average” wasn’t in her father’s vocabulary, which made the comment even more hurtful. But Halle knew she didn’t want to be average. She didn’t want her dad to utter the word again.
That night, Halle went to the backyard and started dribbling.
“If you hang in there, do what you’re supposed do, you keep your nose down and you stay focused,” John said, “somehow you end up coming out on top and end up coming out of the pack.
“It’s not some crazy theory or philosophy. It’s kind of a way of life.”
Whether it was a crazy philosophy or not, it was exactly what his daughter needed to hear years later when she considered quitting basketball.
During Wangler’s freshman year of high school, her mom passed away.
“That had a very, very hard impact on the kids,” John said. “That’s a tough thing that no one should have to deal with, and (my kids have) come through it and battled through it. There’s always setbacks. Everybody gets knocked down, and it’s how you get back up. That’s how you’re judged.”
For an overwhelmed Halle, throwing in the towel on basketball seemed like a highly viable option. Her father thought differently.
He told her she needed to feel it out for one more game. If she gave it her best effort and played like it was her last game, she could make a decision.
In that one game, Wangler had a good enough performance to realize basketball was something she needed. She couldn’t afford to give it up.
“I forgot about all the stuff that was going on at home and elsewhere,” Wangler said. “My freshman year is when I realized I can overcome anything that’s thrown my way.
“Basketball was more than just a sport. It was therapeutic for me. It was my thing, (and) it has helped me get through a lot, too.”
In high school at Royal Oak Shrine, Wangler attended both the boys and girls’ varsity basketball practices. Outside regular practice hours, John or Shrine women’s basketball coach Bill LeGault would open up the gym for her whenever she wanted. Early in the morning or late at night, Wangler dribbled alone in a dedication to prove her internal strength. Even at home, she’d play pick-up games against her brothers.
John saw his daughter was obsessed with getting better, obsessed with proving herself. For Halle, that meant playing collegiate basketball — something that wasn’t average.
“She threw herself into basketball,” John said. “Even when her mother passed, I think that was her outlet. She really put herself into it, and that really was what took her mind off all the hardship. I think it really was a outlet for her and a release.”
During her early years, Wangler recalled conversations she had with Schembechler as well as the stories she has heard about Michigan’s revered coach through her father. One of Schembechler’s teachings stood out the most: perseverance.
“(Bo) really knew how to push you to the point where you didn’t think you’d make it, but then you made it and became great,” Halle said. “Perseverance is something that my dad learned from Bo, because at one point, he didn’t even think he was going to be able to play football ever again.”
Wangler didn’t think she would play basketball either, but in her junior year at Shrine, she was offered a basketball scholarship from Oakland University. She accepted right away and headed to Oakland in the fall of 2011.
It wasn’t Michigan, but she didn’t want to experience life without basketball.
In June 2013, Oakland women’s basketball coach Beckie Francis was fired. A month later, the Detroit Free Press released a report in which 15 former players stated Francis had “fixated on their weights … pushed her religious beliefs … (and) engaged in intimidation and emotional abuse.” With the program shrouded in controversy, Wangler decided it was time to transfer.
Wangler had worked hard to make it to the collegiate level, and that progress was at stake. The first obvious choice was Michigan, which combined academics, basketball and family tradition all into one. The Wolverines didn’t take many walk-ons, so her father called in a favor to Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein, whose son Mark had previously worked for him.
Beilein briefed Barnes Arico on what Michigan meant to the Wanglers, and what the Wanglers meant to Michigan. It was a shot in the dark for Halle, but when Barnes Arico finally met her, she knew she had discovered something unique.
“The minute I had an opportunity to meet Halle, I knew that I wanted her on our team,” Barnes Arico said. “Her enthusiasm, her passion, her zest for life was something I wanted our team to be around.”
Added Wangler: “I feel like God puts you where you’re meant to be at certain times in your life. I think that my time in Oakland was supposed to be then, and then he put me here.”
The first week of Michigan practice was excruciating for Wangler, and all she could do was laugh.
Oakland’s conditioning didn’t nearly compare to Michigan’s. From day one, the reality set in: Welcome to the Big Ten.
But no matter how much pain Wangler felt, she was finally living her childhood dream of playing basketball at Michigan. She wouldn’t give it up, especially since she was already buying into the program Barnes Arico was building.
“You just gotta smile,” Wangler said. “It’s not gonna kill you. These sprints suck or this drill is not easy, but you’ll get through it.”
She clicked right away with the rest of her teammates, particularly then-sophomore guard Madison Ristovski, who took Wangler under her wing. To this day, the two are best friends heading into the final stretch of their senior year.
Before the team’s fourth game at Detroit that season, Wangler won an appeal with the NCAA that allowed her to play immediately and not sit out the year following her transfer. She made her debut against the Titans with a minute of playing time.
Two months later in Columbus, Michigan faced Ohio State for its first Big Ten game of the season. Before tipoff, Wangler took center stage in the locker room and recited what she heard all through her childhood.
No man is more important than the team. No coach is more important than the team. The Team, The Team, The Team.
… When we play as a team, when the old season is over, you and I know, it’s gonna be Michigan again. Michigan.
With that, the Wolverines came out and downed the Buckeyes with a 15-point victory, and it wouldn’t be the last time Wangler recited Schembechler’s speech verbatim on game day.
“Halle had it down word for word,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s probably had it memorized since she was 8 years old.”
Considering Wangler has been waiting for that moment in the locker room all her life, it would have been surprising if she hadn’t memorized it.
Barnes Arico didn’t have to take a chance on Halle Wangler, but she did anyway.
“I haven’t been disappointed — not one day — (since) she’s been a part of our program,” Barnes Arico said. “Now I consider her part of my family.”
Wangler instantly resonated with Barnes Arico’s coaching style when she arrived on campus, mainly because she believed it closely resembled the coaching of Schembechler.
According to John, Schembechler’s teachings revolved around integrity, doing the right thing both on and off the field, being competitive, being tough and not quitting. To many, those lessons may seem old-fashioned, but they are the ones he instilled in his children.
As Barnes Arico preaches many of the same principles in an effort to make her team the “hardest-working” one in America, it makes Michigan the right place to be for Wangler.
Essentially, Barnes Arico is doing what John Wangler called “putting the 2015 twist on what Bo did.” Considering Michigan has made the postseason five years in a row and is now one of the final four teams competing for the 2016 WNIT title, the program is certainly making big strides.
“(Schembechler) had a blueprint, and if you followed that blueprint … the odds are you’re gonna be pretty successful,” John said. “It’s not a hard blueprint; it’s pretty fundamental with the core values and the way the coach (is) motivating the kids.
“(Barnes Arico) follows that to a T. She motivates those girls, and you can tell by the success they’ve had. They’re building one heck of a program.”
Coming into Michigan, Barnes Arico knew she had better read about every coach that’s been successful, and Schembechler was the prime example. It’s why Barnes Arico has centered her program on structure and discipline.
She has even implemented “Arico Time,” something Schembechler harped on by saying “If you’re early, you’re on time, and if you’re on time, you’re late.” Even more, if a player’s hand doesn’t touch the line on a sprint, she has to do it again. Her players do the right thing, not the easy one.
“It transfers over to life as, ‘You can’t half-ass stuff,’ ” Wangler said. “When you think you can’t do it, and (Barnes Arico’s) preaching you can do it — it’s all mental. A lot of little things that you don’t think are a big deal when she says them, but a year later or a day later, you realize she’s right.”
Barnes Arico has built relationships off the court with her open-door policy that encourages players to stop by her office and talk. For Wangler, she needed someone who wasn’t just all in on being a basketball coach, but also all in on being a life coach.
“The more you’re around people of high character who you just can’t wait to be around, those are the kind of people you end up emulating and passing on their legacy,” John said.
With Halle considering a coaching career that prioritizes work ethic, she’s in the right place and learning from the best.
Wangler wants to be remembered for how she made people feel, whether by radiating positive energy or being a source of motivation. She doesn’t care for being remembered by how many points she scored in her career.
Ironically, scoring two points will be one of the enduring memories of her final season.
On Nov. 23, 2015, against USC Upstate, Wangler came in with two minutes to go and Michigan holding a near 60-point lead. Wangler received a pass at the top of the key and launched a long 2-pointer. Swoosh.
It was Wangler’s first basket while donning the maize and blue, and the moment was so euphoric that she started high-fiving members of the other team and forgot what defense the Wolverines were running.
Her dad had driven up from Pittsburgh just in time to see the shot.
“I had tears in my eyes,” John said. “I was speechless.”
Three months later, on Feb. 2, Barnes Arico gathered the entire team in the locker room and started to speak.
“Today Hal, we want to … award you a scholarship,” Barnes Arico said.
With Wangler at the center of the room, her teammates collapsed around her, cheering on the senior who had earned herself a scholarship for her final semester at Michigan. Wangler eventually emerged from the group hug to embrace Barnes Arico with tears streaming down her face.
“She’s just an incredible young woman,” Barnes Arico said. “She just wanted an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than herself.”
After the emotional meeting, Wangler called her dad right away.
“He knew,” she said. “He’s the one person who knew how bad I wanted it, and he was there the whole journey. To be able to celebrate that together was a very powerful moment.”
Now, in late March, any game could be Wangler’s last.
Thursday, the Wolverines take on Florida Gulf Coast in the WNIT semifinals, and Wangler almost certainly won’t play at all. But she has fulfilled the goals she dreamed of as a child: She came to Michigan as a walk-on with no scholarship and no stats, and she’s ending it with one memorable shot and a scholarship with her name on it.
“It’s all my hard work and all the trials and tribulations that I’ve overcome, it kind of led up to this,” Wangler said. “It shows good things happen to good people, and if you work hard, eventually it’ll pay off.”
Wangler has a role for Michigan that she’s OK with. She’s not a scorer, but she’s still a part of the team. The hours she spent alone in her high-school gym, the pick-up games at home, the extra dribbling to become above average. She did it all, and she made it. She’s leaving Michigan just as she wants to.
To say she’s content would barely scratch the surface.