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1989 and beyond: How Michigan's national championship was its best moment and biggest curse

BY JASON KOHLER
Daily Staff Writer
Published March 17, 2009

On April 4, 1989, Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler stepped to a microphone inside Crisler Arena to address 10,000 frenzied fans.

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The ‘89 basketball team celebrating after the win that got them into the championship game.
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Students swarm the streets after the NCAA National Championship win.
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Police in riot gear watch unruly crowds on South University Avenue after the Michigan won the national title.
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Steve Fisher, Michigan's interim basketball coach, Steve Fisher leads the team to the Final Four.
SAM WOLSON/Daily

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He could barely speak without being interrupted by impromptu cheers.

The night before, the Michigan men’s basketball team had knocked off Seton Hall 90-89 in overtime to cap an incredible run and capture the NCAA National Championship.

In his 20 years at Michigan, Schembechler had never won a national title as the football coach. It was the only championship he oversaw as Athletic Director.

“I’ve been around here a long time, and this championship by this basketball team will go down as one of the great accomplishments in all of Michigan athletics,” Schembechler told the crowd.

Two decades later, with the basketball team in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years, few students are aware of the dramatic events that unfolded on the way to the title.

Few remember forward Glen Rice scoring 184 points to set the record for most points in an NCAA Tournament. Or forward Sean Higgins’s put-back against Illinois with just a few ticks left in the semifinals. Or guard Rumeal Robinson hitting both foul shots on a one-and-one with three seconds left to win the national title.

Perhaps few would believe that before Michigan State and Ohio State became known for drunken riots, eight students were arrested as a mob took over South University Avenue, flipping over cars and swinging from live power lines in a celebration after the championship game.

Instead, students remember the Fab Five and the ensuing scandal surrounding a booster’s monetary gifts to star players that crippled the program for years. True Michigan basketball fans can still hear the chants of “NIT, NIT” from opposing fans.

But it all relates back to a group of underdogs that banded together, led by an interim coach and inspired by a football coach to “shock the world.”

“No students remember,” said Associate Athletic Director Bruce Madej. “That was 20 years ago. Anyone who was born and going to school can’t remember it anyways.”

A FATEFUL HIRE

Three days before the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with Xavier, Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom saw Michigan coach Bill Frieder board a red-eye flight to Arizona.

The journalist promptly called Schembechler to inquire why his basketball coach was traveling across the country on the brink of the team’s biggest game of the season.

Schembechler didn’t know.

A day later, Frieder announced he would be leaving Ann Arbor to take the top job at Arizona State. He planned on finishing out the tournament with Michigan before packing up for the desert.

Schembechler had other plans — he fired Frieder before he could resign, famously saying, “A Michigan man will coach a Michigan team.”

Assistant coach Steve Fisher was hired as the interim head coach. All of a sudden, Fisher was the only person to ever coach his first game in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think you get nervous every game, whether it's your first game as interim head coach, or you're in your 20th year as a head coach,” Fisher said in a phone interview in January. “I didn't weigh a lot to begin with, but I lost 10 to 15 pounds in those three weeks in doing the whole process of what we had to do.”

With Frieder out, Fisher wasn’t sure of his role. So he turned to the one man he knew every Michigan athlete respected — Schembechler.

Schembechler sat the team down in the bleachers on the south side of Crisler Arena and told him his expectations. He went down the line complimenting every player. He paused when he got to forward Sean Higgins, who the Ann Arbor News had reported would transfer if he wasn’t pleased with whoever was selected as the new coach.

“If you want out, be my guest,” Schembechler recalled in the book “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” co-authored by University lecturer John U. Bacon. “I have the transfer papers right upstairs on my desk. We can go up there this minute, you can sign those papers, and we’ll have it done by lunch.”

Higgins was caught off guard. But the Ann Arbor native wasn’t willing to say no to his childhood idol.

“We were like, ‘Wow,’ ” Higgins said. “We had never been talked to like that by anyone. Our coaches were more laid-back, and Coach Schembechler came down with his old football mystique and gave it to us. It fired us up a bit because he had that raspy voice and had the respect from us also. It did something to us in that it ignited us.”

Schembechler followed the team from stop to stop as it made its way through the tournament. He had no choice. He didn’t want the athletes to unfairly bear the brunt of the media hoopla surrounding Frieder’s departure.

“If he didn’t come, all the pressure would be on the players and he was the one that had to take the questions,” Madej said. “If Bo’s there, they’d ask him. If he wasn’t, then they’d ask the players. We had to fly Bo in.


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