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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Michigan basketball: What happened?

When sports fans think of Michigan Wolverine basketball, certain images invariably come to mind. The Fab Five. Long shorts. Highlight-reel dunks. The amazing national championship run of 1989. Sustained excellence that can only be rivaled by a Duke or Kentucky.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines and their fans, these are but memories, hollow recollections of glory days gone past. That the Michigan program, once so prominent and proud, has stunningly sunk to mediocrity is not conjecture; it’s fact.

Over the past four seasons, the Wolverines have been in perpetual decline, managing to garner a winning record only once. The question, then, is what precipitated this demise? What factors could cause a program with Michigan’s visibility and history of success to collapse so quickly? How in the world could a team that was ranked for 128 straight weeks, from Jan. 1985 to Dec. 1994, slip out of national prominence so quickly?

Reason No. 1: The Firing of Steve Fisher

In one of the greatest beginnings of a coaching tenure in history, Steve Fisher was handed the reigns of the Michigan program two days prior to the start of the 1989 NCAA tournament. Fisher took an ultra-prolific team that outscored its opponents by nearly 15 points per game and guided them to six straight victories, including wins over Virginia, Illinois, and a very good Seton Hall Squad, to win the national championship.

Some said Fisher was given a gift, as he inherited a talent-laden team that included Glen Rice, Michigan’s all-time leader scorer, and future NBA fixtures Terry Mills and Rumeal Robinson.

Over the next eight seasons, however, Fisher proved that the Wolverines’ national championship was not a fluke and that his coaching and recruiting prowess were nothing to be trifled with.

During his time at Michigan, Fisher endured only one losing season, in ’90-’91, the year after Robinson and Mills departed for the NBA. His teams made three appearances in the NCAA tournament championship game. Never once did a Fisher-coached team fail to make a postseason tournament.

In 1997, however, Bond, Schoeneck and King, a law firm retained by the University of Michigan, uncovered corruption in the processes Michigan used in its recruiting. The investigation revealed that Ed Martin, a university booster, had engaged in illegal practices, such as providing food and rides to recruits’ families.

The NCAA, as is its policy, allowed Michigan to take its own corrective action. Fisher, who was essentially a victim of circumstance, was fired immediately, and Brian Ellerbe was named head coach. Ellerbe’s team made the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the ’97-’98 season, but failed to make the Big Dance the next three years, suffering losing seasons in ’98-’99 and ’00-’01.

Fisher accumulated a 189-87 overall record, including an 88-56 mark in the Big Ten, during his time at Ann Arbor. Ellerbe’s numbers are a bit less pleasing to the eye; he finished with a 62-60 record, going a disappointing 26-38 in the Big Ten.

Reason no. 2: Loss of the recruiting wars

Once upon a time, Michigan was writing the guidebook on recruiting elite talent. For years, in-state stars like Rudy Tomjanovich and Glen Rice had chosen to play at Michigan. In 1991, though, Steve Fisher set a new standard when he completed what may have been the biggest coup in the history of recruiting.

Prior to the start of the ’91-’92 season, Fisher managed to lure the group of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Knight to Michigan, to form what is universally considered the greatest recruiting class of all time.

The “Fab Five,” as they were dubbed, did not fall short of the lofty expectations put on them. Two straight years they advanced to the NCAA tournament championship game. Even after Webber’s departure to the NBA after the ’93 championship game, the Wolverines continued their success, making the Elite Eight in the ’93-’94 season.

After the Fab Five days were over, Fisher didn’t miss a beat. His recruiting of Robert Traylor, Louis Bullock, Maurice Taylor and Maceo Baston supplied the program with enough firepower to finish with a 20-12 record in ’95-’96 and a 24-11 record in ’96-’97. After Fisher’s departure, however, recruiting suffered.

Two seasons prior to Fisher’s departure, Michigan State handed the reigns of its basketball program over to Tom Izzo. For his first two years, Izzo was in Fisher’s shadow in the way of success and recruiting. Izzo, however, soon completely took over the Michigan recruiting scene.

Izzo tapped into the goldmine of basketball talent that is Flint, Mich., recruiting Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, and Antonio Smith from the industrial city north of Ann Arbor. The “Flintstones” guided MSU to the Sweet Sixteen in ’97-’98 before ripping off three straight Final Four runs, including a national championship in ’99-’00.

The top players in the state, who for years had viewed Michigan as their dream destination, were now choosing Izzo’s laid-back approach and family atmosphere over the maize and blue. Years ago, Michigan had the inside track on Flint — Glen Rice played at Flint Northwestern High School.

Oh, how the times have changed. Last year, Izzo nabbed top-10 prep prospect Kelvin Torbert from the very same Flint Northwestern High. Torbert was not considering Michigan.

In recent years, due to Izzo’s monopolization of Michigan’s recruiting market, the Wolverines have had to settle for in-state talent such as bumbling forward Chris Young and the ever-productive guard Mike Gotfredson (career high: three points). Considering Michigan’s recent recruiting woes, the signing of Ann Arbor star LaVell Blanchard almost came as a surprise, but even the sweet-shooting forward has not been enough to propel the program back to the level it was once expected to be at.

Reason 3: Failure to keep talent at Michigan

Michigan was certainly hurt by the departure of Webber to the NBA after his sophomore season, as well as Juwan Howard’s early jump the next year. Despite these losses, though, the program was still rife with talent, allowing the Wolverines’ success to continue almost unimpeded. In recent years, however, Michigan’s premier players have been bolting for the riches of the NBA, but there hasn’t been the young talent waiting in the wings that Michigan has traditionally enjoyed.

The problems began when Maurice Taylor, a Detroit-area forward, left school after his junior year. Following the next season, Robert Traylor, Michigan’s 289-pound beast of a forward who is also from Detroit, left school early and was selected by the Dallas Mavericks with the sixth overall pick in the 1998 draft.

Michigan struggled mightily after the departure of Traylor, going 12-19 overall and a pitiful 5-11 in the Big Ten in ’98-’99. The Wolverines failed to make the postseason for the first time since ’82-’83, and had only two players average double figure points for the season.

In the ’99-’00 season, the Wolverines showed promise, finishing 15-14 and securing an NIT berth. After the season, though, Michigan was crippled by the loss of point guard and leading scorer Jamal Crawford, who entered the draft after his freshman season.

While the beginnings of Michigan’s decline can probably be traced back to the NCAA investigation, the blame for the Wolverines’ fall from prominence must fall at least partly on the shoulders of Ellerbe, who quite simply failed to live up to the high standard set by Fisher.
Ellerbe’s recruiting did not provide the Wolverines with sufficient talent, and Ellerbe’s coaching style may have pushed away players like Traylor and Taylor, both of whom were recruited by Fisher.
Michigan, realizing that Ellerbe was not the right coach for the program, hired former Seton Hall coach Tommy Amaker before this season in the hopes that he can lead the program back to glory. Although Michigan’s 8-10 record this year isn’t exactly the kind of success the program is looking for, Amaker’s recruiting expertise and basketball knowledge should bring Michigan at least some level of success in the near future.
Amaker is free of blame, at least at this point. Michigan’s record this season is surely not his fault; he was handed the wheel of a ship that had begun to sink four years ago.

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