NCAA Basketball Tournament : Michigan Coach Steve Fisher Isn’t a Rookie, He’s Now 2-0
Michigan and Missouri have more in common these days than the design of their jerseys, which feature oversized block M’s followed by the other seven letters in their names in smaller script.
Both were guided through the opening weekend of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball tournament by assistant coaches.
Missouri’s Rich Daly, though, had at least several weeks to prepare for the tournament, taking over Feb. 9, when Coach Norm Stewart became ill on a Missouri flight to Oklahoma and was hospitalized for colon surgery.
Michigan’s Steve Fisher had only 48 hours.
Fisher was promoted March 15, when former coach Bill Frieder resigned and accepted an offer to coach at Arizona State.
Fisher will be in charge for only the third time on the collegiate level tonight at Rupp Arena, where the 10th-ranked Wolverines (26-7) play fifth-ranked North Carolina (29-7) in the semifinals of the Southeast Regional.
His opponent, Dean Smith, has coached more than 850 games at North Carolina, winning more than all but six other coaches and reaching the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament each of the last nine seasons.
It wasn’t too long ago, Fisher said, that he stood in a crowd at a coaching clinic in Chicago and asked Smith for his autograph.
Fisher, though, is not awed by tonight’s matchup.
“When you start to play, I don’t think you feel like you’re matching wits with anyone,” he said. “You’re just trying to make good decisions.”
Outwardly, at least, not much seems to faze Fisher, who is described by friends as quiet and unassuming and by his players as cool and calm.
And why shouldn’t he be?
“I’m not a rookie coach,” he has stressed repeatedly in countless interviews with reporters this week and last. “I’ve coached for 21 years. I’ve been a head coach for eight years. Yes, (I was a head coach) on the high school level. But I think coaching is teaching.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re at Rich East High School (in Park Forest, Ill., where he started), or coaching in a CYO rec league, where my 10-year-old plays, or coaching at the University of Michigan.”
Still, Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler placed Fisher in a difficult position last week when he named him interim coach, decreeing that Frieder would not be allowed to coach the Wolverines in the tournament.
Fisher, 43, had been an assistant for 10 years, including the last seven at Michigan, where he served as Frieder’s right-hand man.
But Schembechler said: “I don’t want someone from Arizona State coaching the Michigan team. A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan.”
Two days later, with Schembechler, Frieder and another former Michigan coach, Johnny Orr, watching from the stands, the Wolverines overcame a six-point deficit in the last 10 minutes of a 92-87 victory over Xavier.
Last Sunday, they defeated South Alabama, 91-82.
The Wolverines, who lost to North Carolina in a regional semifinal last season, have advanced as far in the tournament as Frieder ever took them.
The former coach, in fact, does not seem to be missed.
Last Sunday at the Omni in Atlanta, a fan held up a sign that read: “Michigan Without Frieder Equals Final Four.”
And, when asked to compare the two, Michigan center Loy Vaught described Fisher as more level-headed than Frieder.
Frieder, he said, was uptight.
“He walked around, he paced the locker room,” Vaught said of his former coach. “He was always thinking about ways to get an advantage. He seemed kind of frazzled at times. Coach Fisher, he’s really laid-back. He’s a lot calmer. A little bit cooler.”
Fisher won’t go that far.
“I think I’m firm, but hopefully fair,” he said. “I think I’m demanding. But I also know that sometimes you’ve got to give a little extra rope to this guy or that guy.
“It’s just like with your own kids: You’ve got to know when to push and when to pull, and when to pat and when to kick.”
Fisher seems to know.
He said the transition between coaches has been smooth because Frieder entrusted him with a great deal of responsibility.
“It wasn’t like I was an assistant in name only and didn’t do anything other than show up and shut up,” he said.
He did more than keep track of the Wolverines’ timeouts.
“A lot of people don’t realize that when Coach Frieder was our coach, Coach Fisher made a lot of the substitutions in games and called plays,” Vaught said. “He’s always had a load of responsibilities, so as far as we’re concerned, he’s the same guy. He’s just got a new hat.”
Fisher planned and often ran practices. He also addressed the team before every game, standing in front of a chalk board and discussing individual matchups.
“I remember (Missouri’s) Rich Daly said that he had not conducted a practice in eight years,” Fisher said. “I have conducted practices with regularity for the last seven or eight years.”
If he has left his mark on the Wolverines, Fisher said, he has left it not just in the last week, but over a period of time.
“I’m proud of the way we’ve played and I feel like I’ve contributed to some of the success,” he said. “But I felt that same way as an assistant. I was in Frieder’s ear all the time, making suggestions.
“Now, instead of suggesting, I’m making decisions. That, to me, has been the only difference.”
On the court, anyway.
He wasn’t ready for the constant demands on his time, or the stress. His appetite has waned. Usually a sound sleeper, Fisher has tossed and turned.
“It’s been a little difficult,” he said Wednesday at a news conference. “Doing these kinds of things are what’s new for me.”
Last Monday, he said, several secretaries in the Michigan athletic department kidded him about his television appearances last weekend and advised him on what to wear and how to better present himself in front of a camera.
That was new to him, too.
It’s not easy going from unknown to well known.
For the most part, though, everything has gone well. His players’ kind words, he said, are a product of the team’s success.
“It’s easy to say when you win,” Fisher said. “We’ve all creatures of habit. When you win, you have good, positive feelings.”
Michigan is running the same offense and the same defense it ran under Frieder, he said. Also unchanged is the substitution pattern.
Still, Fisher must be doing something right.
“I’m preparing,” he said.
Actually, he has prepared for this day for 21 years.
A reserve guard on an Illinois State team that reached the Division II Final Four in 1967--"I was the guy who jumped up and cheered while the other guys played"--Fisher started his coaching career as an assistant at Rich East High School, in a suburb south of Chicago.
His first two years at Rich East, he worked for Les Wothke, who now coaches at Army. Fisher then worked for a year under Gene Smithson, who coaches at Wichita State, before being promoted to head coach in 1971.
In eight seasons at Rich East, Fisher’s teams compiled a 141-70 record and won four conference championships. Among his best players was Craig Hodges, who now plays for the Chicago Bulls and remains a friend.
According to Hodges, the easygoing Fisher was more of a disciplinarian in those days, but he has since lightened up.
“When you’re an assistant coach, you have to be more mellow because you deal with the players on a more friend-like basis instead of being the one who has to set the rules,” Hodges said. “That helped him.”
Fisher said he would have been content to spend the rest of his career at the high school level, but Wothke lured him away from Rich East in 1979, hiring his former assistant to assist him at Western Michigan.
Frieder hired him at Michigan three years later.
“He’s a very knowledgeable basketball man,” Frieder said. “He’s meticulous and a stickler for detail. He’s very organized.”
Rarely, though, was Fisher ever mentioned as a candidate for a head coaching vacancy.
That may soon change.
Schembechler has said that he will consult his friend, Indiana Coach Bob Knight, and will conduct a national search for a new coach.
But Frieder said: “I will be very disappointed if Steve doesn’t get the job. I’m disappointed already that it hasn’t been announced.”
Fisher will be disappointed, too, if somebody doesn’t offer him a job. His alma mater, Illinois State, has an opening. It did not renew the contract of Bob Donewald, who was released after 11 seasons.
Fisher, though, would prefer to remain at Ann Arbor.
“I’m hoping and praying I’m the head coach at Michigan,” he said.
So far, he hasn’t done anything to hurt his chances.
He is 2-0.
“The best darn winning percentage in the nation,” he said.
Southeast Regional Notes
In the other semifinal tonight, top-seeded Oklahoma (30-5) will meet Virginia (21-10), which has lost only to Duke in its last seven games. . . . Oklahoma beat Virginia last season in Hawaii, 109-61, as guard Mookie Blaylock scored 33 points and center Stacey King scored 32.. . . In victories last weekend over Providence and Middle Tennessee State, Virginia’s Richard Morgan scored 66 points, making seven of 11 shots from three-point range, and his running mate in the backcourt, sophomore John Crotty, scored 49 points, had 24 assists and shot 82.6%, including six of seven three-pointers.
North Carolina has reached the regional semifinals in nine straight seasons, but has not advanced to the Final Four since 1982, when it won its only NCAA championship in 27 seasons under Coach Dean Smith. . . . North Carolina has eliminated Michigan from the tournament each of the last two seasons, beating the Wolverines in a regional semifinal last season and in a second-round game two years ago. . . . North Carolina’s J.R. Reid didn’t have much to say about missing curfew and being suspended for Sunday’s 88-81 victory over UCLA. “I missed not playing,” said Reid, who is expected to play tonight.