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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT: TODAY AND YESTERDAY : Bo Gets Higgins to Toe the Line, and Just in Time : Lecture by Football Coach Inspires Michigan’s Troubled Basketball Star

Times Staff Writer

Bo Schembechler, Michigan athletic director and football coach, was giving a pep talk to the Wolverine basketball team when he zeroed in on forward Sean Higgins.

An enigmatic underachiever, the 6-foot-9 sophomore sank into his chair as Schembechler blasted him.

Once you’ve felt the wrath of Bo, you don’t easily forget.

Higgins answered Schembechler’s criticism by scoring a career-high 31 points as Michigan crushed Virginia by 37 points in the Southeast Regional final to advance to the Final Four for the first time in 13 years.

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“I think Sean really grew up when Bo Schembechler got on his case,” said Higgins’ father, Earle. “That’s what he needed. He didn’t pout or get angry at Bo. He showed a lot of character.”

What did Schembechler tell Higgins?

“I’m not telling you,” Schembechler said. “You know better than to ask me that. What he needed was somebody to tell him the facts of life.”

Will Schembechler give Higgins and the Wolverines another pep talk before Saturday’s game against Illinois?

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“These aren’t pep talks,” Schembechler said. “I just encourage them. Don’t write that I’m giving them pep talks. Then people will think I’m sticking my nose into basketball.”

Was Higgins intimidated by Bo?

“In the neighborhood where I grew up there were a lot of people who were more intimidating than Bo,” Higgins said.

Higgins grew up in Los Angeles, where he was a basketball star at Fairfax High School.

“Sean has that L.A. mentality,” Earle Higgins said. “The L.A. mentality is like everything’s a party.”

Life for Higgins has not been a party since he enrolled at Michigan, where he has been embroiled in controversy.

“Ever since Sean came here, the trials and tribulations have taken him up and down emotionally,” said junior center Loy Vaught.

There seemed to be more downs then ups:

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--Higgins was allegedly coerced into signing with UCLA by his stepfather, who reportedly threatened him with a baseball bat. After his letter of intent was voided, Higgins signed at Michigan, where he lived before his parents divorced.

Although Higgins told a national magazine that a UCLA alumnus had offered him money and a car, UCLA was later cleared.

Higgins, who loves to talk almost as much as he loves to shoot, wouldn’t comment on the incident.

--While Higgins was being wooed by Kentucky, he said he was offered two cars and $300 a month by assistant coach Dwane Casey. Higgins was interviewed by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., which has charged Kentucky with 18 rules violations, including allegedly sending $1,000 to the father of Chris Mills, who played with Higgins at Fairfax.

What did Higgins tell the NCAA?

“I’m not going to elaborate,” Higgins said. “Coach Casey is a good friend of mine and I wish him the best. I learned (in talking to the NCAA) how they can trick you and make you say a lot of things.”

Higgins told the Ann Arbor News: “I got kind of angry when the Michigan Daily ran a story about me talking to the NCAA. (Former Michigan Coach Bill) Frieder told me just to be truthful to the NCAA and that’s what I did. Then the paper makes me sound like a tattletale or something. Is it positive to lie?”

--After playing in 12 games last season, Higgins was declared academically ineligible and missed the rest of the season.

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--Higgins was suspended for three games earlier this season for breaking team training rules.

Higgins said he’s misunderstood.

“People have called me a media baby,” Higgins said. “I like the attention. But I don’t consider myself the type of guy that when he sees the cameras coming runs to them. It just happens that way.

“People don’t understand me. All they know is what they read. If they knew me face to face I don’t think they would have opinions and attitudes that they do about me.”

After returning from his suspension, Higgins lost his shooting touch, missing eight of nine shots in a 96-84 loss at Illinois. And he soon lost his starting job. Michigan has won 14 of 16 games since Higgins went to the bench.

A starter throughout his career, sitting on the bench has humbled Higgins.

“Sean was more arrogant in high school,” said Mark Koenig, a junior guard from Los Angeles. “I think his attitude has changed a bit. People haven’t seen the true Sean. He’s had some troubles here, but he’s determined to be good.”

Higgins has tried to behave here this week, spouting meaningless cliches during news conferences. But can he keep quiet during the Final Four media blitz this weekend?

At the regional semifinals last weekend, Higgins told one reporter that he would transfer or turn pro if he didn’t approve of the new coach. He later said he was misquoted.

“I’m going to stay at Michigan for the next two years,” Higgins said. “It’s in my best interest to stay here.”

He told an Ann Arbor reporter: “I’ll be at Michigan next season regardless of whether the coach is Steve Fisher or Elmer Fudd.”

Dick Vitale, former Detroit Pistons coach, thinks Higgins should stay at Michigan.

“Going to NBA would be a major, major, major mistake,” said Vitale, an ESPN and ABC commentator. “It doesn’t make sense. Sean needs Michigan as much as Michigan needs him.

“Sean’s got a world of potential, but he needs to mature. How good he’s going to be is up to him.

“The only person who can hold him back is Sean. He’s got to look in the mirror and ask, ‘How good can I be? Do I want to be a Mr. Potential, or do I want to be as good as Glen Rice?”

THE ODD COUPLE

Glen Rice hates to talk almost as much as Sean Higgins likes to talk.

As he entered the room to address reporters at recent news conference, Rice looked as if he were being led before a firing squad.

The senior forward has been advising Higgins on how to handle himself.

What better teacher than Rice, Michigan’s leading scorer, a role Higgins hopes to assume next season.

“Sean Higgins is going through some of the same things I went through earlier,” Rice said. “What he has to do is go out and play and not be too hyped up about the things that are going on around him.”

Higgins is learning.

After being inconsistent during the regular season, Higgins has played well in four NCAA tournament games, averaging 14.7 points, fourth best on the team.

Higgins seems more relaxed since Fisher replaced Frieder.

“When Sean would make a mistake (Frieder) would take him out of the game,” Earle Higgins said. “Sean wasn’t used to that and he took it personally. Frieder was playing mind games with him.

“He’s much happier now that Frieder’s gone and that’s obvious. He has two more years and he’s going to be a much better player.”

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

When Sean Higgins made a recruiting visit to Michigan, he played one-on-one against his father, Earle, a former pro basketball player.

The younger Higgins embarrassed his father.

“It was like a nightmare,” Earle Higgins said. “You dream of playing against your kids, but you never dream of him beating you like that.

“He was awesome. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do with a basketball.”

They used to say the same thing about Earle Higgins.

An all-state guard at Ann Arbor High in 1966, Higgins dreamed of playing at Michigan.

A borderline student, he was rejected by Michigan and attended junior college in Casper, Wyo., before transferring to Eastern Michigan, where he was an All-American.

After graduating in 1970, he was the first player drafted by the Golden State Warriors, but signed with the Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball Assn. for $50,000.

“I thought pro basketball was my savior,” Higgins said. “I was making $50,000 and that was a lot of money, especially if you never had a job.”

Higgins was out of a job after being cut two years later.

Unskilled, he took a job working on the assembly line at an Detroit auto plant, where he earned $129 a week.

“I found myself in a real dilemma, as most ex-athletes do, because I wasn’t prepared to get a job,” Higgins said. “It was devastating mentally. So I went back to school.”

After returning to college, Higgins completed requirements for his college degree. Higgins, 41, is now an executive for Chrysler.

The experience had an impact on Higgins, who formed a tutoring program for inner-city athletes.

Thus, it was devastating when his son was declared academically ineligible last year.

“I don’t think I was spending enough time with him,” Earle Higgins said. “Mrs. Frieder called at 1 a.m. and said the reason (Sean) was doing this was because he wanted attention.”

He’s getting more attention from Earle Higgins, who checks regularly on his son’s academic progress.

“He never talks to me when I’m doing well,” Sean Higgins said.

And he is doing well now.


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