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Frieder Was Near, but So Far, Far Away

Picture a half-crazed man in a hotel room. Middle-aged. Frazzled eyes. Frizzied hair. Pacing like a maternity-ward father. Nervous. Nut case. A towel draped across his shoulder, like Linus with his security blanket. A television set, tuned to Seattle’s Channel 7. Basketball game on the TV. His team, playing ball several blocks down the street, playing for the national championship--without him.

Picture Bill Frieder, sequestered in the room of a Sheraton hotel, bouncing off the walls.

Out of sight, out of mind.

His wife, Janice, is sitting right there at the Kingdome, right behind the University of Michigan’s bench, right next to Angie Fisher, wife of Michigan’s coach. Michigan’s coach. Picture Bill Frieder hearing these words, watching these scenes. The game begins, with Janice kissing Angie for luck. The game ends, with Janice hugging Angie with delight.

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Michigan has just won the national championship.

Steve Fisher’s Michigan.

Assistant coach Steve Fisher’s Michigan.

And Steve Fisher is standing there amid chaos, hip to hip with Brent Musburger, telling America: “I’m the happiest man alive!”

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And Steve Fisher is standing there at mid-court, clutching a microphone, telling 39,187 Kingdome subjects: “I want to thank the players, and everybody here, and everybody back home in Ann Arbor! This one’s for you!”

This one was for everybody directly or even remotely connected with the Michigan basketball program.

Except the man in the hotel room.

Out of sight, out of his mind.

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His name, never even mentioned.

Not a word about how he was responsible for the presence of every single body in every single Michigan uniform. Not a word about how he hustled all the way to Boston to recruit Rumeal Robinson, all the way to Los Angeles to land Sean Higgins, up the freeway to Flint to keep Glen Rice from getting any ideas about going to Michigan State or anyplace else.

Not one word about Bill Frieder.

Just picture it.

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A man in Nixon-like, Napoleonic exile. Deposed. Forgotten. Discarded, even though for nine seasons he had slaved away, working without sleep, guzzling Pepsi-Colas by the gallons, negotiating country roads to catch some backwoods high school game, making phone calls to teen-agers minutes after exciting victories, clicking off their numbers in his mind the same way he once memorized blackjack decks before the Vegas and Reno casinos caught on that this Frieder character was counting cards.

He coached Michigan for 278 games.

Steve Fisher coached them for six.

But Fisher got the national championship.

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Frieder never won one. Ray Meyer never won one. Ralph Miller never won one. Men who coached in four different decades tried and failed. College basketball’s immortalized champions now included Adolph Rupp, Henry Iba, Branch McCracken, John Wooden, Bob Knight . . . and Steve Fisher?

Yes, Steve (6-0) Fisher, the unknown, the unsung, the unconquered.

“Get me a ghostwriter to write my story,” Fisher said after Monday night’s 80-79 overtime overcoming of Seton Hall, with a smile ear to ear. “I’m gonna retire--undefeated, untied.”

Yes, Steve Fisher, whose previous head-coaching experience came at a high school in suburban Chicago, a high school that never even reached its state’s final 16. The same Steve Fisher who has been hearing all week from his old adversaries, who can hardly believe he’s here, as well as from the Assistant College Coaches of America, a committee that sent a good-luck telegram to his Seattle hotel.

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Nobody sent anything to Bill Frieder’s hotel--not even a basket of complimentary fruit.

“I didn’t speak to Bill today,” Fisher said in the winners’ locker room after the trophy presentation. “He called yesterday, just to wish us luck. He said, ‘Tell the kids I’m thinking of them.’ I know he watched us on TV Saturday, and I think that’s what he was planning for tonight.”

Frieder just couldn’t take it Saturday, when Michigan played Illinois. He stalked his hotel room, towel over his shoulder, just like old times. Also, he did not want to interfere. He is Arizona State’s coach now. Uninvited. Unwanted by anyone from Ann Arbor. A leper, almost.

He did not exist.

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Loy Vaught of the Wolverines, who the day before mentioned that Fisher had often run the team’s practices while Frieder was busy jogging or phoning recruits, barely acknowledged him now. On the eve of the game, Vaught made pointed references to “Coach Fisher” and, simply, “Frieder.” And now he spoke of Fisher as though he were George Bush, moving from Blair House into the White House.

“He seems like he’s given us new life,” Vaught said. “He deserves a great pat on the back. He’s been master of the smooth transition.”

It took Higgins to finally give the guy some due. Of Frieder he said: “This is his team. He brought everyone here. It’s sad he couldn’t be here to celebrate with us. There’s not any bad feelings on Coach Frieder, not on my part. He took another job, took care of his family, the way a man’s supposed to. Now, we’re the national champions, and he should be proud of it.”

Note the key word:

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“Coach” Frieder.

Only now, the man of the hour, of the year, of the decade, of the century as far as Michigan basketball is concerned is Steve Fisher, 44, a pleasant, nondescript fellow with a natural rouge to his cheekbones that makes him resemble a toy soldier. He is interim coach Fisher. Everybody expects him to become the actual, authentic Coach Fisher. As player Terry Mills said, he has never heard of an undefeated coach who got fired.

Bo Schembechler, the school’s smarty-pants athletic director, acted coy, as usual, saying: “I think we ought to interview Steve Fisher (for the job) now.” Ho, ho, ho, Bo. What a card.

Anyone who saw what Michigan’s players did under Steve Fisher’s rule knows that he did absolutely nothing to make him undeserving of a promotion.

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“I guess,” Fisher said. “We did what no one else could do. We won every game we played. And I was a part of that. A large or a small part, I’m not sure. But I was a part of it, and nobody can ever say different.”

And poor Bill Frieder--he was no part of it.

Just another TV viewer.

Just a man in a hotel room.

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Checking out.


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