About 15 months ago Steve Fisher had a meeting with Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler. Fisher said he loved Michigan, but he was 43 years old and wanted to be a head coach.
"Any way I can help you," Schembechler said, "I'll help you."
On March 15, with the Wolverines two days from a first-round game in the NCAA tournament and Bill Frieder already having decided he was going to leave Michigan for Arizona State, Schembechler helped Fisher. He made him Michigan's interim coach.
"It came to me a little bit quicker than I thought it would," Fisher said with a chuckle.
But Fisher proved worthy, when, to the shock of everyone but himself, he led Michigan to the NCAA championship and had the "interim" removed from his title.
"To be in the limelight and the pilot's chair as we win the national championship," Fisher recalled recently, "Hall-of-Famers have never done that. Ralph Miller, who was one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game, never won a national championship. I'm one of them now that has and it's hard to comprehend, but I don't feel as if I'm shocked that I could take a team and have that happen. It's the circumstances that led it to happen that were shocking."
In a way, it all still seems incredible. The manner and timing of Frieder's departure. Michigan squeaking past 14th-seeded Xavier, 92-87, in the first round and throttling Virginia, 102-65, in the Southeast Region final. Its last-second 83-81 victory over Illinois in the national semifinals. Its 80-79 overtime triumph over Seton Hall in the final -- the first overtime final since 1963 and a game that will be repRised Saturday when the teams meet in the "Duel in the Desert," a doubleheader in Las Vegas that also features a game between Nevada-Las Vegas and Iowa.
"Last year was something that couldn't happen, but it happened," Fisher said. "And even if it happened again this year, it would not be the same."
As for the chain of events that sent Frieder to Arizona State, Fisher said: "The job was (Purdue Coach) Gene Keady's, everybody knew that. Keady turned it down, but we didn't hear about that until the day before Bill took the job. It was my understanding that after Keady turned it down, they called Bill one day and he took it the next. Everybody knew that (Frieder) had talked with (Arizona State officials) in Chicago several months before, but it came as very much of a surprise to all us that he wound up taking the job."
What didn't come as much of a surprise was Schembechler's decision to have someone other than Frieder coach the Wolverines in the tournament. Fisher, who had beeN an assistant at Michigan for seven years, said, "If you know Bo, that shouldn't have surprised you."
And, according to senior forward Loy Vaught, it should not surprise you that Michigan has overcome a sluggish start to compile a 7-1 record and become the nation's sixth-ranked team.
"He's a perfectionist," Vaught said of Fisher. "He pays attention to very small details. And he wants to win desperately."
Which is to say, Fisher hasn't changed a bit.
"He's still the same Steve Fisher that he was before," senior guard Rumeal Robinson said.
The same Steve Fisher who coached for eight years at Rich East High School in Park Forest, Ill., the same Steve Fisher who served as an assistant at Western Michigan for three years before coming to Michigan.
"I'm not doing anything different now than I did when I was at Rich East," Fisher said. "I felt that I was ready and able to be a head college coach, and I am. You never dream it can happen to you the way it happened, But I have never been fearful that I couldn't do it because I know I can. It's crazy, but it happened and now I'm back like everyone else in the work force and trying to continue to help a good team get better."
The Wolverines -- who probably have four future NBA first-round draft choices in Robinson, Vaught, senior center Terry Mills and junior guard Sean Higgins -- began the season with an 82-75 loss to Arizona in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass. They then looked subpar in a 73-65 victory over Boston University in Boston and at the beginning of their next game, against Grambling at home in Ann Arbor. Fisher decided enough was enough.
Seven minutes into the game against the Tigers, with Michigan having committed five turnovers and holding only a 10-6 lead, Fisher replaced all his starters. Thus chastised, the Wolverines rolled to an 85-70 victory.
"They will play a lot, lot better against Iowa State," Fisher said afterward. "I guarantee it."
Sure enough, three days later, Michigan defeated the Cyclones, 101-78. Since then the Wolverines have run off four impressive victories, including a 113-108 overtime decision against then-No. 6 Duke. At last they are beginning to look like a team that returned seven of its top nine scorers -- even if one of those who didn't return is Glen Rice, the Big Ten Conference's leading scorer last season who also averaged 30.7 points per game during the NCAA tournament.
"We're a team that is experienced so you wouldn't think it would be quite as difficult for us to blend in a player," Fisher said, "but sometimes it is. The concern that I have with our team this year is numbers six, seven and eight off the bench. They are lacking in experience."
Junior guard Demetrius Calip played a significant role in the Wolverines' tournament victories, but had not played much before then. Six-foot-nine junior forward Chris Seter and 6-11 sophomore center Eric Riley never had played before this season. Guard Michael Talley is talented, but he is a freshman.
"When we get in foul trouble or we have to go deep to our bench and have several of them (the less-experienced players) out there at the same time, that is when I feel when we're not going to blend and flow like we will later in the season," Fisher said. "They just haven't done it before."
But Robinson has. His free throws with three seconds left in overtime clinched the Wolverines' victory in the NCAA tournament final. Yet, like Fisher, Robinson has not changed appreciably despite being besieged by fans and the media.
"He's done a great job of being able to handle that and blend that with basketball," Fisher said. "It's not easy. I'm finding that out also. But he knows his role, and he knows it goes beyond just dribbling and shooting the ball. He's the leader."
Robinson said he understands that, although he does not seem totally at ease with his life away from the gym.
"I think people have been looking at me differently for a long time and because of that, I've been able to understand what has happened to me and what people will see about Rumeal," Robinson said.
Asked if he is comfortable with that, he replied:
"Not really. You can't say you're really comfortable, because in some aspects you don't know who is being true and who is not. It's almost like you have to have your guard up when you really don't want to. And the people that you find out you don't have your guard up around are the ones you end up hurting because you do have your guard up."
Fisher knows the feeling, but his job also involves not forgetting what it took for him to receive all of the attention in the first place.
"A lot of people told me, 'Go everywhere, do everything, shake every hand and enjoy it because it probably will never happen again,' " Fisher said. "So I've really tried to do the interviews. I spoke at 20 to 30 Michigan functions throughout the country. I tried to enjoy it and tried to be proud of what we had accomplished and have fun doing it but still not lose sight of the fact that I'm a basketball coach, not an after-dinner speaker.
"I want to enjoy the whole process," he added. "But it doesn't matter who you are, it's not fun when you don't win."