Just wanted to point out just how thin the line is between "Amaker can't get us over the hump" and "Beilein has brought us back." Up until this year, the line was really slim, despite an enormous gap in perception.
Just Take Them
The Fab Five didn't cross my mind. Not when Michigan beat Penn State, not when William Buford's shot found twine and gave the Wolverines a share of their first Big Ten title in my lifetime, not until I read Brian's article today.
This is largely a function of age. When the Fab Five first played at Michigan, I was learning to read books made out of cardboard. I have no strong feelings one way or another when it comes to their legacy, because I can't properly contextualize it without having been there to witness it in the first place. I don't see their relevance to this year's team, though that doesn't mean it isn't there.
The teams I grew up watching, however, were the radioactive fallout from the Ed Martin scandal, and that experience has made me all the more appreciative of the John Beilein era. This has little to do with the character of the players—as a kid, you have little-to-no awareness of these players's existence when they aren't playing ball—and everything to do with coaching, the atmosphere surrounding the team, and the joy of simply watching them play.
I have a particularly striking memory from my early years of seriously following Michigan basketball. Brian Ellerbe was the coach, the Wolverines one year removed from the brief glimmer of hope provided by Jamal Crawford, and it was a gray Thanksgiving weekend in Ann Arbor. My friend Jeff and I would often walk over the Stadium bridge, usually with tickets from his parents, and enjoy all that Crisler had to offer. We had fun because we didn't know any better. On this particular day, we had no tickets, but with all the cash you'd expect a pair of middle-schoolers to have, we decided it was worth at least walking the 15 minutes from my house to Cazzie's and try our luck.
Through the power of the internet, I now know Michigan was playing Wagner, though I don't remember the details of the game. What I do remember is climbing the concrete steps in front of the arena to see a lone middle-aged man holding up two tickets; despite it being just before tip-off, I recall him being one of just a handful of people outside Crisler. Jeff and I walked up to him, each with a five-dollar bill extended—a bargain, in our minds. The man gave us a look of sheer pity, began to reach out for the money, then recoiled.
"I can't, in good conscience, make you pay for these," he said. "Just take them."
We couldn't believe our luck, nor understand why this man would give up a perfectly good pair of tickets for nothing. We settled in to our seats and watched the Wolverines cruise to a 98-83 victory. Both of us thought two freshman starters looked rather promising. Their names were Avery Queen and Josh Moore.
Two weekends ago, a college buddy called me up while on his way to Ann Arbor from Chicago. He'd also grown up as a die-hard Michigan fan in Ann Arbor, graduating one year ahead of me at Pioneer. He wanted to know if I could track down a couple of tickets for the Ohio State game.
When Michigan hired Tommy Amaker, I thought the times were changing. When he brought in a recruiting class featuring Lester Abram, Graham Brown, Chris Hunter, and the talented point guard Daniel Horton, I believed. Watching Horton average 15 points and 4.5 assists as a freshman while spearheading a 13-game winning streak after an ugly 0-6 start, I envisioned Michigan reaching the biggest of big stages while Horton earned All-American honors.
But Horton never got better, at least not until his senior year, when his Herculean late-season efforts were wasted on a team headed for yet another NIT appearance, two years after a deep run in that tourney had lost whatever promise it once held. Michigan never developed any semblance of an offense under Amaker. Aimless perimeter passes inevitably led to a hurried chuck from the perimeter; this was the Amaker Offense, as far as I could tell. Every once in a while Brent Petway would tip-slam an offensive rebound. Those were the moments I lived for.
On Sunday, as it has all season—and every year of Beilein's reign—Michigan's offense had a clear purpose. An intricate series of precise cuts and screens begot open look after open look, and the Wolverines connected with remarkable efficiency. Stu Douglass, once a one-dimensional outside shooter with a severe aversion to the paint, played near-flawless defense while creating baskets both inside and outside the arc. Fellow senior Zack Novak, though plagued by foul trouble, quietly scored 11 points, including a run-stopping jumper late in the second half that should've earned extra points for degree of difficulty. The two leaders and captains barely resemble the unknown two-stars who walked onto campus four years ago.
Sure, Michigan hired John Beilein in part because he's the squeaky-clean head of the ethics committee, a coach who will recruit players who pass the can-you-date-my-daughter test with flying colors. But Michigan also hired John Beilein because he's perhaps the greatest strategic mind in college basketball, a coach with an uncanny eye for talent, and the ability—working in tandem with his assistants—to develop that talent.
The newly-christened Crisler Center has received a major face-lift, the Wolverines are headed to their third tournament in four years—with the potential to grab a three-seed—and a banner will be raised next season over the heads of the best Michigan recruiting class in at least 15 years. More importantly, this team has an identity, and it all stems from their head coach—not just his nice-guy image and his emphasis on character, though that is important, but his offense. This is basketball, after all.
I'll happily pony up a few bucks to keep watching. The days of "just take them" are thankfully behind us.
If Beilein hadn't made the tourney in year two, how much louder would the calls for his job have been in the middle of last year? If Amaker hadn't been screwed out of a bid (IMO) 2-3 times, how much more popular would he have been and would he still be here?
What is the point of this hypothetical? Amaker had longer to build the program than Beilein has had so far, and had far less to show for it. Six years of Amaker left us thinking that just making the field of 65 was the holy grail.
I don't agree that any of Amaker's teams got screwed, except for 2002-03 (which was punished for something it had nothing to do with). The 2004, 2006 and 2007 teams all failed to win anything of consequence away from Crisler. Time and again those teams folded when it counted. Compare that with the 2009 Wolverines, who went on the road to Minnesota (an NCAA tournament team) and won on the last day of the season. The 2011 Wolverines won in Breslin (something no Amaker team came close to ever doing) and then completed the sweep at home. Moreover, both the '09 and '11 teams finished the season on an upward trend, while Amaker's teams generally slumped down the stretch. It wasn't random chance that Beilein was 2-2 on the bubble and Amaker was 0-3. His teams got better as the year went on and played their way in the field.
Don't forget that those teams couldn't stay healthy or out of trouble, not to mention the fact that guys like Horton, Abram, Sims, etc. never seemed to progress a lick from their freshman to senior years. Sims could be the sole big man in history to actually get -smaller- across his eligibility.
Courtney Sims had more points and rebounds every year of his Michigan career, going from 7.7 and 4.7 to 11.5 and 6.2. The failure to improve was based more on the optimistic expectations of a guy with his size (we saw him as a freshman and assumed he'll just be throwing in 20 and 10 every night) rather than a lack of actual progress.
Horton's senior year he set career highs in points (17.6), assists (5.3), ast/to ratio (1.51), FG% (.447), 3pt FG% (.394), steals (1.9), and raised his FT% from the mid 70's to 90.1%. For a guy without much room for improvement (scored over 15 a game as a freshman), he still got better.
Because the team didn't make the tournament, we viewed pretty much everything as a disappointment, but the actual numbers don't back up the premise (one that I have a hard time shaking myself).
Pretty sure I made that clear. The point is that the 2009 team could have done everything exactly the same and still been kept out of the NCAA tournament without much complaint from anyone but Michigan fans. If the scheduling quirk that allowed them to play Duke twice hadn't occurred, they probably miss it either way.
If that had happened, a coach doing exactly the same job (Beilein) would have been under infinitely more pressure in the middle of last year, staring down a 3rd losing season in 4 years, with the big uptick in recruiting still way out on the horizon. At the same time that a former player was starring as a future lottery pick on a highly ranked team.
The good fortune is ours, because without making the tournament in Beilein's second season, we may have done something really dumb rather than give a proven, universally respected head coach a chance to build his program.
Again I have to disagree. First of all, it wasn't random chance that we played Duke twice that year. We scheduled them, and also entered the preseason NIT knowing that we might play them again (as well as UCLA). Beilein has never shied away from tough schedules, and it's paid off.
Amaker, OTOH, ended the Duke series and generally scheduled very weak OOC slates, which may have left us unprepared for conference play. His teams racked up the wins against creampuffs, peaked around January, and then faded. A lot of his teams looked like they'd make the tourney in mid-season, but by Selection Sunday I didn't have a lot of hope left. We knew we'd blown our chance.
You are writing a vastly different narrative about a bunch of teams that finished at .500 in the Big Ten. Acting like one team was battle hardened and one was "unprepared" and "faded" doesn't make sense when they had the same record (the 2006 team definitely deserves that "faded" label, but none of the others).
The 2007 team only lost to 3 teams during the last two months of the season (@MSU, @Illinois, a team they had beaten in A2 earlier in the year, and 3 times against the Greg Oden led OSU team that went to the national championship game). They beat MSU in A2 and beat a ranked Indiana team down the stretch. They won their opening round conference tourney game before running into Oden and Co. for the third time.
The 2004 team went 4-2 down the stretch, beat a ranked Wisconsin team and lost to MSU by 3 and @Indiana by 5. They finished tied for 5th in the league. Then they beat #4 in the conference Iowa to go to the conference semi-finals where they lost to conference champs Illinois.
The 2009 team had a virtually identical finish (4-2, beat ranked Purdue, lost @ an awful Iowa team), only they finished tied for 7th in the league and advanced to the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
The enormous gap in perception arises because one team made the tournament and the other two didn't. If Selection Sunday had turned out differently, the exact same facts would have been turned into dramatically different narratives, just like they have been.
Amaker had some University it problems, and his personality never wow'd the faithful. (sound familiar?) being a Dukie was a plus on the perception side, but maybe not the acceptance side. Our schedules really got dumbed down then, and losing Duke (which means nothing to Duke, but was a national showcase and bitter rival for Michigan) made it look like he was dodging competition. Modern Michigan was built on mentor Woody getting one-upped by his protégée Bo. To see Coach K and Amaker not able to keep playing each other because it was too tough on them seemed soft. That may not have been fair to them, but it wasn't a good fit. Beilein embraced it all, and beyond being upright, has that teacher vibe Michigan loves. College is not just pros....winning matters, but the stuff outside it can save you or sink you, too.
There is a great divide on the Fab Five. Those, like myself, who were in school with them will never be able to hate them. There were too many good memories of maize baggy shorts, black socks and celebrations on South U. There were tournments wins against Ohio, Cinnci, UCLA and an OT game against Kentucky that sent my entire fraternty on a sprint to South University so we could dance and get tear gassed. There was too much of a feeling of watching people my age set the world on fire with a promise that I could, and would, do it too.
But there was bad too. There are reasons to condemn them and those who immediately followed. They cheated. Let's call it what it was.
The Fab Five lead us to the promise land and then got us lost in the desert. It was years before the final verdict came down and we could begin to work our way bak. All the while, we wandered lost and thirsty, reaching for the mirage of the NIT while Sparty won titles and crushed us by 50.
The divide between those of us who are older than Ace is whether or nor you were there for the promise land. I was there. I danced in the street and partied. I bought a pair of maize baggy shorts. I suspect that Brian missed the promised land. By the time he got to Ann Arbor, there was only the wind blown wasteland that came next. Given that, I don't blame him for his feelings about the Fab Five. However, I still can't forget how good that milk and honey tasted to a 20-22 year version of me that is fading further and further away.
There is no way to undo what was done. We can't give Brian Cook the Final Four runs that filled my college days.
But, the page has long since turned. Like the Fab Five, the 20-22 year version of me is gone. He is a memory that I celebrate with boring stories of shit that happened two decades ago while my wife pretends to listen. Like the Fab Five, the early-20s me is just not relevant to the kids in school now. It is their time, it is this team's time. I hope like hell this team makes a final four. Not to redeem the Fab Five, but so this generation of students can party on South U. If they do, that's what I will think about - not Weber, King, Rose, Howard and Jackson. Their time is long past.
One peice of advice from my 20-22 self though - if the cops start with the tear gas, run like hell.
I had a Webber jersey and Fab5 tee shirts. At the beginning of each season I was pumped for them. At the end of each season, and many times in the middle, I felt like they played far short of their potential. It seemed obvious to me they barely showed up to a number of games constantly letting inferior opponents hang on far longer than they should. Free throw shooting was ugly even when they made it. I still remember how confused they looked in the NCAA championship final seconds as Chris Webber had to bring the ball up to half-court. I always wondered what Jalen Rose was thinking at that moment. Yes these guys had swagger, I really wanted to believe, but they were disappointments often even without the rule breaking.
Championships are The Promised Land.
I appreciate your benevolent attitude towards the current students; they do enjoy it more than anyone else. But not by much. I want Michigan to win for all of us, past, present and future.
For several years after Fisher was fired and we languished in purgatory, I kept saying it was worth it to have enjoyed those Final Fours, etc. But it just went on too long.
Those who said that a good hire after Fisher left could well have made our time in the wilderness more of a blip are probably right. But I don't remember how Goss could not have hired Ellerbee after that season. He just stuck around too long, I guess.
And Amaker seemed like a good bet, too.
God, it's just sweet to finally have another Championship. Moar, please.
1989 - Point taken. Though it does mess up the whole metaphor.
I was just really trying to come up with why I still love the Fab Five, Brian seems to have strong feelings the other way and Ace didn't even think about them. All I could come up with was our relative ages and when we were students. Ultimately, the argument on the Fab Five is going to be waged by aging guys while the young folk shrug and wonder why we are arguing about stuff that happened so long ago. My point is that the young guys are right - it just doesn't matter any more. The page has been turned.
Yes, you and Brian have different perspectives of the Fab Five.
You got the party and the live band and the strippers.
All Brian got was the hangover.
I remember those days too with a mix of of fondness and unease. Being there while it happened was spectacular. Being away when everything crashed down made it easier to deny. The current version is far more exciting for me though. Not the same level of talent, but loads more enthusiasm and passion. I love their scrappiness and struggles and the obvious respect to Coach Beilein. Never got the same vibe with the Fab Five and Fisher. But, damn that was a lot of fun.
FannMan – was that you shimmying up the light pole on South U?
The last time (before last year) I watched Michigan basketball with any degree of regularity was the Fab5 era. They were awesome and incredible, and you were afraid they were too young and cocky.
But they were so different than last year's or this year's team that there's no reason to think of the two together. I didn't think of the Fab5 once yesterday. And I think I'm a little different than most, after reading Brian's post. I was embarassed and disappointed as a fan with the way the era ended. But I still love what they did. I wasn't walking around with some open wound that needed to be healed. There were enormous mistakes, these were paid for, and I look back fondly on what they did. Not dissimilar to the view of mistakes I've made in my own life, admidst successes I remember and cherish today.
Our guys today are totally different. There's a bridge that always connects two sets of players that wear the same uniform, especially at a place like Michigan, but there's no reconciliation necessary between them. One group had their time, and the others theirs... there's a lineage that links them forever, and the more important remembrance isn't direct comparison, but understanding how each of them fits - good or bad - into the Legend of Michigan basketball.
He probably rambled and vented too much, but I took the crux of Brian's piece to be more about closure than reconciliation. For a really long time Michigan basketball has been characterized by painful near misses or abject failure. To remember better times, one was forced to look back on an era that, while wildly successful, consisted of outright cheating that embarassed and eventually harmed the University. "Michigan basketball" meant either pain or the Fab Five (an idea which stung a little no matter what, and was even more painful than pain for others).
Now that is over. "Michigan basketball" means this coach, this fancy new building, this group of Big Ten Champions and the young men who will follow them. It isn't something akin to "SMU football" that prompts pining over past greatness combined with a degree of shame, both about the price of that greatness and the long stretch of recent history since it all came crashing down. The Fab Five can now go back to simply being a part of our history rather than its defining moment. The same thing might be happening now at Indiana with respect to Bob Knight.
Internally I think we moved on, but they were still the face of the program to most people on the outside. Amaker's "clean Michigan" also didn't produce the wins to wash everything away. To remember the last time Michigan was nationally relevant in basketball, you still had to go back to the Fab Five or the tainted immediate aftermath.
Until now, that is.
I think if you asked the casual college basketball fan or fan of another school to do a word association with "Michigan basketball" your top two answers for a long time would have been:
1. Fab Five
2. They've sucked ever since the Fab Five
Winning becomes a part of the collective mind right away. The Red Sox were "1918", "curse", and "Babe Ruth" for decades if you wanted to play that same word game (with maybe a "Buckner" or "Bucky Dent" thrown in for good measure). Once they won a World Series the negative words lost their force and a bunch of new good ones joined the lexicon. In the MLB thread a few days ago people were complaining about how the Red Sox and the Yankees were dominating baseball. The Curse of the Babe now sounds like the topic of a history project, when that shit was totally real up until just a few years ago.
It may take a deep run or two in the tournament to completely erase it, but pretty soon we're going to be hearing nothing but "last year the Michigan Wolverines..." instead of "not since the Fab Five were in Ann Arbor have the Wolverines..."
Those guys will get the occasional mention like Cazzie, Rudy T, Glen Rice and the '89 team, but it will all just be history, not the only thing non-Michigan fans have as an immediate reference point.
Oh, the Amaker years...the only things I can remember from then (since all else has been repressed of those dark days in Michigan basketball) are Graham Brown killing some guy on a screen and of course "Air Georgia!"
I remember seeing Graham Brown standing 25 feet from the basket, desperately looking for someone to pass to. This happened with disturbing regularity despite the fact that Brown couldn't shoot beyond about eight feet.
I didn't get season tickets my senior year ('98-99) b/c we played NO ONE* that year at Crisler and the athletic department, for the first time, charged full price for tickets to the exhibition games (hello Athletes in Action!). We were still in the glow of the Fab 5 and I think that AD effectively said: "F it, they will come and pay MORE, even for sh*t games". Well, as evidenced by the bare gold sections over the years, we didn't pay for crap.
Glad to see that the team is one that makes you willing to at least accept a full price exhibition game, and that the AD is scheduling meaningful home games again. Go Blue!
*I'm really talking about non-conference. We basically played Wagner after Wagner after Wagner. I couldn't justify with my meager college dollars paying full price for 15 crap games (including exhibition games!) to get 5 decent/good games.
Ace, you are a magnificent writer. I don't like basketball all that much but when you write about it I will read it.
Its been fun to watch Ace's writing style improve so much over the last few months. The only problem now is that he sounds just like Brian. Given another year and he's going to be among the best sportswriters in the sports blogosphere.
This article was trash! Wait, it was flipping awesome! JB is a great coach, and has so many plays dialed up we need an operator. The future is way too bright, and I dig it. Sparty out.
But you can't question his hires. This was a great piece. (And not to cast stones, but we couldn't have ever gotten this "counterpoint" with your predecessor...it would have been too lock step).
I won't argue Beilein's offensive creativity. I'd just add that it's been defense (football broken record, I know) that they hung their hat on. And a flexibility to garner tough man-to-man with matchup difficulties due to roster holes rather than just being wed to a zone scheme (do we even run zone anymore? Just the occasional monkey wrench).
We run the occasional 2-3 zone, but the 1-3-1 has gone by the wayside. I think I saw it one time this season.
Tom Izzo is B1G COTY. That's just ridiculous, with Tom Crean and Beilein both more deserving of it than Izzo.
so he must have won it on recruiting prowess. How can you be 2 up with 2 to go, blow it, and be coach of the year? (Not to mention that he is always throwing his players under the bus).
He's doing pretty well after moving on to Harvard. I wonder why he couldn't do it here. (Meant to be a reply up in the Amaker part of the discussion.)
I was around 10, 11 when the Fab Five were playing and even when they moved on, as a middle school basketball player (and proud Club Trillion member, so, for a given definition of "player,") I would still envision myself as Jalen Rose or Chris Webber or whoever I felt like at the time. Some very formative years, in other words. So I feel qualified to comment on the real legacy of the Fab Five:
Michigan basketball is supposed to be damn good.
That's all there is to it. The Tractor Traylor teams sort of kept the promise alive, but really, this is the first time we've gotten back to that kind of thing. And that's the only legacy the Fab Five needs. Michigan basketball is supposed to matter. It matters now.
Probably my favorite of yours.
The Fab Five era makes me cringe a little. It really goes against all that we have traditionally stood for as a program. It was the kind of environment that we would look down on if it was at programs like UNLV or Miami.
But now that it no longer defines us, there is a little part of me that thinks it's kind of cool that the Fab Five era happened to us, Goody Two-Shoes Michigan. Like the Church Deacon who can wink at the kids and tell them: "I used to have a wild side."
wouldn't you just love to know what Amaker is telling him in that picture?
I feel old when thinking about these comparisons.....and there really isn't any between the current team and the Fab Five era, or really even the football team and say the team from 2006 or 2007.
Webber had more natural talent and ability than the current roster for the basketball team in it's entirty does today.....add in Rose and Howard and that team would simply have been able to overwhelm today's version on talent, but they always seem to lack some poise and the determination and effort that kids like Douglas and Novak bring to the table on a consistent basis. Had they given the same level of effort on a nightly basis, those early 90s teams should have had more banners (at least in the basement somewhere).
I think with the recruits coming in next year, there are starting to be the pieces put in place to return to the level of talent that you hope Belein can combine with this effort level that should really start to turn thoughts of championship basketball back on Ann Arbor at a national level. This team should be recognized for their efforts, especially given the lack of natural talent and size that they regularly were giving up to OSU, MSU, etc.
It seems like forever ago, but I grew up watching players like Gary Grant, Glen Rice, Terry Mills when Michigan was a destination program to go to as well and it is starting to finally begin to come back to that level.