Just Take Them

Submitted by Ace on March 5th, 2012 at 4:15 PM

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.

I laughed.

------------------------

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.

Comments

Bando Calrissian

March 5th, 2012 at 4:20 PM ^

Man, this takes me back.  I too was a proud member of the Avery Queen/Josh Moore anticipatory bandwagon.  Even got one of those horrid big-M #34 jerseys hanging in my closet.  I also distinctly remember walking through the halls of my school with a friend, excitedly telling him I thought Leland Anderson was going to be the future of Michigan big men.

Finally, we've made it to the other end of the tunnel.  What a long, strange trip it's been.

antidaily

March 5th, 2012 at 4:21 PM ^

and every year of Beilein's reign—Michigan's offense had a clear purpose

Man, I'm not so sure about that. Maybe he just didn't have the skill guys to execute it. But who cares? B1G champs!

Ace

March 5th, 2012 at 4:25 PM ^

I would say that even when Michigan was going through their growing pains in the early Beilein years—and there certainly were growing pains—that you could tell they were working towards something. You'd see a slick back-cut or a well-executed set and know that's where the offense was headed. I never got that feeling watching Amaker's teams.

But like you said, who cares? It's all about the banner.

Bando Calrissian

March 5th, 2012 at 4:40 PM ^

The ineffectiveness of Amaker's offensive scheme, or lack thereof, was evident the moment you walked into the arena.  Only coach I ever saw who let his pregame warmups turn into his guys pretending they were quarterbacks, dropping back to throw an overhand pass, not to mention Petway's faux-dunk contest exhibitions.  The whole thing was a fiasco.

profitgoblue

March 5th, 2012 at 4:22 PM ^

I guess we're going to have to start moderating front page threads now . . . Joking, of course! 

I like your take on the transformation - great read.  I have a different experience in that I "grew up" in college watching the Fab Five and will always have a special place in my heart for that team regardless of the fallout (which occurred after I graduated and moved away).  I can appreciate your and Brian's take on the situation though.

 

justingoblue

March 5th, 2012 at 4:24 PM ^

Outstanding piece, some of your best work.

Small nitpick: I think you meant Sunday instead of Saturday, if you're talking about this weekends game against PSU (which it sounds like you are).

Michigan4Life

March 5th, 2012 at 4:26 PM ^

when Michigan fans wanted JB gone? I do.  This is why you let someone coach for at least 4-5 years and have his entire recruiting class on his team in order to see the result.  Look at IU, it is starting to pay off for Crean despite 3 horrific seasons.

Wolverine0056

March 5th, 2012 at 4:27 PM ^

Great column Ace. I also, do not remember the Fab Five, as I was beginning to read cardboard books as well. Unlike you though, I have just begun my Michigan basketball fandom within the last four or so years. Wolverine football has always been and always will be my number one sport to love, but Michigan basketball is not too far behind and that credit goes to Coach Beilein, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass for sure. 

goblue27

March 5th, 2012 at 4:37 PM ^

great job ace! we must be very similar in age, because that was about the same time i started caring about michigan bball...my dad started getting season tickets when the fab 5 were freshman and started taking me to games in the ellerbee era. i thought every year was the turn around year, starting with the blanchard years to the countless number of NIT bids under amaker. great to finally be expected to be in the tourney again

FrankMurphy

March 5th, 2012 at 4:47 PM ^

This post and Brian's post before it perfectly illustrate how age is such an important factor in how fans view the basketball program. I'm with Brian in that I grew up watching the Fab Five in the brief period that the basketball program rivaled the football program as the face of Michigan athletics. My emotions about the Fab Five are mixed, and it's hard for me to wipe the image of the Fab Five from the lens through which I view Michigan basketball (this is particularly true for me since I grew up in Ann Arbor and remember seeing them around town in their eyebrow-raising SUVs). Love them or hate them, it's impossible for people in my generation to not use the Fab Five as a reference point in assessing where the program is currently at. But since Ace was barely a toddler when the Fab Five played, he thinks of them the same way I think of Cazzie Russell. 

Man, I'm getting old.

manchild56

March 5th, 2012 at 9:28 PM ^

think about the Fab Five, but just kinda crept in my head how in the holy hell did that team not win one freaking Big Ten championship. I grew up on them they were the only reason I liked basketball I was 12 years old in 1992. I was just kinda shocked this team did something that the Fab Five couldn't which shows how special this team really is.

FrankMurphy

March 6th, 2012 at 1:59 AM ^

It wasn't bad luck. Two of those losses in '92-'93 were to Indiana. In '93-'94, Michigan was alone atop the Big Ten standings late in the season, but collapsed down the stretch and lost its last three games to Wisconsin, Purdue, and Northwestern (I think). The Purdue loss was particularly devastating, since it was at home and we led by 8 with 2:00 left (I was at that game). 

ijohnb

March 6th, 2012 at 7:24 AM ^

about the Fab Five was bad, there was a lot of good, and this Michigan team and every Michigan team to come will continue to wear the Fab Five on their sleeves to a certain degree.  The Fab Five was one functioning unit, a collection of peices all individually gifted, but willing to give themselves and their strenghs entirely for the function of the team.  There were no individuals amongst them on the basketball court, King's basket was Ray's basket, Chris' basketball was Jalen's basket.  Each player celebrated the success of another like it was that of their own, because the other player truly believed that as well.  The Team, The Team, The Team.  On the court, that was the Fab Five, and that to me is a major part of their legacy.  In this regard, they were truly a trendsetting team, and it was not because of selfishness but because of a complete absence of it.

You cannot take away the taint of Ed Martin and what followed, it will always be a huge dark cloud.  But you also cannot take away Jalen hitting Jimmy on a lob, Howard executing a pulitzer worthy high-low with Chris.  You cannot take away Ray and Jimmy hugging like they were brothers separated at birth after the UCLA game.  You can't take away the yellow (maize) uniforms, you cannot take Michigan's annually trendy socks.  There is a lot about the Fab Five that you cannot take away from Michigan, and I personally woudn't want to.

Rhino77

March 5th, 2012 at 4:40 PM ^

I had been a HUGE Michigan football fan since I was a kid, when Jim Harbaugh was leading them in to the Rose Bowl. Then almost over night in 1989 Michigan Basketball led by Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills, and Loy Vaught put Michigan basketball on the map. They exploded seemingly out of know where.

What is ging on now is similar to what Bill Freeder was creating. The building of a program. Those 4 names above all played in the NBA and without that title run I don't think Michigan ever gets all of the Fab 5.

 

Polisci

March 5th, 2012 at 4:47 PM ^

The fallout after the Fab Five era happend for one reason, hiring Brian Ellerbe.  That was a monumentally poor decision. 

We act as if schools never have NCAA investigations and sanctions.  They do and they don't hurt the school one bit, if the school doesn't shoot itself in the foot.  How much is the one year bowl ban going to hurt Ohio?  Not one bit. 

The fallout was our doing. Not Chris Webber's or Taylor's or Traylor's.  It was Goss hiring a guy that had no buisness coaching high school kids, much less a major college program.  Had we hired a competent coach the long years in the wilderness would not have happend.  NCAA investigations don't have to distroy your program. I say that because the almost never do.  What's Baylor ranked right now?  Have they had any problems?

Brian Ellerbe (and Tom Goss' decision to hire him) did the damage.   

jmblue

March 5th, 2012 at 4:51 PM ^

There are a lot of misconceptions swirling around here when it comes to the NCAA and sanctions.  A lot of posters seem to believe that the NCAA absolutely hammered us and that's why we took so long to recover, and they then get frustrated when they see schools like USC and OSU seemingly not suffer very much.  The truth is, the punishment we received from the NCAA was no worse than what those schools got for their football scandals.  We just hired the wrong guy to replace Fisher.

FrankMurphy

March 5th, 2012 at 5:26 PM ^

It's easy to criticize that decision in hindsight, but I'm not sure how things could have unfolded any differently. Fisher was fired on the eve of the '97-'98 season, a few days after the University released its report. Goss had no choice but to appoint an interim coach. I can understand why he didn't go with Brian Dutcher, since Dutcher had been on the staff a long time and was too close to the scandal. As a newcomer, Ellerbe was the natural alternative. After we had a great season, won the Big Ten tourney, and got a #3 seed in the NCAA tourney, it was hard not to think that Ellerbe deserved the job on a permanent basis.

It sucks that Ellerbe turned out to be a horrible coach and that the program fell off a cliff, but I'm not sure there's anyone to blame for that (other than Ed Martin, Steve Fisher, Chris Webber, et al). 

UMaD

March 5th, 2012 at 6:00 PM ^

If Michigan wanted to, they could have emphasized running a clean program with high-character kids, immediately after Fisher left.  Instead they tried to maintain the focus on winning.

If Amaker had been the first hire and given the same direction, things would have gone very differently than what happened with Ellerbe.  Amaker sucked at coaching basketball, but he was a success in terms of laying a new foundation for the program.

 

jmblue

March 5th, 2012 at 6:07 PM ^

The NCAA released its findings in August 1997, IIRC.  We could have fired Fisher then, but chose not to - and then fired him in October, right before practice started.  

Anyway, there was reason to believe that Ellerbe wouldn't work out, even after that "great" season (I'd characterize it more as an okay season with one great weekend and a disappointing tourney).  That reason was the fact that Loyola fired him a year earlier.  If a guy can't hack it at a tiny school, isn't that a giant red flag?

 

Bando Calrissian

March 5th, 2012 at 6:26 PM ^

We've had this debate ad nauseum...

Again:  The Ellerbe hire wasn't nearly as controversial at the time.  Ellerbe was the sole guy on that staff had not only been a head coach before, but also had zero connection whatsoever to any of the scandal.  He was the safe, clean choice.  

With the benefit of hindsight, sure, second guess it, but put yourself in October 1997, when the whole thing went down.  You've advocated many times that Scott Trost should have been hired.  Yet he was on the staff at points in time when violations were occurring, and thus held partial responsibility for the fact that no one inside that program said a word, and in fact turned a blind eye to what was going on.  

They needed a clean break, and unfortunately, not only did Ellerbe not work out, but he too failed to adequately monitor the program.

jmblue

March 5th, 2012 at 6:45 PM ^

The fact that the Ellerbe hire wasn't controversial doesn't mean it was the right decision.  We were basking in the glow of a football national title (and then hockey national title), so no one was in an irate mood then.  But it was a foolish decision.  The Loyola debacle should have been an indication that he couldn't hack it.  It didn't take long for people to get buyer's remorse.

Actually, I've never argued for Trost but for Dutcher - if we were set on hiring an assistant.  But my preference was not to hire an assistant.  What I'd have done is fire Fisher in August (if not even earlier - did we really need the NCAA report to come out to tell us that guys from poor families driving $40,000 SUVs is a little amiss?).  Then I would've conducted a nationwide search for a replacement.   (We did halfheartedly go after Braun and Amaker in October 1997, but the timing was off.)

Bando Calrissian

March 5th, 2012 at 6:53 PM ^

Your timing is a bit off.  The NCAA findings came out shortly before the football season started, Fisher was fired in the first six weeks of the season, and Ellerbe finished off the year winning the inaugural Big 10 tournament a few weeks before the hockey team won the national championship...

EDIT:  Not to mention the fact that he beat #1 Duke, and won 25 games.

jmblue

March 5th, 2012 at 7:07 PM ^

I understand the timing.  I don't think it was necessary to wait for the NCAA report to come out to fire Fisher.  A lot of schools don't do that.  We had guys from poor families driving around in souped-up SUVs with no explanation whatsoever - what did we expect?  The scandal had already embarassed the school enough to ban Ed Martin from contact with the program.  I would have fired him that summer.  In fact, the 1997 report really didn't reveal anything new, since all the players clammed up.  

Goss never offered any kind of explanation as to why he waited from August to October to fire Fisher.  No new information came out then.  The upshot of his indecisiveness was that we were basically forced to hire an assistant.  

If you're talking about the decision to hire Ellerbe as a interim coach not being controversial, well yeah - no one cares who the interim coach is.  And when he was named permanent coach, the buzz from the football national title wasnt going to leave too many fans upset over one coaching move.  But still, Ellerbe's failures at Loyola were a red flag.  That he managed to do decently (finishing in 4th place in the Big Ten and losing in the round of 32 with a NBA lottery pick at center is not a "great" season) in one year with guys he didn't recruit shouldn't have caused the Loyola debacle to be forgotten.  

It would have been a bold move, in the spring of 1998, to let Ellerbe go and bring in someone else, but that's what we needed.

 

bdsisme

March 5th, 2012 at 4:50 PM ^

This is good stuff.  This piece is one of your best pieces of work, Ace -- along with your other "fluff" piece from after the OSU game.  With the addition of "aquaman/keith/tremendous" to handle some of the recruiting duties, I'd think it behoove the blog to have more pieces like this.  Sure, Brian writes similar pieces after a lot of the games, but in a different tone.  While Brian's writing is eccentric and humorous, Ace's is more polished, newspaper editorial-esque, and I think that adds another dimension to the blog.

Hardware Sushi

March 5th, 2012 at 4:53 PM ^

Great post, Ace!

I think we're the same age so I feel very similar to the way you do about M basketball.

I think it was 2004 (or maybe 2005), but I still remember showing up for the BC game at Crisler 45 minutes before gametime and getting front row seats behind the bench. Now that I'm out of state, I can only enjoy the new Crisler atmosphere vicariously thru these posts and tv.

Keep it up.

jmblue

March 5th, 2012 at 4:57 PM ^

This column and Brian's are a nice pair of bookends on the same basic premise: we, as Michigan basketball fans, can stop beating ourselves up over what happened 10-20 years ago and finally enjoy the present.  I agree.  We've spent years trying to explain to people how Michigan was once good at basketball but no longer is.  We no longer have to do that.  Now we can just say, "Look at our team.  They're fun to watch."

 

M-Dog

March 5th, 2012 at 10:41 PM ^

My wife is a Dukie.  She follows Duke in basketball, but does not follow that much college basketball outside of the ACC.

When I told her that Michigan just won the Big Ten, she said "You guys?  Michigan?  In basketball?"

Yes, Michigan.  In Basketball.  It's time for our coming out, we have arrived.

 

imafreak1

March 5th, 2012 at 4:56 PM ^

It never occured to me that anyone was ever excited about Avery Queen.

I recall watching Michigan play Duke with my ND/Duke grad housemate (what a combo!) and him asking me "is he for real? What is that point guard doing? Why is he even on the floor?"

All I could say was "I don't know."

Hail-Storm

March 6th, 2012 at 11:37 AM ^

a great piece OF Ace.

See what I did there.... anyone?

Anyways, it is amazing that, with all the resources that some of the big boys have, the most moving and best written pieces on sports over the last few years have come from a Blog and the Michigan Daily. Pieces written intellegently, humorous, and with raw emotion set the bar far above what most any of the media outlets have put out.  Glad to see Ace expanding his role on the blog with pieces like this. 

As others have stated, the juxtaposition is great between him and Brian.