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Twenty-five years ago, the Michigan team Bill Frieder built won a title without him

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger
Frieder
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In 2011, Bill Frieder walks a path only a few yards from his home along the Pacific Ocean in Del Mar, Calif. (AP)

The question hadn't even fully escaped the lips of the man asking it when Bill Frieder launched into a well-rehearsed answer he has given many times the past quarter century.

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Michigan players celebrate after defeating Seton Hall in the 1989 national title game (AP)

He insisted he doesn't regret accepting the Arizona State job days before the 1989 NCAA tournament even though the decision led to him watching from a hotel bed instead of the bench three weeks later as Michigan edged Seton Hall to capture the national title. Frieder had hoped to still coach the Wolverines through the end of the postseason, but athletic director Bo Schembechler famously proclaimed that "a Michigan man is going to coach Michigan" and banished him from the program.

"I've never looked back," Frieder said. "I enjoyed my time at Arizona State and now I live by the ocean in Del Mar, California. I'm happy with how things turned out. I've never regretted it."

Those close to Frieder agree the Michigan saga hasn't prevented him from leading a happy life, but they remain unconvinced that the disappointment of watching the team he assembled win a championship without him doesn't still eat at him 25 years later.

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They've heard Frieder refer to Schembechler only as the "football coach" and seldom by name. They've heard Frieder lament his decision to publicly admit he was Arizona State-bound before the NCAA tournament rather than staying quiet about it. And they've heard Frieder note the hypocrisy of Schembechler firing him but accepting a position as president of the Detroit Tigers one week after coaching the Rose Bowl a year later.

"Wouldn't you be hurt?" asked San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, Frieder's good friend and heir apparent at Michigan. "That was his team. That was his team that he recruited and nurtured, coached and taught, cuddled and hugged, kicked and pushed. I think he took some comfort in the fact that he and I talked every day during that run, but for that team to win the national championship without him being on the bench, part of that has to hurt."

Leaving Big Ten power Michigan for Pac-10 lightweight Arizona State wasn't a career move many coaches would make, but Frieder's decision stemmed from his deteriorating relationship with Schembechler. They clashed over everything even before Schembechler ascended to athletic director in 1988, from funding for the basketball program, to player discipline, to how coaches should dress.

Schembechler seldom appeared in public without a crisp collared shirt and well-coiffed hair. Frieder was most comfortable in a sweatsuit and didn't seem to own either an iron or a comb. Schembechler inspired players with his throaty growl, no-nonsense leadership and gruff but compassionate demeanor. Frieder demanded his players work hard too but allowed far more leeway.

"They were polar opposites," said Mark Hughes, a senior captain on Michigan's 1989 team. "The football team was under strict rules. You broke a rule or you missed a class, you would suffer the consequences. Coach Frieder was more of a player's coach. He'd listen to your story and assess the situation. He wanted us to study and work hard in practice but he also wanted us to enjoy college and have fun. I talked to football players while we were there, and they would be like, 'Man, you guys are so lucky.' They all loved Bo, but they were jealous."

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Having attended Michigan in the 1960s, served as an assistant coach there in the 70s and returned as head coach in the 80s, Frieder loved the school and had previously spurned interest from Arizona State athletic director Charles Harris in 1985. Harris probably didn't think he had much chance of landing Frieder four years later with Michigan about to make its fifth straight NCAA tournament, but when Harris called for input on Gene Keady, Frieder raved about the Purdue coach, then gently noted he too might be interested.

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Bill Frieder coaches at Michigan (USATSI)

Once Harris offered the job, it didn't take Frieder long to deliberate. Unsure of his coaching future under Schembechler and eager for a new challenge in a warmer climate, Frieder discussed the opportunity with his wife, called the Arizona State athletic director back and accepted within 20 minutes.
Deciding to leave Michigan was far easier for Frieder than informing his players and staff of his intentions.

On the Tuesday after Selection Sunday, Frieder told his assistant coaches he had accepted the Arizona State job and explained he'd be be introduced in Tempe the next day but would rejoin the Wolverines in Atlanta in time for their first-round NCAA tournament game against Xavier. Frieder called his seniors individually late that night when he learned Phoenix-based newspapers and radio stations were reporting he'd be joining the Sun Devils.

"Me and Mark Hughes were roommates at the time, and about 2 or 3 a.m., Mark knocks on my door and was like, 'Coach Frieder wants to talk to you,'" former Michigan forward Terry Mills said. "'I'm like, 'What's Coach Frieder calling me at 2 a.m. for?'

"He just went on to say that Bo was wanting to fire him, that he had to make a decision and that his decision was to go to Arizona State. We couldn't really understand at the time because we were young, but once we got older, we understood it was a business decision. If you're about to get fired at Michigan and someone is going to give you a seven-year deal, what are you going to do? You're going to protect your family."

Frieder's biggest miscalculation was the idea Schembechler would let him coach the Wolverines in the NCAA tournament. By 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Schembechler had banished Frieder from any role with the Michigan program and informed Fisher he'd be the interim coach during the postseason.

"The only thing I'd have done differently is lie to everybody," Frieder said. "Instead of being up front and saying when the season is over I'm going to ASU, I wouldn't have discussed it or I'd have said there's nothing to it. I told the truth, and I was penalized."

During a rare meeting with the basketball team that afternoon at Crisler Arena, Schembechler delivered an impassioned speech that showcased his ability to both intimidate and inspire. He threw his support behind Fisher, he challenged players to stop bickering over how many shots they each got and he demanded they respect what it meant to play for Michigan.

The player who took the brunt of Schembechler's wrath was Sean Higgins, a sophomore guard who had grown up in Ann Arbor watching Michigan football and idolizing Schembechler. Higgins had made the mistake of mentioning to a reporter that Frieder's departure might lead him to consider transferring after the season depending on who the next coach would be.

"That ticked Coach Schembechler off, and I understand why," Higgins said. "He came to me and said, 'Son, if you want to leave, I'll have your transfer papers drawn up on my desk by lunch.' He had a lot more impetus in his voice and he used some choice words too."

Frieder's departure came at a fragile time when Michigan's once-promising season had already reached a crossroads.

Hailed as a national title contender in November when they validated their No. 3 preseason ranking by whipping No. 6 Oklahoma in the Maui Invitational title game, the Wolverines eventually crashed back to Earth in Big Ten play with a third-place finish and six league losses. The last of those losses, an 89-73 throttling on senior night against Illinois, prompted a tearful three-hour team meeting during which senior Glen Rice challenged his teammates to put their own agendas aside, accept smaller roles in the offense and sacrifice to make sure Michigan didn't experience a loss like that again.

"That resonated with all of us because it was embarrassing," Higgins said. "We had to adjust to the abundance of talent we had. Terry Mills was the No. 1 player in the nation coming out. Rumeal Robinson was the No. 1 point guard his year. Myself, I was a McDonald's All-American ranked third in the country. Glen Rice was Mr. Basketball in Michigan. Loy Vaught was a stud in his community. You go down the list, and you see how many guys ended up playing in the NBA. On a college level, it was the same as when they put the Miami Heat together the first year. They had to figure it out."

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Steve Fisher coaches the Wolverines against Seton Hall in the 1989 title game

Between the emotional Illinois loss, Frieder's unexpected departure and Schembechler calling them out, the Wolverines were poised to either crumble in the postseason or come together in a show of defiance. The "Michigan man" whose responsibility it was to ensure it was the latter was actually a rosy-cheeked Illinois State alum but his calm, reassuring demeanor and strong relationship with the players made him the ideal coach for the job.

Fisher had recruited many of the Wolverines and had been given the freedom to run practices and deliver pregame speeches, so he already had the respect and admiration of the locker room. In fact, the idea of winning for Fisher inspired players because they knew a Final Four run or a championship was the only way Schembechler would ever consider giving Frieder's top assistant the permanent job.

"When Coach Fish took over, we didn't just want to win it for us. We wanted to win it for him," Hughes said. "One thing I recall him saying was, 'Guys, nobody expects us to win. They expect us to lose in the first round because we had to change coaches, and there's a lot of turmoil around this team. Let's go out and prove everyone wrong.'"

Michigan's run started innocuously with a 92-87 first-round victory over 14th-seeded Xavier in a game the Musketeers led deep into the second half. Momentum gradually built in the coming days as the Wolverines defeated South Alabama in the round of 32, outlasted North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and pounded Virginia in the Elite Eight.  At the Final Four in Seattle, Michigan got revenge on Big Ten nemesis Illinois in the semifinals on a game-winning put-back from Higgins and edged Seton Hall in the title game on a pair of late free throws by Robinson.

Though Frieder couldn't be on the bench during any of the games, Fisher made sure his friend felt like he was part of the unlikely run by consulting him for advice on a daily basis.

Dozens of reporters swarmed Frieder at halftime of the only game he attended, so he accepted watching the Wolverines play alone in his hotel room so he didn't become a further distraction. He'd have a team manager sneak him into the team hotel through a service entrance whenever he wanted to speak to Fisher in person or counsel or congratulate his players. 

"In Seattle, I talked to the team almost every night at their hotel," Frieder said. "There wasn't much to tell them except go take care of business and do what coach tells you."

Making Frieder feel included and awarding him a national championship ring was important to Fisher because of their affinity for one-another and Frieder's role in accelerating his career.

The two men met at the 1975 Final Four in San Diego when Fisher was a high school coach in the Chicago suburbs and Frieder was an assistant at Michigan. Their friendship blossomed after Frieder added Fisher to his staff at Michigan in 1982, a bond fortified by their mutual passion for basketball, their other common interests and the fact that their wives and kids soon became even more inseparable than they were.

"People in Ann Arbor didn't want me to associate with him, but I would not allow that to take place," Fisher said. "When I came to Michigan, there were assistants who were there already. He never said Fisher is the No. 1 assistant, but he gave me the duties of the No. 1 assistant. So he hired me at Michigan, he gave me immense responsibility and when he left, he said Fisher should be the coach. There was no way I was going to turn my back on him."

Frieder and Fisher are even closer now than they were during their time at Michigan together. They both live in Del Mar now, Frieder serving as a radio analyst for Westwood One Sports yet still finding time to attend almost every San Diego State home game and to call or text Fisher nearly every day.

One of the few things they seldom discuss is the sour endings to both their Michigan tenures. Fisher was fired in 1997 amid allegations of recruiting improprieties.

Were Fisher to bring up how tough it must have been for Frieder to watch from afar as the program he built won a championship without him, the response he'd get would probably be something like this.

"If that's the worst thing that ever happened to me, I've led a pretty good life," Frieder said recently.

His smile and suntan are proof of that even if the disappointment of a quarter century ago probably still stings just a little bit more than he's willing to admit.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

 

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