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NCAA Basketball Tournament : Michigan Coach Steve Fisher Isn't a Rookie, He's Now 2-0

March 23, 1989|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Michigan and Missouri have more in common these days than the design of their jerseys, which feature oversized block M's followed by the other seven letters in their names in smaller script.

Both were guided through the opening weekend of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball tournament by assistant coaches.

Missouri's Rich Daly, though, had at least several weeks to prepare for the tournament, taking over Feb. 9, when Coach Norm Stewart became ill on a Missouri flight to Oklahoma and was hospitalized for colon surgery.

Michigan's Steve Fisher had only 48 hours.

Fisher was promoted March 15, when former coach Bill Frieder resigned and accepted an offer to coach at Arizona State.

Fisher will be in charge for only the third time on the collegiate level tonight at Rupp Arena, where the 10th-ranked Wolverines (26-7) play fifth-ranked North Carolina (29-7) in the semifinals of the Southeast Regional.

His opponent, Dean Smith, has coached more than 850 games at North Carolina, winning more than all but six other coaches and reaching the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament each of the last nine seasons.

It wasn't too long ago, Fisher said, that he stood in a crowd at a coaching clinic in Chicago and asked Smith for his autograph.

Fisher, though, is not awed by tonight's matchup.

"When you start to play, I don't think you feel like you're matching wits with anyone," he said. "You're just trying to make good decisions."

Outwardly, at least, not much seems to faze Fisher, who is described by friends as quiet and unassuming and by his players as cool and calm.

And why shouldn't he be?

"I'm not a rookie coach," he has stressed repeatedly in countless interviews with reporters this week and last. "I've coached for 21 years. I've been a head coach for eight years. Yes, (I was a head coach) on the high school level. But I think coaching is teaching.

"It doesn't matter if you're at Rich East High School (in Park Forest, Ill., where he started), or coaching in a CYO rec league, where my 10-year-old plays, or coaching at the University of Michigan."

Still, Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler placed Fisher in a difficult position last week when he named him interim coach, decreeing that Frieder would not be allowed to coach the Wolverines in the tournament.

Fisher, 43, had been an assistant for 10 years, including the last seven at Michigan, where he served as Frieder's right-hand man.

But Schembechler said: "I don't want someone from Arizona State coaching the Michigan team. A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan."

Two days later, with Schembechler, Frieder and another former Michigan coach, Johnny Orr, watching from the stands, the Wolverines overcame a six-point deficit in the last 10 minutes of a 92-87 victory over Xavier.

Last Sunday, they defeated South Alabama, 91-82.

The Wolverines, who lost to North Carolina in a regional semifinal last season, have advanced as far in the tournament as Frieder ever took them.

The former coach, in fact, does not seem to be missed.

Last Sunday at the Omni in Atlanta, a fan held up a sign that read: "Michigan Without Frieder Equals Final Four."

And, when asked to compare the two, Michigan center Loy Vaught described Fisher as more level-headed than Frieder.

Frieder, he said, was uptight.

"He walked around, he paced the locker room," Vaught said of his former coach. "He was always thinking about ways to get an advantage. He seemed kind of frazzled at times. Coach Fisher, he's really laid-back. He's a lot calmer. A little bit cooler."

Fisher won't go that far.

"I think I'm firm, but hopefully fair," he said. "I think I'm demanding. But I also know that sometimes you've got to give a little extra rope to this guy or that guy.

"It's just like with your own kids: You've got to know when to push and when to pull, and when to pat and when to kick."

Fisher seems to know.

He said the transition between coaches has been smooth because Frieder entrusted him with a great deal of responsibility.

"It wasn't like I was an assistant in name only and didn't do anything other than show up and shut up," he said.

He did more than keep track of the Wolverines' timeouts.

"A lot of people don't realize that when Coach Frieder was our coach, Coach Fisher made a lot of the substitutions in games and called plays," Vaught said. "He's always had a load of responsibilities, so as far as we're concerned, he's the same guy. He's just got a new hat."

Fisher planned and often ran practices. He also addressed the team before every game, standing in front of a chalk board and discussing individual matchups.

"I remember (Missouri's) Rich Daly said that he had not conducted a practice in eight years," Fisher said. "I have conducted practices with regularity for the last seven or eight years."

If he has left his mark on the Wolverines, Fisher said, he has left it not just in the last week, but over a period of time.

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