Frieder defends his move to Arizona State

November 11, 1990|By Skip Myslenski | Skip Myslenski,Chicago Tribune

TEMPE, ARI. — TEMPE, Ariz. -- Bill Frieder, as kinetic as his campus is laid back, hustles down this corridor in a wing off Arizona State Sun Devil Stadium, and then stops abruptly at his locked office door. A handwritten note is stuck to it, and as he reaches to remove it, he reads aloud that Lattie Coor, the president here at Arizona State University, indeed will drop by a reception for basketball recruits an hour from now.

"Good," Frieder mutters as he unlocks his door, and then he wads up the sheet of paper, grabs a can of soda and plops into a chair behind his oversized desk.

"The hardest part," he says, "is when you have a program going like we did at Michigan, it runs itself. You know you're going to win, you know you're going to be on television, you know you're going to the NCAA tournament, and kids want to come to a program like that. Here, we have to convince kids we're going to win, convince kids we're going to be on television, convince kids were going to be in the NCAA tournament.

"We've lost some kids who didn't believe that, got some who believed they could make that happen. So it's been a struggle getting this thing going, I admit that. I compare it to my early days at Michigan. But when I get down, all I've got to do is look outside. Then I know it's just a matter of time."

Outside the sky is as blue as a sparkling sapphire, and trees from any number of families are all still dressed in their best summer finery. The sun is out and vibrant, vibrant enough to let a visitor know why this setting is called the Valley of the Sun. On the sidewalks far below, mottled bands of fans in shorts and T-shirts and skimpy halter tops head toward a football game to be played just days short of November.

This is where Bill Frieder landed 20 months ago, in the wake of a fractious-filled emigration from his previous hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich. There, in nine years as the Michigan coach, he won nearly 70 percent of his games, appeared in six straight postseason tourneys, once was named national coach of the year -- and was portrayed regularly as an underachiever. He was portrayed as a great recruiter, but a poor bench coach, and when his 1989 Michigan team stumbled badly in its last regular-season game, both he and it were booed off their homecourt in Crisler Arena. "Screw 'em," he remembers thinking at that moment.

"We'd built a monster there, but instead of making it a positive, they made it a negative," he says.

That was one reason he was ready to move. Another was the absence of old friend Don Canham, who had retired and had been replaced as the Michigan athletic director by Bo Schembechler. So the move itself was no real surprise, but when it was announced surprisingly just before the start of the '89 NCAA tourney, Frieder suddenly was showered by a firestorm of controversy.

"I don't want someone from Arizona State coaching Michigan. I want a Michigan man coaching Michigan," Schembechler roared as he stripped Frieder of his duties and handed them over to Steve Fisher.

"Bo," Frieder says now, "had to do what he had to do. That was his decision. But for me, maybe it was one of those decisions where you lose both ways. Had I not announced it, had I lied to people like you, the fans, my teams, don't you think I would have been chastised for that? I would have been ripped to shreds. So I tried to act with integrity, and if you want to rip me for that, fine. But it was Michigan that gave Arizona State permission to talk to me; they [Michigan officials] never came to me to ask me not to talk to them [Arizona State officials]. So I think they should have shared the blame as well."

But Michigan, instead of blame, simply traipsed on to the national title ["I was happy for the kids, but, sure, not being part of it hurt."], and the closer it got to the crown, the louder grew the new whispers that suddenly surrounded Frieder. He was sometimes absent from practices, that was the thrust of some of them.

Fisher did a lot of the coaching, anyway, that was the thrust of others of them.

Michigan wouldn't have won with Frieder on the bench, that was the thrust of the most-damning of them.

"Yeah, that hurt, too," he remembers. "But the way I look at it now, my goal was to win a national championship while at Michigan, and if I had to pull it off the way I did, at least it happened. We really benefited, too, from the way it happened. Everyone in Arizona knew about it, everyone nationally knew about it. We didn't have to go into a [recruit's] home, and tell them about us. Bill Frieder left Michigan for Arizona State; we couldn't have bought that publicity. So, sure, I felt badly. But it helped in a way, and it makes me want to do it here, too."

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