A big-time homecoming Basketball: After three rough years at Loyola, Brian Ellerbe returns to the area tonight after his sudden rise to interim coach at Michigan.

November 24, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Brian Ellerbe was the basketball coach at Loyola College last year, Steve Fisher at Michigan called him trying to set up a homecoming game for Louis Bullock this season over the Christmas break.

Ellerbe suggested a date, but the Wolverines were already scheduled to play in a tournament in Puerto Rico. Instead, Fisher found another opportunity for the junior guard to play before his friends and family for the first time since leaving Temple Hills and Laurel Baptist Academy.

It would come against Towson at the Towson Center.

"That game could have been against Loyola," Ellerbe said last week. "That would have been a little ironic."

It turns out that tonight's 7 o'clock game between the Wolverines and Tigers will be a homecoming for both Bullock and Ellerbe, who came here in May as an assistant after leaving Loyola and wound up becoming Michigan's interim coach after Fisher was fired last month.

"I don't know any other word to use but interesting," Ellerbe, 34, said when asked to describe the past few weeks. "You've gone through just about every emotion you can. The most important thing is to focus on what's essential -- that's trying to do everything possible not to shortchange the players in their careers."

Though only three minor NCAA violations were found after an exhaustive investigation by an outside law firm hired by the school, new athletic director Tom Goss decided to fire the popular Fisher, who had won a national championship in 1989 and had taken Michigan to two other Final Fours.

Familiarity helped

After initially trying to hire an established Division I coach and being turned down by at least two of them, Goss chose Ellerbe. There were a couple of obvious reasons why Ellerbe was picked over the other Michigan assistants: his three years as a coach and his lack of ties to Fisher.

And Goss said there was another factor.

"He was the only one I had gotten to know since I came here in September," Goss said during halftime of Wednesday's victory over Cleveland State, the first for Ellerbe as coach at Michigan. "He had brought in three recruits, and we had spoken about them. It was a safe bet."

It's still a long shot for Ellerbe to turn this interim position into a permanent one. But it has happened before at high-profile schools, most recently last year at UCLA, where Steve Lavin replaced Jim Harrick under similar circumstances and led the Bruins to a 24-8 season. Lavin was given a multiyear contract during the season.

It also happened here, when Fisher was named interim coach right before the start of the 1989 NCAA tournament after then-athletic director Bo Schembechler told Bill Frieder he could leave immediately for Arizona State. Fisher was given the job after the Wolverines won the championship.

"Brian by being here has an opportunity to get to know me even better," said Goss. "He took the job without any commitments to being here next year.

"But to say I wouldn't evaluate his performance wouldn't be responsible. Big names are big names. But big names were small names before they became big names."

Ellerbe, whose contract was renegotiated for this season, said he isn't thinking past the next game.

"I don't like to deal in hypotheticals," said Ellerbe. "The only thing I can do is concentrate on the task at hand. I always felt that the chips would fall in your favor if you do a good job. Doing a good job and the perception of doing a good job are going to play a major role in whatever decisions are made."

Rough time at Loyola

The perception of Ellerbe at Loyola was that he never quite fit in during his sometimes tumultuous three-year tenure. There were charges that he was too hard on his players, too aloof from the alumni and maybe a bit too condescending to other members of the athletic department.

"Loyola really thought they wanted to advance their program," said Ellerbe, who compiled a 34-47 record with the Greyhounds. "Once they found out what that really entailed, I don't know if they wanted to go in that direction. I don't know if it's anybody's fault, but you've got to make hard decisions."

Said athletic director Joe Boylan: "At an institution like Loyola, it's important that you deal with the people who work with you, not for you, whether it's the equipment manager or the administration. I think that it's important that you deal with them in a positive manner."

Ellerbe and Boylan, who was an assistant when Ellerbe played at Rutgers, parted company by what was called mutual consent. Ellerbe said he had three offers but he and his wife, Ingrid, felt Ann Arbor would be the best environment for them and their two small children.

"It reminded us of Charlottesville," said Ellerbe, who was an assistant at Virginia before going to Loyola.

Back in big-time

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