The Climb Back January 27, 2013
My last roommate before I got married was a Michigan fan. He was actually an Arkansas fan first, Michigan fan second. I should clarify.
He grew up a Michigan fan. His dad went to Michigan and took the family to Michigan games and had the kids decked out in Maize and Blue from birth. So until he was 18, he ate, drank, and slept Michigan.
But he went to Arkansas for college. And he was at Arkansas when they won the NCAA basketball title in 1994. And he said it was around the time of that title that he felt his heart switch from the Wolverines to the Razorbacks. To the point where, when Michigan and Arkansas played in a bowl game around 2001 or so, he actually cheered for Michigan.
Why am I telling you this? Because we watched the 2005 Illinois at Michigan game together. That was the game where our undefeated, #1 in the country status was in jeopardy. He was respectful, given his “I’m a Razorbacks fan now” status, but he was pulling HARD for Michigan.
Dee made those back to back to back steals, and we pulled away, and he was upset. He broke. “Michigan basketball should be in the tournament every year. We should be one of the top 10 programs in the country! And here we are, missing ANOTHER NCAA tournament.” He just couldn’t believe that Michigan had fallen so far.
I still can’t believe that Illinois has fallen this far. I know, I know – Michigan is the best team in the country. They’ll be #1 in both polls tomorrow. Every time we tried to sneak back in, they slammed the door on our fingers. Tim Hardaway Jr. is an cold-blooded killer. The spring in his step when he has the chance to hit a dagger shot is amazing. Deron Williams-esque. Combine that with Trey Burke and some great freshmen and, well, best team in the country.
And it has me feeling like this moment is the exact opposite of watching that game with my roommate in 2005. Michigan basketball is all the way back. They hung on to Amaker too long (“won the NIT – gotta see what he can do with next years’ team”), and it took a long time for Beilein to build it back up. 10-22 disaster, then 21-14 NCAA tournament team, then a fall back to 15-17, then two straight tournaments leading to, well, tomorrow and a #1 ranking.
Illinois? Well, we held onto Weber like Michigan held onto Amaker. In 2008, when it was all falling apart, I could be found screaming “you CAN’T fire Weber – we’d lose Jereme Richmond plus Paul and Richardson!” And a program that could have begun rebuilding in the fall of 2008 was instead delayed until the spring of 2012. And now, after today, it feel like we have such an incredibly long way to go to get back to the top tier of the Big Ten. Four home losses in seven years, and now 28 in 6+ seasons. Incredible.
I’m still inside the Hall as I type this. Didn’t go down to the press conference. Don’t really care about the quotes right now, to be honest. I’m just sitting here looking at all these empty gray seats and replaying the tumble that brought us here. My emotions are tracking exactly with my half-Michigan fan roommate in the first year of the Beilein regime.
That night, I remember discussing the 1989 Final Four. With Illinois ranked #1 and undefeated, and Michigan on their seventh consecutive NCAA-less season, all he could hold over me was the 1989 semi-final. He was still a full fledged Michigan fan in 1989, and he would have never believed that the program that won it all back then would then eventually go TEN consecutive seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance (from 1999 to 2009).
I should call him tonight. Tomorrow is Michigan’s official “all the way back” moment – much like our 2004 victory over Wake Forest here – and I’m curious how he’ll feel about it. Actually, I know the answer to that. He’ll say that his heart switched to the Razorbacks in 1994, and he can’t believe that THAT program has fallen as far as it has.
I guess I’m left thinking that I didn’t enjoy the 2000-2006 run enough. I should have learned my lesson when the Flyin’ Illini were grounded by Bruce Pearl, but I didn’t. It can all go away in an instant, and the fight to get back up there can take a long, long time.
Just ask Michigan. And Arkansas. And Illinois.