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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.

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — 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.

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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."

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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.

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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

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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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Ellerbe smiles at the notion that he is more comfortable being in a big-time college basketball setting, as he was in the Atlantic Coast Conference or during his playing days at Rutgers. He also realizes that the Wolverines aren't the power they were during the pre- and post-Fab Five years.

"Basketball is basketball," Ellerbe said. "Obviously it's Michigan. the Big Ten. It's more national media. That really didn't come into play with me [in choosing Michigan]. I don't get caught up with that. You get to the point where you just try to do the best you can with what you have."

What Ellerbe has in terms of talent is quite a bit more than what he had at Loyola, but perhaps less than some other Big Ten teams with which the Wolverines are supposed to be competing. Michigan is thin, figuratively, and, with the exception of Robert Traylor, physically as well.

The broken wrist suffered by senior guard Travis Conlan in the preseason has left Bullock and junior transfer Robbie Reid, who left Brigham Young and spent the past two years on a Mormon mission in Greece, with most of the backcourt minutes.

Neither Traylor, the 6-foot-7, 300-pound junior center, nor senior forwards Maceo Baston have developed into the dominating players they were coming out of high school. Senior forward Jerod Ward, a former national high school player of the year, has been a bust. The rumors of impending NCAA sanctions have hurt recruiting the past two years.

"We do have some severe limitations," said Ellerbe, whose team committed 24 turnovers in an season-opening loss against Western Michigan. "But we also have some spots that are very bright. We have to concentrate on what we do best and hope that best is good enough."

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Adjustment period

The players are getting accustomed to Ellerbe, who is more a disciplinarian than Fisher and recently had the players get up for a 7 a.m. practice. Aside from Bullock, who was recruited by Ellerbe when he was at Virginia, none of the players were familiar with the second assistant who suddenly became the head coach.

Bullock said Ellerbe has been accepted more readily because he has kept most of Fisher's offensive system in place while making small adjustments to the defense. And Bullock hopes that Ellerbe gets a shot at staying on permanently, for the sake of the program's stability.

"That's something we definitely want," said Bullock. "Last year, we had the whole NCAA thing to deal with. This year, we basically don't want to have to answer, 'Do you think your coach will be back next year?' If there's something this program needs, it's stability."

Ellerbe still has yet to sell in his home in Mount Washington ("I'm going to have to talk with my Realtor when I get back," he joked), and he still has yet to beat Towson, having lost to the Tigers three straight years.

That could change tonight in a game that might have been played at Loyola instead.

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"It's funny how things worked out," he said.

Towson tonight

Opponent: Michigan

Site: Towson Center

Time: 7

TV/Radio: Ch. 2/WTMD (89.7 FM)

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Series: First meeting

Pub Date: 11/24/97


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