ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The men who helped guide them weren't on hand former head coach Steve Fisher was hundreds of miles away preparing his San Diego State team for a game, and then-athletic director Bo Schembechler passed away in 2006 but both were remembered fondly by the 1989 national championship basketball team Saturday night.
It was bitter, snowy and blustery outside Saturday night, just the way many of them remembered Ann Arbor in January, but there was great atmosphere inside Crisler Arena when the '89 team met for photos and interviews with the current Wolverines and was honored at halftime.
The prevailing thought among the current crop: "I didn't know these guys were so big!"
"The '89 team dwarfed the 2008 group just as it did many of its opponents. Terry Mills (6 feet 10), Loy Vaught (6-9), Sean Higgins (6-9), Mark Hughes (6-8), Glen Rice (6-7) and Mike Griffin (6-7) all stood above 6-7, while Rumeal Robinson (6-2) and Demetrius Calip (6-1) were the "little guys."
Together they provided one of the epic moments in Michigan sports history, a six-game run through the NCAA tournament that concluded with an 80-79 national championship win over Seton Hall, capped by Robinson (photo at right) sinking two free throws with three seconds remaining.
Rice lauded Fisher's preparation before the pivotal win over Illinois, a team that had beaten Michigan twice in the regular season, as the key to the title run. But both Robinson and Higgins also credited Schembechler's motivational tactics after he replaced Bill Frieder with Fisher just before the NCAAs.
"Our coaches were more laid back. Coach Schembechler came down with this whole football mystique and gave it to us, and it fired us up a little bit," Higgins recalled with a laugh. "He had that raspy voice and he had the respect from us also. It ignited us.
"I never met a man like Coach Schembechler he even traveled around with us during the tournament. I grew up here in Ann Arbor before I left in '78 to go to the West Coast, but I grew up on Michigan football. Bo Schembechler was really the first iconic coach I'd ever witnessed as a kid he was like a god."
Schemebechler was one of those guys that when he spoke, you listened, Robinson added. But the Wolverines already had more than enough motivation.
"We were in a spot at that point in time where we really wanted to win," he said. "We got beat up pretty bad by Illinois, and we had to look at ourselves that we worked hard in the offseason to try to win the national championship. To get beaten that bad by Illinois in Crisler Arena was a disgrace to what we'd worked for.
"Although [Schembechler] gave the speech, we had it in our minds that we were going to come together and try to do something because we had six games to prove ourselves."
The win over Seton Hall was the most memorable, of course, but wouldn't have been possible without an 83-81 win over the Illini in the semifinals. Former Illinois guard Kendall Gill said recently he still thinks the Illini were the better team.
That elicited a few chuckles from the Michigan '89ers, some flashing their rings and shrugging when asked for a reaction.
"We heard stories about how cocky they were 'oh, we're going to the finals,' " Hughes recalled. "For us it was big. I thought we had a great game plan. Coach Fisher did a tremendous job getting us ready. We knew everything they were going to run and we had a great game."
And a memorable run, overall. Higgins hadn't been in Crisler Arena since he left Ann Arbor, but he knew exactly where to look for the '89 championship banner.
"That's the biggest one right there," Higgins said. "That thing right there decorates this place."
Where Are They Now?
Sean Higgins 6-9 sophomore guard Los Angeles
What he's doing now: Higgins spent a few years in the NBA and many more in the CBA and overseas. He's still working in basketball.
"I'm doing player development. I work out NBA players, college players, high school, even grade school kids," Higgins said. "I'm working on my transition into coaching based in Seattle it's ironic, right? Other than they tore down the Kingdome. I just moved there last year. My little brother played on a small college team so I volunteered as [an] assistant."
The Memory: Higgins is best known for two moments during the tournament his 30-point game in a blowout win over Virginia in the regional final and his putback of a Terry Mills miss that made the difference in a win over Illinois.
"People remember it I guess Rumeal's deal was just a little more dramatic in terms of making free throws during the overtime against Seton Hall," he said. "But I get a little recognition for the putback."
Playing in Lexington, Ky., was a big reason for his success against Virginia, Higgins said.
"Rupp Arena was the reason I played so well down there. Kentucky got mad at me over some recruiting stuff, and I said some things they didn't like," he recalled with a laugh. "So I had to go down and show them who the boss was."
Mark Hughes 6-8, senior center Muskegon, Mich.
What he's doing now: Hughes played professional ball for 10 years and coached five years in the CBA, a few in college and the NBA, and still has a career in basketball.
"I live in Sacramento and I'm the director of West Coast scouting for the New York Knicks," he said. "I watch a lot of college basketball and a lot of pro basketball, so I'm staying in the game. I really enjoy it."
The Memory: Hughes took a pass from Robinson and would have had the last shot against Seton Hall had Robinson not been fouled on the play. He's told friends it would have been one dribble and an emphatic slam to win it.
"I tell everybody if that ref didn't blow the whistle, that would have been me making the game-winner and I'd have been on the cover of Sports Illustrated instead of Rumeal," Hughes quipped. "He blew it. He stole my thunder.
"We had some ups and downs during the season, but what I think about most is how we were able to fight back and beat those teams when we had to. For me what stands out is the win over Illinois [in the Final Four]. They handled us pretty good here on senior night and kind of embarrassed us a little bit."
Glen Rice 6-7 senior forward Flint, Mich.
What he's doing now: Rice played in the NBA for many years, his best coming with the Miami Heat (he was the No. 4 pick in the '89 draft) and the Charlotte Hornets (he earned MVP honors in the 1997 All-Star Game). Rice made his money and he's back in Miami, but that doesn't mean he's spending all his time relaxing on a beach.
"I wish it was that easy," Rice said with a laugh. "I'm still doing a little work with the Miami Heat in Miami and a little work with the NBA, so there is some relaxing but not too much."
The Memory: Rice was the hero of the tournament, setting a scoring record in averaging more than 30 points per game. His key, fall-away triple after a Seton Hall run was one of the clutch plays down the stretch in the national title game, but many forget he had a chance to win it with a jump shot in regulation.
The shot from the top of the key looked good and it felt even better but it missed just short off the front rim.
"I knew that one was going in. There was no doubt about it," Rice said. "But I think it was written in the cards for Rumeal to get up and get a chance to redeem himself, and I couldn't ask for it to happen to a better person."
Mike Griffin 6-7 senior guard/forward Rosemont, Ill.
What he's doing now: Griffin was a great shooter in high school but deferred most of the shots to the stars on the '89 team he played a bit of pro ball in Japan and promises he did let a few shots fly after he left Ann Arbor. He's now living overseas after spending several years on Wall Street.
"I work in Tokyo, Japan, for a real estate investment firm," he said. "I worked for Morgan Stanley for the last 11 years, in New York for five years. We moved over five years ago."
The Memory: Griffin was on the floor when Rice corralled the last rebound that gave the Wolverines their first national title.
"It's such a great memory, and something that's kind of surprising every week you're reminded about it," he said. "Someone you see comes up and recognizes you or talks to you about it, or you see something on TV. It's definitely a special memory for us."
Griffin looks almost the same as he did 20 years ago, easily recognizable even in Japan.
"Oddly enough, they do recognize you," he said. "You'll be in a restaurant and someone will come up to you halfway across the world and recognize you 20 years later."
Rumeal Robinson 6-2 junior point guard Cambridge, Mass.
What he's doing now: Robinson played a number of years in the NBA, starting with the Atlanta Hawks, and also played overseas before retiring.
"I now live in Avantor, Florida, where I have a development company," he said. "We're doing some projects in the Miami area, in Pisa, Italy, and one in Spain."
The Memory: The rest of the team left Robinson alone when he went to the foul line in the title game with a chance to give Michigan its first national title. He sank both, of course but he felt like a pitcher carrying a no-hitter into the ninth sitting alone in the dugout.
"I couldn't understand that," Robinson said with a laugh. "Usually T. Mills would come up to me and say, 'Make the free throws' or something. They didn't say anything to me. What's going on? They're going to put me out on an island by myself?
"I'm recognized for the free throws, and I don't know if that's good or bad, or a curse. But I always tell people, 'Recognize me for the backwards dunk [on the baseline in the same game]. Free throws?' But obviously I do appreciate it, because we worked hard for that moment. Whenever I go to New York or New Jersey I'll hear someone say, 'You never got fouled.' And I'll always look around, but I can never find who said it."
Loy Vaught 6-9 junior center Grand Rapids, Mich.
What he's doing now: Vaught played several years in the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers and Detroit Pistons before back problems ended his career. He looks incredibly fit and spends plenty of time doing yoga and running on the elliptical machine.
"I'm living in California, the father of two great daughters - a 7- and an 8-year-old - and doing real estate out there," Vaught said. "Life is good 20 years later."
The Memory: Vaught was a great interior presence for the '89 team, an outstanding rebounder who could also score. Nothing before or since matches the ring he earned with that squad.
"We accomplished something that had a jelling effect, a lifetime effect, and I didn't come close to anything like that during my NBA career," he said. "The relationships formed going through the trials and tribulations of that championship run I don't think they'll ever be duplicated."
Terry Mills 6-10 junior center Romulus, Mich.
What he's doing now: Mills played several years in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons and has since returned home to southeast Michigan. He's a frequent visitor at Crisler Arena and has helped out at coach John Beilein's camps.
"I'm looking to get back into college basketball. I want to be a coach," he said. "I'm running around right now looking at high school games, college games, things like that, getting a feel for what it takes and what it's going to be about."
The Memory: Higgins made the putback of a Mills missed 3-pointer in the semfinal against Illinois, but many thought the first one was down.
"I thought so, but I think every shot I take is going in," Mills said with a laugh.
"It's an honor to see these guys again when you move on to the NBA, that's more of a business. Here you had a family type atmosphere and were here with these guys for four years. You've got a lot of memories here I'm glad Coach Beilein and his staff put this together and made this happen."
Notes: Eric Riley, a freshman who redshirted on the team, won an NBA championship ring with the Houston Rockets under coach Rudy Tomjanovich. Demetrius Calip logged key minutes during the tournament and was in attendance. He is in music production out in Los Angeles Another freshman, Rob Pelinka, is now Kobe Bryant's agent and runs an agency in Los Angeles. J.P. Oosterbaan and James Voskuil did not return. Chris Seter and Kirk Taylor were also in attendance.