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February 21, 2013

U-M bridging gap between past and present

Last Friday, the Michigan basketball team welcomed back dozens of former players for weekend-long Crisler Center Rededication Ceremony, which included a roundtable discussion between former greats and a team brunch before Sunday's win over Penn State.

Players like Cazzie Russell, Glen Rice, Phil Hubbard, Darius Morris, Zack Novak and many more were back to enjoy the festivities.

It marked the culmination of years of hard work by Michigan coach John Beilein, who has made it a mission to bridge the gap that has been created between Wolverine past and present.

Because of coaching instability, NCAA sanctions and general strife, the different generations of Michigan basketball players have been segmented over the years - but now, they're coming together.

The Wolverines are learning about the rich history of the program, which has often been forgotten as the program tries to put distance between itself and the improprieties of the mid-1990s.

"We're always talking about the tradition of Michigan," Beilein said. "There was a thing we saw that John Wooden was quoted as saying, in 1963, 'We worry more about getting UCLA better. We don't worry about what Kansas, Michigan and Duke are doing.' Michigan was one of the three schools we was talking about. There's a lot of history here."

By all accounts, last weekend's pilgrimage of former players to Ann Arbor was a rousing success.

And the program is continuing its efforts to welcome former players back into the fold.

"We're making great progress," athletic director Dave Brandon said. "Our basketball program has had a lot of division in the past with different coaches and ups-and-downs. Unlike the football team where we have had a lot of coaching that holds the teams together, we have been a little bit fragmented. What we're doing is working really hard to bring everyone back and make them feel a part of what we're doing here, because we are building it on their backs. The fact that we had so many of them show up tonight and be a part of this, and that more are coming for the weekend, is very satisfying."

Brandon, who played football at Michigan under Bo Schembechler (1970-73), is part of a vast and sturdy alumni network that has been built over decades of program stability and player outreach.

Because of the strong bond the football program has between past and present, it can host events like the Michigan Football Alumni Network Dinner ( read more about that here), wherein former players who have carved out successful post-football professional lives come back to talk with current players about career paths that may interest them.

So, Brandon knows, first hand, how beneficial it can be for the basketball program to bridge the gap.

"It's huge. You listen to Cazzie and Glen, and decades have gone by, but some things don't change," Brandon said. "When those young guys hear these 50-, 60-, 70-year-old guys talk about their experience here and what helped them be successful, that is all part of what motivates guys here today.

"They understand that when they put that jersey on, they're not just putting it on because they're name is on the back. They're putting it on because that block 'M' is on the front. That tradition and legacy is huge. I give all the credit to John Beilein. He has gotten it to a point where there is this level of excitement and support."

Rice, who now runs an MMA promotion company based in Miami, Fla., has been in close contact with Beilein.

He's pleased with the level of effort he has seen from the current staff, and home the reclamation project continues.

"It's tough, because as a former player, you want to come back and do whatever you can to support your program," he said. "In the past, that reach hasn't always been there. One of the things that Beilein has stressed to all the former players is that, we need to bring it back to the way it used to be. And he can't do it by himself. He needs all of us as a collective group, and now it's up to us to give our time and get back here and do the right thing.

"It's important. It shows the appreciation. And don't get me wrong, I was going to be in their faces whether they wanted me there or not. I am just that much of a Michigan fan. I want them to be successful, so you don't need to twist my arm."

Of course, there is still plenty of hard work to be done - and plenty of difficult decisions to be made.

This summer, the contact ban between Michigan and Fab Five member Chris Webber will expire. Other members of the Fab Five have been vocal about their decision to repair the relationship between the players and school (read more here).

"You want to snap your fingers and solve a problem," Brandon said. "When John came in, the basketball program was so held back by loss of scholarships, coaching changeovers, penalties, reputational damage that was a result of everything that occurred. And we had this horrible facility that wasn't competitive, and they didn't have a practice gym. Just all the stuff that John inherited. And we had to build.

"Build a coaching staff, a recruiting pipeline, the facilities and the excitement around Michigan basketball again. To have this many people show up for an event like this on a Friday night and to have these games selling out, it's like football now - I have people calling me and begging for tickets. People want to be a part of what is happening. And that's something a lot of people have put a lot of time and energy into over a number of years. It's great to be here."

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