From Fab Five to Starting Five

For the opening three months of the 1991-1992 college basketball season, Michigan head coach Steve Fisher had avoided the seemingly inevitable. 

While freshmen stars Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and Juwan Howard – 3/5 of “the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history” – had entrenched themselves in the Wolverines’ starting lineup, Fisher hesitated to start all five of his touted freshmen for fear of upstaging his veteran players. Though the Fab Five might have been the talk of the college basketball world, they were not the five Wolverines Fisher directed onto the court at tip-off. 

Fisher inched closer to that reality on February 5, the season’s 18th game, when he inserted Jimmy King into the starting lineup. That put 4/5 of the Fab Five in the starting five. Only Ray Jackson, the least heralded prospect of the five despite being a top 100 recruit himself, remained on the bench. 

And it seemed it would stay that way until Howard Fisher, Steve Fisher’s father, made a phone call from Herrin, Illinois, with a message for his son: “Stop being so stubborn. Start all five and see what they can do.” 

On a Sunday afternoon in South Bend, Indiana, hours before an HIV-stricken Magic Johnson would dazzle at the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, Fisher heeded his father’s order. The Michigan coach gave the starting nod to Jackson over upperclassmen Freddie Hunter and James Voskuil, a last-minute change Fisher attributed to “matchups” against Notre Dame.   

In front of a national television audience on Feb. 9 and a capacity crowd of 11,418 at the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center, Michigan’s five freshmen stepped onto the court together for the first time together as starters. 

“We realized Coach Fisher was going out on a limb starting five freshmen on national TV,” Webber would tell reporters after the game. “I’m sure a lot of people thought he was crazy. We wanted to go out and prove him right.” 

And they did just that in spectacular fashion.  Powered by the Fab Five, Michigan rushed out to a 14-5 lead in the game’s opening six minutes and led by as many as 17 in the first half.  

It was more of the same in the second half, as Michigan’s freshmen-only crew scored the first seven points after intermission to build a 45-27 lead. Though Notre Dame would mount a comeback, cutting the Wolverines lead down to four at one point, Michigan withstood the rally and left with a 74-65 victory over the Fighting Irish. 

Most remarkably, the Fab Five, who took all but three of the Wolverines 51 field goal attempts, scored all 74 of Michigan’s points. Rose led the way with 20 points while King, returning to his birthplace of South Bend, dropped in a season-high 19. Webber, meanwhile, contributed 17, Howard 14, and Jackson four. 

“We scored every point in the game?” Howard double-checked after hearing the news. “That’s unbelievable.” 

Notre Dame Coach John MacLeod praised the Michigan rookies.

“That’s an impressive group of freshmen they have” MacLeod said. “They are athletic, quick, strong, long-armed, and can jump. All of them are tremendous players, and they are very confident and sure of themselves. Just a great group with great poise and great confidence.” 

For his part, Fisher tried to deflect talk of the all-freshmen starting five, still wary of creating upheaval on his team. 

“This was a real good, important, well-played win for Michigan,” Fisher said, happy his 16th-ranked squad had pushed its record to 14-5. “I don’t want to get caught up in the fact that we’ve got five freshmen starting. We’ve got to make sure it’s a Michigan team victory and it doesn’t focus, as it so often has this season, on the freshmen.” 

But it was too late.  

On a cold winter day in South Bend, Indiana, the revolution gained heat.