Setting a standard: Expected to do little, senior backcourt helps revive men's basketball program

Senior guards Robbie Harman, left, and Jordan Blitzer play their final home game at noon Saturday against Western Michigan. The duo is one of the top backcourts in the Mid-American Conference after low expectations to start their careers. (Matthew Stephens/Staff Photographer)

Jordan Bitzer and Robbie Harman still have to prove themselves.

Not on the court — each is a 1,000-point career scorer and has started the last 49 games  for the Central Michigan men’s basketball team.

But the pair of senior guards can’t seem to get past Rose Arena’s stringent security force before games.

“Chris (Kellermann) and them just walk right in because they’re tall — not us,” Harman said. “We get stopped and questioned. My picture’s even right there on the wall.”

Parking can be an issue, too.

“I’ll tell them I’m a player and they don’t believe me,” Harman said. “I’ve had to park way out in the lot before.”

That Bitzer and Harman aren’t immediately recognized as athletic stars on the CMU campus might not seem fair given their outstanding play in the past four years. But they don’t seem too bothered by it.

Their journey has been a long struggle for Division I recognition dating back to their high school days.

Lost in transition

‘You can’t play here.’

The words stung the 18-year-old Bitzer as he began his collegiate career. He had committed to CMU thanks to the confidence of former coach Jay Smith, who recruited the small town kid from Michigan’s Thumb. Then Smith resigned the job on May 11, 2006.

As Bitzer began to make plans to move to campus, he was confident he could impress the new coach. Afterall, he was the Thumb’s main attraction at Unionville-Sebewaing Area High School. He led the school to a Division 7 state championship in football and appeared in three state title games in football and basketball.

But that didn’t matter to new CMU coach Ernie Zeigler, who was hired at the end of June 2006. All Zeigler heard from other coaches was that Bitzer might not make it on the Division I level. Zeigler, faced with developing a program that had gone 4-24 in 2004-05, did not have the luxury of giving scholarships to players who might develop; he needed players immediately.

Mark Gainforth, Bitzer’s high school coach and close family friend, accompanied Scott and Kim Bitzer to a meeting with Zeigler to discuss their son’s future. Gainforth tried to calm the fears of the apprehensive Bitzers, who did not have a positive feeling about the meeting.

“I was wrong, because when they walked out, I said, ‘Hey, how’d it go?’ They all kind of looked up at the same time and I could tell there had been tears in their eyes,” Gainforth said. “They were right — that’s not the kind of meeting you want to have with your incoming coach.”

Said Bitzer: “They basically tried to take my scholarship away. We got to the parking lot and my mom just bawled.”

Because of NCAA rules, Bitzer had a choice to play for at least one year before his scholarship could be rescinded. The Bitzers had a decision to make.

“He had his heart set on playing at Central,” said Scott Bitzer, Jordan’s father. “It was kind of like somebody just took his dream away.”

Jordan called Zeigler a few days later.

“I told him, ‘I want to prove myself to you,’” Jordan said.

Out of shape

Bitzer was a frequent visitor to garbage cans inside Rose Arena to vomit in the middle of Zeigler’s draining workouts.

“I was huffing and puffing and gasping for air — it was not a fun time,” Bitzer said. “I was telling people, ‘This is not how I envisioned basketball to be.’ ”

But Scott Bitzer said quitting was not an option for Jordan before or during the season. Jordan also felt some responsibility to continue for his small town.

“I definitely didn’t want to be known as a quitter, that’s for sure,” he said. “That was definitely running through my mind.”

Bitzer gradually worked his way into shape, but a stress fracture in his foot kept him out of the team’s first two games.

On Nov. 19, 2006, however, his fortune changed. CMU trailed 42-26 late in the first half against Missouri-Kansas City. Desperately, Zeigler turned to Bitzer on the bench.

After missing his first 3-point attempt, Bitzer made five of his next six shots — including a 3-pointer that gave CMU its first lead of the game. His 17 points led to CMU’s 85-68 win — Zeigler’s first home victory. Bitzer was a starter six games later.

“It probably was one of the more special moments for he and I as a player and a coach — the beginning of a lot of special moments,” Zeigler said.

Developing trust

Four years later, Zeigler says he has since “profusely apologized” to the Bitzers and Gainforth for initially being reluctant to keep him at CMU.

“I use Jordan Bitzer as a motivational discussion piece,” Zeigler said. “I’ve had guys that I’ve brought in that were so soft that they left because they couldn’t stand competing against Jordan Bitzer. I’m just truly blessed to have the opportunity to coach him.”

Said Jordan: “After it was all said and done, he kind of came up and apologized and I thanked him for giving me the opportunity. Ever since then, our relationship has grown each and every year.”

Zeigler fought to keep him enrolled after academic problems near the end of his sophomore season caused him to be ineligible for CMU’s first eight games.

After getting back on track, Bitzer was eligible by the end of December.

“It made me look in the mirror and re-evalute myself,” Bitzer said. “It made me cherish the things I have. I just really was just lazy and didn’t do the stuff I needed to do in the classroom.”

Robbie, get up!

Lynette Harman was a mom, coach and motivator to her five children as they grew up in Traverse City. As a single mother in charge of raising three girls and two boys, Lynette had a special bond with her children through athletics — but she was not about to take it easy on them — especially Robbie, her oldest son.

“I never wanted to baby him,” she said. “I knew that was going to be important not to do. You can’t raise strong men if you baby them."

Lynette coached Robbie and David, her youngest son who now is a walk-on kicker on CMU’s football team, until they reached middle school. She coached her daughters for 12 years. When she wasn’t coaching, she made her presence felt from the bleachers.

“A lot of people laughed at me sitting in the stands at basketball games or football games. He’d be down on the floor and I’d say, ‘Robbie, get up!’ ”

Said Zeigler: “Lynette is really a free spirit — very emotional and caring. Robbie plays with a lot of that emotion he’s been able to ascertain from his mom.”

Because Robbie’s three older sisters played basketball, he was around high school athletes his whole life. One time, he wandered onto the court during one of their games and started shooting baskets on the other end. The game was halted, but Robbie didn’t want to stop.

Robbie developed a toughness that later would help him embody Zeigler’s “think tough, be tough” philosophy. After hurting his shoulder during his junior year of football, Robbie shook it off and practiced for three more days, catching passes against his chest. After the pain didn’t subside, Lynette took him to the hospital for X-rays. He had a broken collarbone.

Robbie’s mental toughness also was tested during his high school years. His father, Tom Harman, lived near St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula throughout his childhood because he and Lynette divorced when Robbie was in elementary school.

In 2002, Tom decided to move back to Traverse City to be closer to his children. But only a year later, he went to the hospital with what he thought was pneumonia. It wasn’t. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. He died only a few months later — right before Robbie’s sophomore high school basketball season.

“Basketball tryouts were just about to start when my dad passed away and it was a good place for me to go — I could just go play basketball and just not think about it,” Robbie said. “That was a real big part of me getting through it so well.”

As Tom was in the hospital dying with Lynette by his side, he told her Robbie would be successful — and she would have a role in that.

A perfect fit

Harman was not heavily recruited at the Division I level, even though at Traverse City Central High School, where he was a Class A all-state selection in baseball, basketball and football, leading each of those teams to conference titles.

“I wanted to prove everybody wrong, so I reached out to Jay Smith and self-recruited myself here,” he said.

Harman’s early role in practice as a walk-on was to pass the ball to teammate and All-MAC point guard Giordan Watson.

“Coach Zeigler told me later, it didn’t take him long to figure out that Robbie was the hardest worker on the team,” Lynette Harman said.

He went from what he called an “expendable” walk-on to someone Zeigler used to exemplify his coaching philosophy.

“When he got to Central, all he knew was just to work hard,” said Watson, who now plays professionally in Germany. “To sort of see him grow up is kind of cool that he’s having this success now. It’s just a testament to where hard work will get you.”

After his sophomore season, he was rewarded with a scholarship that Lynette had pushed for when Zeigler was hired.

“After he earned his scholarship, he did not become satisfied — he still kept getting better,” Zeigler said. “Now, he’s one of the top players in our conference.”

Final shot

Zeigler credits Bitzer and Harman with getting CMU basketball back to respectability in the MAC.

“In year one, we were just trying not to be the laughing stock of the league anymore,” he said. “Bitzer and Robbie and those guys came in when there was zero respect for Central Michigan.”

One or the other has led CMU in scoring in 22 of the team’s 27 games this season. And their relationship with their head coach has never been stronger.

“It’s weird looking back on it now because we feel we have a really good relationship with him now — we love him, he loves us,” Harman said. “In fact, I know he loves us — this year he screamed it out in practice.”

The duo’s slow-developing relationship has turned into a friendship that translates to their unselfishness on the court. Ask either who the better 3-point shooter is, and they point to the other.

“I don’t know if we got along the best when we first got here,” Harman said. “I thought he was weird and he thought I was weird.”

Four years later, they have an unmatched chemistry in the backcourt and off the court.

“I think they’re best friends at this point,” said Scott Bitzer, Jordan’s father. “There are times out on the court when I think they play like they’ve been playing their whole lives together.”

Zeigler chooses not to think about what life will be like without the duo in the backcourt.

“I don’t want to think about it right now,” he said.


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