MICHIGAN COACH John Beilein is sitting in a plush leather chair in his office, hunched over a wooden board that sits atop an expensive coffee table. Fashioned to replicate a basketball court, the board represents endless geometric options. Small wooden pieces, color-coded circles and squares, move below Beilein's fingertips across the miniature court like a street-corner shell game. Sturdy ball screens, crisp back cuts, shattered double-teams -- all of them precisely executed. There is certainty in these patterns, perfection in the movements.
Nothing exists but the board. Its possibilities rattle around inside him. A new way. A better way. A different way.
Beilein finger-skates two offensive pieces above the three-point line and arranges three more no lower than the free throw line. This is the core of his famous two-guard offense, an innovation that has defined him, whether coaching Division II Le Moyne in Syracuse, N.Y., or one of the top programs in college basketball. He explains its evolution briefly, back cuts and ball screens and dribble penetration, his brain and his fingers working several rpms ahead of his words.
It's a mesmerizing obsession. "Most coaches love the geometry," he says. Like so many of his peers, Beilein retreats to the board, to the puzzle and the patterns, to the world within the 94-by-50 rectangle, where the circles and squares always make sense, where control is absolute and obedience is understood.
"Scientist. It's the perfect word for him," says Beilein's son Patrick, who played for his father at West Virginia, coached under him at Michigan and is now head coach at D2 West Virginia Wesleyan. "He approaches everything like a professor."
John Beilein spends hours refining his practice plans to the second. He meets with his Michigan staff -- three assistants, a graduate assistant and a video coordinator -- multiple times a day, and after each meeting he retires to his office, alone with his board, to consider the possibilities. After careful deliberation, he yields 90 seconds to assistant Bacari Alexander to work on a defensive outlet drill. They discuss which inbounds plays -- sideline, baseline, every possible angle and situation -- will work best against Ohio State's defense. Assistant LaVall Jordan suggests tweaking an offensive set. Beilein thinks for a moment, staring at an identical wooden board in the coaches' meeting room, before issuing a deadpan assessment: "That's too simple; we can't run it."
Beilein cuts almost all of Michigan's game video himself, often on flights home from road games. He cut the team's Indiana loss into 80 vital clips -- "Are there that many? Wow," he says to video coordinator Pete Kahler -- which were eventually reduced to about 50. The Wolverines watch film of their opponents before practice and film of their own practice afterward. As the players file from the court to the film room for their second session the day before the Ohio State game, forward Jon Horford is asked, "More film?" He nods and says, "Most in the nation." And when it's showtime, Beilein provides running commentary to the slouched figures who sit below him in the darkened theater room down the hall from his office.
Once the game starts, though, once the ball is tossed skyward and the bodies scatter to predetermined spots, control drifts. Sometimes it disappears altogether in a kaleidoscopic blur of late-adolescent competitiveness and ego and distraction. The Wolverines' entire world goes from a meticulously calibrated sonata to an openmouthed scream, the players' movements accelerated, their thoughts racing to keep up with their bodies like little kids running too fast downhill. Commotion and adrenaline are the masters now, locked in a pitched battle with the hours of carefully plotted preparation, the geometric precision that exists with the wooden circles and squares lost amid the bodies and the noise.
The true test of the profession exists within those moments, in the transition from the wooden symbols to the human beings. Once the game starts, the battle is to retain control, to keep the forces of the game from flinging the pieces across the room. Against Ohio State, Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft is belly button to belly button with Trey Burke; Deshaun Thomas is running a crosscut slightly different from what the Wolverines practiced; the ball screens set by Michigan's big men are less authoritative than needed. Beilein watches intently, squatting in front of his bench, his jacket slung across the back of his chair and his sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms, his hawklike eyes assessing the worth of his preparation.
If you prepare well enough and long enough and smart enough, everything will work out. This is the dogma of his faith.
SEVERAL REMARKABLE FACTS about 60-year-old John Beilein:
He has never been an assistant coach, at any level.
He has never been fired in 35 years of coaching.
He is the only active coach to have 20-win seasons at four different levels (junior college, NAIA, Division II and Division I).
He is one of eight coaches in D1 history to have taken four different programs to the NCAA tournament.
Beilein grew up in Burt, N.Y., the son of a millworker and apple farmer and the eighth of nine children. Two of his uncles, Tom and Joe Niland, were lifelong basketball coaches in the area. The Niland family is famous in western New York; Beilein's mother's cousins were inspiration for Saving Private Ryan. Beilein shrugs off his ability to keep his energy level high during long workdays by saying, "I come from good stock."
He sits atop his coaching tree, a man with no pedigree but his own. "I never have been connected," he says with a shrug. Progression was slow; he took what he could get. "If someone said, 'Don't take that job, that's a terrible job,' I knew that was the job for me."
Newfane High School meant a chance, period, and Erie Community College meant a chance to devote himself almost entirely to coaching. Nazareth meant having players for four years, Le Moyne meant scholarships, Canisius meant Division I, Richmond meant mid-major and West Virginia meant the Big East. And now Michigan, where Beilein is in his sixth year, might just mean stability.
"When you're driving the team van five hours back from St. Michael's to Le Moyne in an ice storm, thinking about the one or two possessions that cost you the game, listening to Georgetown play Syracuse on the radio ... " He looks away, through his huge office windows and into the gently falling snow. His mind is back in that van, and he's kicking himself over every empty possession. "Let's just say you learn a lot the hard way."
It probably can't be done the same way anymore. The networking and the street agents and the need for the imprimatur from a big-time coach have fast-tracked the next John Beilein to an assistant job under his former coach, to interviews with athletic directors who want to know how he can transfer Coach Omniscient's style to their program. It's too hard to learn the hard way anymore.
"He always knew he was going to make it, and so did I," says Beilein's wife, Kathleen. "It's what he was put here to do. The only thing is, he's never really stuck around to enjoy the good times."
The most obvious example: Beilein left West Virginia for Michigan in 2007, then watched the Mountaineers, with his guys, make the Sweet 16 the next season while he went 10-22.
Kathleen is sitting in an Ann Arbor pizza parlor while her husband conducts his weekly radio show. His 60th birthday is the next day, and three UM coeds present him with a cake while the whole place sings "Happy Birthday." Life is good, but Kathleen's words sound like a somber appraisal, maybe even a criticism. Beilein takes no offense. "She's absolutely right," he says. "We've always seemed to be on the five-year plan. It's been rough at times."
THERE ARE PEOPLE in Beilein's position who become consumed with being the most important person in the room. They approach a group -- boosters, recruits, media -- waiting for the adulation to wash over them. Beilein has the job, the salary ($1.8 million per) and the success, but he's missing the attitude. In two days of observation, there is not one moment when he appears interested in impressing anyone. Kathleen packs him a lunch every morning and even writes his name on the bag. "In 35 years, I've gone out for lunch maybe 100 times," he says. "I get more done sitting here eating my sandwich."
There's something old-fashioned about Beilein. He's okay with being silly, with having 20-year-olds think he's even a touch goofy. During the team's walk-through a few hours before the Ohio State game, he stopped practice and said, in the slightly irritated tone of a disappointed father, "Guys, let's take a moment to tie shoes."
The night before, after the final film session of the day ended around 9 p.m., Horford stood holding the door of the theater room while his teammates, coaches and assorted visitors filed out. Beilein stopped next to Horford, whose demeanor indicated he needed sleep, and said, "The hay's in the barn, Jon."
"Yes, sir," Horford answered.
"Make hay while the sun shines," Beilein said.
"Yes, sir," Horford answered.
"Make hay while the sun shines, and the hay's in the barn," Beilein said. "You know what that means, Jon?"
"Uh ... that you can use it?"
"It means you can eat, Jon. The big horse can eat, and you're a big horse, Jon. You're a big horse."
As Beilein walked away, Horford stood at the door with a slightly mystified look on his face. "He's got a thousand of those," he said.
Beilein is a leadership book sprung to life. (On his desk are Wooden on Leadership; Leadership on the Line; and The Team Captain's Leadership Manual.) Before every game, he puts together Fast Facts -- "Ohio State averages 63 points on 63 possessions" was one -- to give his coaches an outline for the next opponent. The loss to Indiana on Saturday left just two days to prepare for Ohio State, and Beilein's philosophy is to use one day to learn and one to forget.
Beilein wrote eight pregame keys for Ohio State on the locker room whiteboard about 30 minutes before tip-off. Each fell under the heading "Our Game, Our Night, because ... " The third one read, "We will play with swag by shooting, passing and driving with great confidence in ourselves and our team."
When the players filed into the room after pregame warmups, reserve Corey Person looked at the board and said: "Swag. He just learned that word. Ever since he found out what it means, he hasn't stopped using it."
Before he and his coaches followed the Wolverines onto the Crisler Center floor, they shook hands and bro-hugged. "All right, lots of smiles, guys," Beilein said. "Lots of positive energy for our guys."
He has not outlived his enthusiasm. "I've never felt any burnout in 35 years of doing this," he says. "These are long days, but I can't wait to get up in the morning." The attitude engenders loyalty. His sister Molly Maigret and her husband, Dick, drive from Tonawanda, N.Y., to Ann Arbor -- five and a half hours each way on a route that takes them into Canada -- for every home game. John's seven other siblings text or call before and after each game. Says Patrick: "I can't tell you the number of times guys at West Virginia would talk to my dad about their lives. Girl problems. School problems. He makes everybody feel comfortable."
Beilein has learned, consciously or not, that his personality is not incompatible with the realities of his job. For years Michigan's basketball program was trailing in the arms race -- for recruits, for facilities, for fans. Under Beilein, the Wolverines built an eight-figure, state-of-the-art training facility. (This season they also reached No. 1 for the first time since the 1992 Fab Five days.) The William Davidson Player Development Center is a gleaming ode to the power of fundraising, with a donor's name affixed to everything but the bathroom stalls. Alexander, the Wolverines assistant, stands in the lobby of the facility and sweeps his arms as he looks around.
"Look at this place," he says.
"Steve Fisher tried to get it done."
(Pause. Voice rising.)
"Tommy Amaker tried to get it done."
"John Beilein got it done."
BEILEIN CONSIDERS the question:
"What's a shoelace?"
"It's a ... it's a ... I can't tell you," he says.
If you heard a recording of Beilein and his coaches, you might think you were hearing a group version of Mad Libs. Over the years, Beilein has concocted his own basketball dialect.
"You like a potato here better than a mickey?"
"Go from a UMass screen to a bullet and then you can Chris Paul."
"Anytime in this game you have a shoelace, turn it into a handback and not a handback Harry."
Beilein won't reveal the meanings of the words in his glossary, but repeated exposure yields contextual clues. Krispy Kreme is a backdoor cut out of a doughnut pivot. Shoelace is a backdoor cut of another sort. Potato is a curled cut, the etymology of which explains all you need to know about Beilein: Curl made him think of curly fries and fries are made of potatoes, therefore a curled cut in the Beilein offense will forever be called potato. The double-clicky potato: same genus, different species.
"I'll tell you one thing," Patrick says. "The guys never forget them because they're all funny."
The years of devising ways to free up thick-ankled NAIA point guards and gravity-imprisoned D2 small forwards are now being exhibited by smart, athletically superior players like Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III. The offense is more jazz than symphony. Nearly everything is predicated on reads: An entry pass or dribble entry to a certain spot dictates the set. It takes savvy players with sharp minds to pick it up, which makes this team -- the fourth youngest among the big six conferences, with five freshmen seeing significant playing time -- even more impressive.
Through Feb. 24, the Wolverines scored 76 points a game, were ninth in the nation in three-point percentage (39.9) and were eighth in adjusted field goal percentage (55.7). They were also tied for 140th with just 35.5 rebounds per game. Are they tough enough? For three weeks in March, that will be the big question. Then again, in a season of unprecedented parity, few teams will relish the idea of facing a squad with the second-highest offensive rating in the nation and a coach whose style can make two days of preparation feel like finals week.
While it's nearly impossible to quantify a coaching advantage -- the variables are difficult to isolate; controlled environments are rare -- there is one game situation in which a coach has greater control than any other: a play call immediately following a timeout. And Michigan, with Beilein and assistant Jeff Meyer making the calls, is third among BCS schools in points scored out of a timeout.
Sitting in his office in Buckhannon, W.Va., preparing for a practice he hopes is the first on his journey to the big time, Patrick says: "Watching my dad, I always dreamed of drawing up my first play. He's always been in charge, always been in control of practice and in control of film. I never felt underprepared playing or working for him."
One night in late January, John sat at home listening on his computer as Patrick coached West Virginia Wesleyan against Davis & Elkins or Pitt-Johnstown, one of the two. He envisioned every possession in his head, trying to think along with his son, and second-guessed some of his decisions.
At some point, probably after one of the second-guesses, a thought struck him: My family's done this a thousand times. "It made me think about all the sacrifices, all the patience," he says. "Kathleen stopped working to raise our kids. For 35 years, this is all we've known."
His sister Molly has followed his career from empty gyms to the best conference in the country. One night after a game, she asked him, "How do you handle all this pressure?"
"This isn't pressure," he answered. "Pressure was when I was at Le Moyne and Nazareth. I wanted to be a big-time coach, and I had to win as many games as I could or I wouldn't be marketable."
Molly sees the logic in this, and maybe a little sadness. "Maybe that's why he's always taken the losses harder than he's enjoyed the wins," she says.
His wife says he has never stuck around to enjoy the good times. His sister says the losses injured more than the wins healed. Is there a better way to describe the curse of the coach?
HE BEAT OHIO STATE by two, in overtime. Preparation won. Who can say which increment of practice made the difference, which lesson during film, which out-of-bounds play. All Beilein knows for sure, nearly an hour after the buzzer, is that it was a long day followed by a long night.
He stands with his coaches in the Highfield Family Coaches Locker Room and Lounge. The hugs and handshakes mostly finished, Beilein asks for a quick rundown of the next day. The players have the day off. Meyer and Jordan are heading out to watch a recruit. Alexander is charged with scouting Wisconsin.
Beilein outlines his agenda: Arrive at the office late morning, spend four or five hours breaking down video before heading home to put together a loose outline of the next two weeks. "Guys," he says, "I just need a day where I don't plan a practice."
His tone veers toward the apologetic. He is happy but spent. He looks at his watch: 11:59 p.m. "I already missed my birthday," he says without emotion. Alexander mentions something about Wisconsin's tendencies, and Beilein clenches his eyes shut and holds his hands up. "Don't even start," he says.
Everyone laughs. There is real joy in the room, but it is rapidly dissipating. Today is now tomorrow, and Ohio State is now Wisconsin. The conference tournament, and March, loom in the weeks ahead. The wins heal, ever so briefly.