Commentary

Players' perspective on John Beilein

Former players knew Michigan coach was destined for big things

Updated: April 3, 2013, 8:30 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | ESPN.com

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- During his first season at Michigan, John Beilein's weekly radio show at Pizza House, a local Ann Arbor restaurant, usually drew a handful of fans. Mostly, people came to eat pizza. The Wolverines were in the midst of a 10-22 season and a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten. Michigan basketball had not reached an NCAA tournament since 1998.

[+] EnlargeMichigan's John Beilein
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsJohn Beilein has taken a non-traditional path to the top of his profession.

Now in his sixth season, the joint was packed for his final show of the season. Beilein received two standing ovations from the full house, the first as he walked up the stairs to the second floor of the restaurant. They celebrated the man who restored the Michigan basketball program, returning the Wolverines to the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five played in national championship game 20 years ago.

Since that first season, Beilein has changed, too. He ceded more control to his assistant coaches. His offense and defense have gone through evolutions and revolutions despite holding on to similar principles.

Beilein should be used to change. He took a nontraditional path to the top, never serving as an assistant, rising through the ranks of five levels of basketball as a head coach. From high school to community college to NAIA and Division II. The MAAC and the CAA. To Morgantown, Ann Arbor and now the Final Four. "Having confidence maybe I could get here, but knowing it would be a long struggle to get to this point," said Beilein, now 60. "I've really been very fortunate. I wouldn't suggest this route to anyone. You've got to be very lucky to this point, have the right breaks to get to this point."

Even Beilein's breaks have been nontraditional. He needed top choices to back out of jobs and recommendations from former rivals. Along the way, he received the help from what every coach needs to succeed -- players who will work hard and believe in their coach even more than they believe in themselves.


Beilein was hired at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., as a 29-year-old unknown commodity in 1982, his first four-year college job after four years at Erie Community College.

Paul Cummings and his teammates learned quickly their new coach would be serious -- and that his dreams were bigger than the NAIA school.

"Some coaches, you can just tell they are going to be great coaches," Cummings said. "They have what it takes to get that team over the edge. He knew how to get the best out of a player. Even if that talent was mediocre, he could make them be great.

"You could sense that from being in the room with him. I thought he'd be here maybe a year or two and move on."

Beilein inherited a 14-win team, won 20 games and reached the NAIA tournament. He installed his developing on-court principles with his philosophy of player development and how a team should practice.

Beilein stayed just one season after Le Moyne offered a Division II job, the one time he didn't stay at a four-year school at least five years.

"That was the only time I didn't stay a significant amount of time at a place," Beilein said. "I felt bad about it. When I look back at it now, it was still the right move to make."


Beilein's longest stay followed his shortest. He spent nine years at Le Moyne, where his uncle, Tom Niland, hired him and influenced everything that followed.

Niland, a former basketball coach, suggested Beilein run the two-guard offense. Then Beilein, watching late-night basketball on ESPN, saw Washington, then coached by Andy Russo.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim and John Beilein
Rich Kane/Icon SMISyracuse coach Jim Boeheim has helped Beilein climb the coaching ladder. The two will meet in Atlanta on Saturday.

He wrote to Russo for suggestions. They corresponded about the "tandem offense" Russo once wrote to former Kansas State coach Jack Hartman about. An offense based on flow, pacing and smart passing, changing Beilein's career.

"It's the same stuff," said former Le Moyne player Peter Jerebko. "He recruits basketball players who really understand the game so they just pick up as soon as it is taught to them and it makes sense. Then a backdoor cut or a jumper and a kickout, man, it works."

Beilein kept tinkering in the shadow of Syracuse University, a major Division I program led by Jim Boeheim. He added dribble entries and a big man who could shoot from the outside. All the while, he drove one of the two Le Moyne vans to Division II games with the Orangemen on the radio.

In the vans, like everywhere else, he continued teaching.

"He would just be screaming, 'Lennnyyy,'" former Le Moyne star Len Rauch said. "We'd be coming along and something would come to him and I'd have to try and follow what play in the game I screwed up that I needed to remember."

Beilein made a Division II NCAA tournament appearance in 1988. Won 163 games. All along, his players sensed something more was waiting for their young coach. The demeanor remained.

"He took every loss so hard," Jerebko said. "Like this guy has something bigger in mind."

He did. In 1992 he returned to Buffalo, to Canisius, and a Division I job.


Canisius broke through in Beilein's second season, winning a regular-season MAAC championship. When they clinched the title, the stoic Beilein stunned his players.

"We dumped a whole tub of frozen water out of a Gatorade bucket on him," former Canisius guard Javone Moore said. "He was none too happy with that. But you know what, he actually smiled.

"He said you actually deserved it. He shocked us all by laughing at it."

Canisius lost its conference tournament, but Beilein had started something.

He saw the potential in the tandem offense. He believed in his defense and had a talented team of players, led by Darrell Barley and Moore.

The offense and man-to-man defense led Canisius to three straight postseason appearances, including an NIT semifinal and an NCAA tournament berth in 1996. Beilein turned from a lower-level coach to a rising Division I talent.


[+] EnlargeJohn Beilein
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesBeilein's success at Richmond (1997-2002) helped launch his high-major coaching career.

Richmond called in 1997 and Beilein moved again. He inherited a good team, making the NCAA tournament his first season and as a 14-seed upset third-seeded South Carolina.

In his second season, a small gift from upstate New York arrived. Scott Ungerer was a little-known player Beilein first saw at Canisius. He was the epitome of a Beilein player -- under-recruited, highly skilled and adaptable.

Beilein's attitude and offense remained the same at Richmond. The defense changed. Beilein implemented a defense he saw in his upstate New York days from Roy Chipman at Hartwick College and installed it in 2000-01, using it full time the next season. The 1-3-1 zone.

The decision launched a high-major coaching career.

"We used to change the 1-3-1, the concepts of it, based on who we were playing," Ungerer said. "Xavier may have scouted the 1-3-1 and how we played it against Dayton, but it was completely different because of [Musketeers players] David West or Lionel Chalmers. That was the beauty of it."

Moving from the CAA to the Atlantic 10, Richmond finished second in the league in 2002 and earned an NIT berth. It led back to Syracuse and Boeheim. Ungerer's career ended with a quarterfinal loss to the Orangemen in upstate New York. It would be Beilein's last game as a mid-major coach.


In 2002, Dan Dakich accepted the West Virginia job and backed out just more than a week later. Then-athletic director Ed Pastilong called Boeheim, who recommended Beilein for the job.

Beilein had built two Division I programs and another in Division II. The former Wheeling Jesuit player became the head coach at the flagship program in the state. The principles he honed followed.

The tandem offense. The 1-3-1 defense. The high character players and the consistent demeanor.

Three years after he took over, he came close to the pinnacle. Beilein's relentless positivity with his players kept WVU together when it struggled through the Big East that season. His message of playing their best in March took tangible shape.

The Mountaineers reached the finals of the Big East tournament, qualified for the NCAA tournament, upset Chris Paul and Wake Forest in double overtime and led Louisville by 20 points in the Elite Eight.

"I'm shaking," former West Virginia guard Mike Gansey said. "Like 20 more minutes and we could go to the Final Four."

Those 20 minutes turned into some of the toughest of Beilein's career. The Cardinals came back. Tied the game at the end of regulation. Sent it to overtime and a West Virginia loss -- stopping Beilein one game away.

The next week, Beilein went to the Final Four with his son Patrick. They watched the first game, Louisville versus Illinois. Left at halftime.

"It was so hard to watch," Patrick said. "Because of how close we were."

Father and son still don't discuss the game. Gansey still hasn't watched it. The next season, which ended in the Sweet 16, Patrick and Gansey hung a picture of Louisville celebrating with West Virginia sulking on their bathroom mirror.

"I wanted to wipe it off," Patrick said. "Wanted to spit my toothpaste at it."

He never did.

Those two seasons made an impression. After a 2007 NIT title, then-Michigan athletic director Bill Martin reached out to Beilein and brought him to Ann Arbor.


Michigan was one last project, reeling from an NCAA scandal almost a decade earlier, and for three seasons inconsistency continued. An under-.500 season followed by a surprising NCAA tournament berth and then another sub-.500 season.

[+] EnlargeJohn Beilein
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAfter being so close to a Final Four berth in 2005, Beilein realized his dream on Sunday against Florida.

One final adaptation in Beilein's fourth season altered Michigan's course in 2011.

"My junior year, we're on the brink of everything going to hell. It did not look good," former Michigan guard Zack Novak said. "Then, in this little amount of time these dudes were cutting down the nets to go to the Final Four, it's pretty incredible."

Beilein kept tandem principles but ran the offense through then-sophomore point guard Darius Morris with a variety of ball screens. He abandoned the 1-3-1 defense in favor of man-to-man because of an increased talent level.

Michigan played Michigan State in East Lansing on Jan. 27, 2011. The Wolverines, on a six-game losing streak, headed for another season out of the NCAA tournament.

Michigan beat Michigan State. It won eight of its final 11 games and reached the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament. Morris left for the NBA and became Beilein's first drafted player. Trey Burke took his place.

Another NCAA tournament appearance -- a first-round loss last season -- gave Michigan motivation. An influx of freshmen provided prodigious talent and the highest expectations of Beilein's career.

All along, his personality never changed. He remained relentlessly positive, even when his team lost five of 10 games to end this regular season. Or when his team trailed by 14 points against Kansas in the Sweet 16 with 6:50 remaining. He always believed and 35 seasons led to Sunday.

Three countries. Two continents. On the television and the Internet. On the radio and in person, they all followed along. At halftime they remembered Louisville, when Beilein was so close to the Final Four. The former players hoped it wouldn't happen again. That the guy who affected so many of their lives would reach the pinnacle of his.

Unlike with West Virginia, his team did not collapse. Those Beilein influenced watched. Thought of where he came from. Where he was headed.

"To watch the last three minutes," Jerebko said, choking up. "It was really good stuff."

Cutting down the nets, getting a sports-drink bath, participating in the Harlem Shake on the plane on the way back from Texas. The stoicism, for a night, disappeared. The lifelong realization eluded him through his radio show all the way until Tuesday morning waking up next to his wife, Kathleen.

"I woke up this morning and I got up, said, 'I feel great,'" Beilein said. "Then I said, 'Are we still going to the Final Four? Is this true?' She said, 'Yes, we are.' There was a moment there, I realized it happened."

For so many years, Beilein has gone to the Final Four as a spectator. Now the nomadic coach will be the one everyone else is watching.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter