Beilein adapts, but winning remains

Originally Published: April 7, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- It was the first week of the season, the halcyon days of early November, when John Beilein finally admitted it to himself: This season would have to be different.

For starters, there would be lobs. Lots and lots of lobs.

"The first week of the season, we were throwing lob dunks to one another," Beilein said. "And we were like 0-for-20."

"We actually practiced alley-oops," senior Josh Bartlestein recalled. "I'd never actually seen anyone practice alley-oops before."

For many coaches, this would have been a pretty simple development. For Beilein, who spent the better part of four decades chipping away at the coaching ranks without the kind of talent that makes "throw it to the rim" a viable strategy -- who first earned wide attention as the "gimmicky" coach that led West Virginia to the Elite Eight with Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey -- deciding to play conventionally was something like a sea change.

He had changed some in recent years, sure, but even in 2011-12, when undersized shooters such as Zack Novak and Stu Douglass played key roles in the Michigan attack, Beilein was still doing the things that got him to Michigan: The two-guard front offense. Tricky 1-3-1 zone defense.

[+] EnlargeBeilein
AP Photo/Laura RauchWhile at WVU, John Beilein made it to the 2005 Elite Eight before falling to Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals. They'll meet again Monday night.

The floor-spacing, 3-point chucking, lack-of-athleticism-compensating style that had driven Beilein's long, incremental rise from Newfane High School to Monday night's national title game -- with stops as the head coach at Erie Community College, Nazareth, Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia along the way -- had served him well for almost four decades. Why change now?

Trey Burke is why. Mitch McGary is why. Glenn Robinson III is why. Tim Hardaway Jr. is why.

Suddenly, after a career coaching to decrease disadvantages, Beilein realized his team would almost always be the most talented group on the floor.

He would have to start coaching like it.

"Throwing a lob to Zack Novak or Stu Douglass probably wasn't the best play," Beilein said Sunday, less than 24 hours after his team topped Syracuse in the national semifinals. "But you change your talent. What do you have?

Had Beilein decided to be more stubborn, tried to realize his dream of putting elite athletes into his system -- well, who could have blamed him?

Indeed, there may be no more self-made coach in the sport. The 60-year-old has been coaching since 1975, as a 22-year-old at Newfane High -- "I just wanted the keys to a gym," he said -- and has never been an assistant coach, never had a famous mentor, never been a branch on a well-regarded coaching tree. He is the only active coach to win at least 20 games at four different levels: junior college, NAIA, Division III and Division I.

At first, he didn't quite know what he was doing. He ran the flex offense, motion and set plays. In 1983, he took the job at Le Moyne and took over a team that, as he diplomatically described it, "was not great with set plays." Beilein's uncle, Tom Niland, suggested a retro look: The two-guard front. It would space the floor and hide the Dolphins' lack of athleticism, and there were mercifully few set plays involved.

The 1-3-1 zone evolved in a similar fashion -- rare, tricky and, best of all, the perfect place to hide unathletic players that might otherwise be overmatched.

By the time Beilein emerged at Richmond in the late 1990s, and then most famously at West Virginia in the aughts, it was impossible to separate the man from his system. Two-guard front offense, 1-3-1 zone defense, tons of 3s. Gimmicky.

More difficult to see was the fact that Beilein didn't exactly choose to coach this way. His style was forged by his circumstances -- by his access to talent, or lack thereof.

"He'll tell you, the more talent you have, the more simplistic you can do things," UM assistant coach Bacari Alexander said. "The less gimmicky you can be."

And Michigan has been less gimmicky -- gradually and then all at once. Bartlestein has seen all four years, and he remembers when the Wolverines still needed to use Beilein's classic stuff to hide the likes of Novak and Douglass against Big Ten athletes. "I love Zack and Stu, but I wouldn't exactly call them high-flyers," he said.

Now Beilein doesn't have to hide anyone in the 1-3-1 zone, so this team has played good old-fashioned man-to-man on 94.8 percent of its possessions, according to Synergy scouting data. He has Burke, the national player of the year and the sport's best ballhandler and distributor and step-back playmaker running his offense, so he has used as much straightforward ball-screen and pick-and-roll action as any team in the country.

[+] EnlargeJohn Beilein
John Loomis for ESPN The MagazineBeilein has never been much for flash during his long career, but he's the ultimate coach's coach.

Ever the basketball junkie -- the guy who learned the game not from a monolithic icon but from watching tape and talking to other coaches as often as possible -- has soaked up tweaks and new concepts from his staff. The Wolverines have been the most efficient offense in the country as a result.

Beilein has changed in other ways, too. The man who began his career at places where "support staff" just as likely referred to the cafeteria lunchmaid has had to learn to delegate, to trust assistants and trainers and everyone else involved in the messy and chaotic business of running a high-profile Division I program.

"He tells a story," Alexander said. "When he finally got to the point at Canisius when he was able to hire a staff, he had hired all his guys, and in their first staff meeting, as he shares with us, he stated: 'OK, what is it, exactly, you guys do?'

"I think he's evolved in terms of delegation from a time [in Division II] when he would do everything -- when you're the trainer, you're the tutor, you're the bus driver, you're everything."

"He's fought at some level that internal battle," Wolverines assistant coach Jeff Meyer said. "He's still at times gone back to: 'OK, why have we got cranberry juice on the training table again?' But he's changed. He has evolved."

Beilein admits it: This isn't Le Moyne anymore, or Canisius, or even Richmond; we're a long way from Newfane High School and Erie Community College. When Beilein was the D-II coach of the year in 1988, he played to 200 fans in the Dolphins' gym. On Monday night, he will lead Michigan and its long-tortured fan base into a Georgia Dome packed with 75,000-plus, with fireworks and bright lights and an almost unthinkable number of viewers at home. He has tried to be the same here too, tried to prepare for each game as he always has, tried to keep the scouting simple and the lessons clear.

On Saturday night, before Michigan held off Syracuse, he did his best Norman Dale. The baskets are the same height. The court is the same length. Nothing we haven't seen before.

"[I told them] you don't need to look up into the stands to see what's there," Beilein said. "Then I gave in. I took a little peek. I might have said something that I shouldn't say on TV at that time, like, holy cow."

It took him almost 40 years riding one of the least likely -- or "fortuitous," as he calls it -- career paths to get here. After doing things his way for that long, Beilein is still Beilein.

But as much as he has changed Michigan -- as drastically as he has altered the trajectory of a program that spent two decades in the post-Fab Five wilderness -- Michigan has changed him, too. Lobs and all.

"We began practicing more and more of it, did more and more of it throughout the season in practice," Beilein said. "All of a sudden, we've become very good at it."

"It reinforces the idea that must you change to your team. You can't say, 'This is how we play.'"