Originally Published: June 24, 2014

Top 50 coaches: No. 9 John Beilein

By ESPN.com

John BeileinMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein worked his way to the top, learning to coach the way that made him comfortable.

Editor's note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 9: Michigan's John Beilein. On Wednesday, we release No. 8.


In 2007, at age 54, John Beilein became the head men's basketball coach at the University of Michigan. He was well-known for his five years at West Virginia, probably best for the deep 2004-05 tournament run he made with Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnogle. But as much as anything else, Beilein was known for his unusual tactical style.

The system that took a seemingly outmanned West Virginia group to the brink of 2005 Final Four came out of nowhere, and seemed fully formed. Gansey and Pittsnogle were perfect centerpieces for the 1-3-1 zone defense and the two-guard front -- an old-time offense more out of fashion than Latin. In reality, Beilein picked it up in the course of his atypical 30-year rise to the top of his profession. The two-guard front was smart, precise, almost unassuming. The system mirrored the man.

Beilein began his coaching career at Newfane (N.Y.) High School in 1975. He was 22. His first job was his first as a head coach, and it's worth noting as much because this would become a theme. Beilein didn't know what he was doing back then, he's since admitted, so he did what all of the other coaches were doing: flex offense, straight motion, set plays, man-to-man. He tried on different identities. He coached like a man in his 20s.

John Beilein
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe rise of John Beilein didn't happen overnight. But after all these years, here he stands.

He was good, though, so by 1978 he was the head coach at Erie Community College, and in 1983 he had already worked his way up to LeMoyne. His team wasn't very talented and "wasn't good with set plays," he'd later say, so his uncle recommended the old two-guard front. It fit his personnel. It put a premium on basketball intuition. For the next nine years, playing in the local shadow of 1980s-era Syracuse, Beilein mastered the two-guard front.

That might be the most interesting thing about John Beilein: He learned on the job. And because he learned on the job -- because he was never a graduate-level video coordinator, never an assistant coach -- he was never bequeathed some set of inviolable basketball principles. For almost three decades, Beilein had to figure out how to take a tricky equation -- "less talent than opposing team + x = winning" and sum for x. By the time he was at West Virginia, after stops at Canisius and Richmond, he had things pretty much figured out.

And now? Now he's just a ton of fun to watch.

It's always a fun thought experiment: What could one coach do with another coach's players? Who really gets the most out of his talent? Beilein's past two seasons have been a real-life version of the answer. For almost all of his career, Beilein's players were less talented than his opponents. Not that they were always straight-up worse at basketball; talent means a lot of things. They were usually undersized or less athletic or both. West Virginia was like that. The first few seasons at Michigan were like that, too. Beilein struggled to figure out Manny Harris (and Ekpe Udoh, believe it or not) in his first two seasons. But the Wolverines got better, gradually and patiently, even as Beilein gave huge minutes to guys like Zack Novak (a 6-foot-5 wing who often found himself stuck defending the low post) and Stu Douglass (whose contributions were rarely felt in the box score).

Then the breakthrough came. In 2011-12, Beilein inserted a little-known point guard named Trey Burke into his starting lineup. Burke had played with Jared Sullinger at his Columbus, Ohio, high school, so he got plenty of recruiting looks. When he signed with Michigan, he ranked outside the top 100 players in the country.

Burke was brilliant from the start of his freshman year. In 2012-13, he was even better, and at that point he was surrounded by the kind of talent Beilein had never coached before -- a top-10 center in Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson's and Tim Hardaway's highly touted progeny, a sweet-shooting and joyously cocky 6-6 Canadian (Nik Stauskas). Beilein's system had never been as rigid as the popular impression; it just looked that way because it was different. But last season, Beilein adapted brilliantly. Isolations, pick-and-rolls, simple stuff -- the stuff you do when your team is better than the opponent -- joined forces with the system you use when you have ground to make up. The result was a few plays shy of a national title.

Michigan wasn't supposed to be as good this past season. Not before the season, after Burke and Hardaway had left for the NBA. Not during the season, when McGary, who could have done the same, was hobbled and then sidelined by back surgery. But Michigan was so, so good: The Wolverines ranked No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. Stauskas was unleashed onto a role -- angle-exploiting pull-up combo sharpshooter -- that Beilein practically invented just for him. But for Aaron Harrison's repeat buzzer-beater, Michigan might have been back in the Final Four again.

It took Beilein a lifetime to get to where he is now: indubitably successful, at the head of a well-funded high-major program, in charge of a tenacious group of assistant coaches and recruiters. And now, finally, the rest of us are getting to see just how good he really is.

It's a strange thing to say about a 61-year-old man, but it feels like his career has only just begun.

-- Eamonn Brennan


Previous: Nos. 50-25 » No. 24: McKillop » No. 23: McDermott » No. 22: Amaker »
No. 21: Brown » No. 20: Matta » No. 19: Wright » No. 18: Fisher » No. 17: Few »
No. 16: Williams » No. 15: Hoiberg » No. 14: Bennett » No. 13: Smart »
No. 12: Boeheim » No. 11: Miller » No. 10: Ollie »

Full Top 50 Coaches List

No. 50: Tie -- Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's; Scott Drew, Baylor

No. 49: Richard Pitino, Minnesota

No. 48: Stew Morrill, Utah State

No. 47: Bob Hoffman, Mercer

No. 46: John Thompson III, Georgetown

No. 45: Mike Brey, Notre Dame

No. 44: Rick Barnes, Texas

No. 43: Chris Mack, Xavier

No. 42: Josh Pastner, Memphis

No. 41: Ed Cooley, Providence

No. 40: Bruce Weber, Kansas State

No. 39: Tubby Smith, Texas Tech

No. 38: Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech

No. 37: Rick Byrd, Belmont

No. 36: Steve Alford, UCLA

No. 35: Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's

No. 34: Tad Boyle, Colorado

No. 33: Fran McCaffery, Iowa

No. 32: Tim Miles, Nebraska

No. 31: Lon Kruger, Oklahoma

No. 30: Bob Huggins, West Virginia

No. 29: Jim Crews, Saint Louis

No. 28: Jim Larranaga, Miami

No. 27: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati

No. 26: Archie Miller, Dayton

No. 25: Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh

No. 24: Bob McKillop, Davidson

No. 23: Greg McDermott, Creighton

No. 22: Tommy Amaker, Harvard

No. 21: Larry Brown, SMU

No. 20: Thad Matta, Ohio State

No. 19: Jay Wright, Villanova

No. 18: Steve Fisher, San Diego State

No. 17: Mark Few, Gonzaga

No. 16: Roy Williams, North Carolina

No. 15: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State

No. 14: Tony Bennett, Virginia

No. 13: Shaka Smart, VCU

No. 12: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse

No. 11: Sean Miller, Arizona

No. 10: Kevin Ollie, UConn

No. 9: John Beilein, Michigan

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.