Published Mar. 10, 2018
An athletic coach’s resume at the pro or college level often reads like a travelogue. He moves around like a military family. Some coach in the military, on top of it.
A couple of years here, a few years there. Maybe a single year somewhere else. Have whistle, will travel.
The coach’s career is like one of those hand-held puzzles we played as a child, where you try to get a small marble to land in the proper hole.
The coach rolls around the country until, if he’s lucky, he lands in the right hole and stays for awhile. Plop.
For every John Wooden at UCLA or Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, there’s dozens of men roaming the country, like vagabonds.
Coaches typically don’t plant roots; they plant stakes.
Small schools, big time winning
John Beilein was a vagabond. Back in the day.
Beilein, the head basketball coach at Michigan who is prepping his kids for yet another NCAA Tournament run, did the circuit before his marble landed in Ann Arbor. Plop.
Beilein played the game, as so many of his brethren did, but also like so many, his time in sneakers was nondescript. Once he put on shirt, tie and loafers, things changed. Do as I say, not as I did.
Beilein’s formative years in college basketball were spent at schools no one has ever heard of, except for alumni.
He played at Wheeling College from 1971-75, where he earned a degree in history. Soon he would earn an honorary degree in geography, as so many coaches have.
Did you know that Beilein was conference coach of the year in 1981 at Erie Community College? Do you know Erie Community College?
Beilein was 28. His time as a vagabond was just starting.
Beilein was conference coach of the year in 1988 at Le Moyne. I’ll wait while you go fetch a map (it’s in Syracuse, New York).
In fact, Beilein has been named conference coach of the year five times, at five different schools in five different conferences. In addition to the above instances, Beilein was so honored in 1994 at Canisius, 1998 at Richmond and in 2014 at Michigan. Ironically, Beilein wasn’t conference coach of the year when he led West Virginia to the NIT Championship in 2007.
Beilein was a vagabond before his marble plopped in Ann Arbor in 2007 but he was a successful vagabond. He’s one of only 10 men in college basketball history to lead four different schools into NCAA Division I March Madness.
Yet another journey into Madness
Which is where he and his team are again, after the Wolverines captured a second straight Big Ten tournament title. Michigan’s ticket was already punched to the Dance regardless of the tournament outcome, most likely, but it’s never a bad thing to enter into Madness on a roll.
Despite his success at Michigan, where he’s in his 11th season, Beilein still plays second fiddle to Tom Izzo at Michigan State when it comes to name recognition and being the college basketball dean in the state. The folks in Ann Arbor don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.
Oscar Wilde once said that “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I don’t know that Izzo would agree with that these days, with his school being dragged through the mud in the wake of the Larry Nassar debacle, where Izzo has to talk about almost everything but basketball. So U-M fans, be careful what you wish for. It’s not always bad to chant, “We’re no. 2!”
Where Izzo is nattily dressed on the sidelines with the Spartans, in tailored suits and shiny shoes, Beilein is in rolled up sleeves with a frumpy shirt and slacks with the Wolverines. Where Izzo’s wife, Lupe, is arguably more well-known than Beilein himself, the Michigan coach’s personal life is low key. Where Izzo has a smile that lights up a room and a larger-than-life personality, Beilein is as dynamic as a piece of white toast.
A vagabond no more; a national title to capture
But here’s the thing. John Beilein has found a home and he is as entrenched in Ann Arbor as Izzo is in East Lansing. Beilein is under contract through the 2020-21 season at Michigan, but he’s already been extended twice in the past five years and do you actually think that the school won’t extend him again, this time maybe into kingdom come?
OK, so Beilein doesn’t have the brass ring that Izzo has at MSU, though that was 18 years ago, believe it or not. There was a close call in 2013, when the Wolverines fell to Louisville, 82-76 in the Championship game. But it’s true; Izzo is up on Beilein, 1-0, in terms of NCAA Championships.
That could change this year.
While March’s Madness often lives up to its name, the fickle finger of fate often being the middle one and pulverizing pre-tourney brackets into dust, it’s no fun to not predict at all.
So here’s one, and I don’t usually do prognostications. This is Michigan’s year.
The Wolverines are due, for one. Since the school’s national title in 1989, Michigan has flirted with championships three times since, reaching the Finals in 1992, 1993 and 2013.
Second, this year’s U-M squad might be Beilein’s most complete since he arrived on the scene, and not just in terms of Xs, Os and talent. There’s a terrific blend of youth and experience throughout the roster. Winning the Big Ten tournament again last week when there was no real incentive to do so, was a good sign of the team’s mindset heading into next week.
“I don’t want anybody smiling today,” Beilein commanded his assistant coaches as the team took the practice floor following their triumph in New York City. And in the subsequent intrasquad game, the coach was pleased with his team’s intensity.
“We had the first and the second team going at it. … It got a little chippy a few times, so I like that,” Beilein told the media. “I think that our defense is growing so much it’s frustrating our own offense. That’s a good sign, too.”
Beilein has a powder keg of a player in Moe Wagner, and that’s a literal description. A key to Michigan’s success in bracketology will be if Wagner can keep his big butt out of foul trouble. In the Big Ten tournament, Wagner picked up 15 fouls in four games.
“Dumb” was how Beilein characterized some of the whistles blown against Wagner in Madison Square Garden last weekend, and the coach wasn’t referring to the officials.
Beilein has gotten the Wolverines to the level where their season doesn’t begin in November; it begins in March. Such are the expectations now, just as that other guy has been creating at that other school in the state.
Still, the road to March is rife with land mines.
“It’s a long season. You’re just going to have those ups and downs. That’s what it is and you just have to keep coaching through it,” Beilein said Friday. “Any team that doesn’t have ups and downs, watch out because you’re going to have a quick down in March. It’s all part of the process.”
The process for John Beilein has always included winning. He’s done it wherever he’s coached, even at places where you need Wikipedia and Google maps to find.
The vagabond days are long gone. Beilein’s marble has long since plopped into place in Ann Arbor. He’s 65 years old and will retire a Wolverine. There’s only one thing left to do at Michigan.
Something tells me that the fickle finger of fate this time for the Wolverines won’t be the middle one. It would be a nice change.