Published May 17, 2019
It says something about John Beilein that at no point in his illustrious basketball coaching career, was he ever an assistant. Beilein was always the head honcho.
It started at Newfane High School in New York, when Beilein was 22 years old and the head coach. It continued for the next 44 years—always the head coach, never an assistant.
Beilein has made eight moves since his days at Newfane HS, rising through the ranks at the college level, starting with Erie Community College in 1978 and culminating with being hired at the University of Michigan in 2007.
His eighth stop continues the head coaching streak, but this one is the big kahuna. The mother of all new coaching jobs.
No mistake by the lake, this time
Beilein, at age 66, is the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Michigan basketball fans are still trying to comprehend that sentence, and the news is four days old.
There was a time when the college coach moving to the NBA was like a square peg moving to a round hole. The college game and the pro game were foreign to each other. The college kids played zone defense, for starters.
Player relations were quite different as well. Back in the day, the college kids stayed in school for four years and looked at their coach as a father figure. Now, they rarely stay for more than two years and with the dough involved in the college game, the coach is more like a Godfather.
The delineation today between the college game and the pros isn’t quite so black and white. In fact, it’s rather fuzzy—and that goes for what happens on the floor, too.
The three-point shot has become the greatest common denominator between college and pro basketball. Shooters are all the rage at both levels of the game.
Beilein’s desire to coach in the NBA was stronger than anyone wanted to believe. His flirtation with the Pistons last summer was looked at as just that—a flirtation that he needed to get out of his system. I, for one, didn’t think that Beilein wanted anything to do with the travel grind, the lack of practice time and the head cases sitting in warmups on the bench, to go along with the head cases on the floor.
But it wasn’t a flirtation. It was an appetite being whetted.
Why not the NBA?
We spent so much time looking at all the reasons that Beilein wouldn’t want to coach in the pros, that we neglected to consider why he would want to leave the college ranks. And those reasons are numerous.
Recruiting, for one.
My good friend Ray Scott, shortly after he was fired as Pistons coach in 1976, was hired by my alma mater, Eastern Michigan University, to run the then-Hurons’ basketball program.
Scott was a former NBA Coach of the Year. He took over under duress after Earl Lloyd was fired in 1972, and less than two seasons later, the Pistons were 52-game winners and strong contenders.
But the college recruiting game ate Scott up. He told me as much. He didn’t care for it, and thus didn’t spend enough time doing it. And that was a key reason why EMU gave Scott the ziggy three years and some change after hiring him.
Beilein won’t have to sit in living rooms anymore, trying to kowtow to petulant parents who sometimes lack the maturity of their kids.
One-and-done players, for two.
Beilein wants to build something with the Cavaliers. And they do need building, coming off a 19-63 season. In the college game, it’s hard to gain traction, given the constant churn of the roster. That Beilein, or any college coach for that matter, was able to win so often with so many different players pouring through the locker room, is quite a testament to the coach.
But in the pros, despite free agency, which makes the bench players interchangeable, Beilein will have the chance to procure some pillars on the roster on which he can build. And he won’t have to sweat out whether his best players will decide to leave campus for the pros.
The NCAA, for three.
To say that the rules and regulations that govern collegiate athletics are convoluted is like saying ancient Greek philosophy is heavy reading. And they change with regularity. Beilein won’t have to worry about that nonsense anymore.
What about player relations, you say. They can swallow a college coach whole in the NBA.
Fair. But Beilein isn’t taking over a team that can afford to be haughty about anything. The Cavaliers won 19 games last season for a reason: they aren’t any good. Beilein, at 66, has dealt with all sorts of personalities in his 44-year coaching career. He won’t be run roughshod over.
And Beilein’s offense is quite pro-friendly. His philosophy won’t need much, if any, alteration with the Cavs.
Cleveland the best pro fit
The fan base in Cleveland won’t be much of an issue, either. Expectations are low and the Cavaliers won a championship as recently as 2016. The franchise isn’t in the middle of some 10-year wandering in the desert, like a certain one that plays in Detroit.
Really, if a college coach wanted to pick any pro team to take over in 2019, the Cavaliers would be near the top of the list. Low expectations, two first-round draft picks this year, a recently-satiated fan base in a city where the football and baseball teams are looked at cockeyed for their lack of championships for decades.
John Beilein will be fine in Cleveland. He’s as well-equipped as any college coach is, to make the jump to the pros. Maybe the most equipped ever. Despite the romanticism and pageantry that attracts folks to the college game like bugs to light, professional basketball is the highest form of the game. In fact, it’s not even close. The NBA has the best 360 basketball players in the world. Period.
Beilein has badly wanted to be part of this high level. Longer and more strongly than anyone wanted to believe, especially the zealots in Ann Arbor.
He’ll be fine. The Cavaliers were crazy like a fox.