The Athletic

John Beilein, the quintessential college coach, and the lessons he can’t explain

Everything is changing in college basketball. Maybe for the better. Maybe for the worse. The very concept itself, though, remains unchanged: The best sport ever created, played by collegians from universities of vastly different sizes and shapes and ideologies, coached by neurotic mentors and maniacs, competing to reach an ever-rearranging bracket.

If there’s a coach who encompasses the expanse and miscellany of the college game, it’s John Beilein. Fifty-one years ago, he walked onto the team at Wheeling College, a Division II outpost somewhere in West Virginia. As a coach, he put in four years at a junior college, one year at an NAIA program, then nine at a Division II school, then five at a small Division I school, five at a middle-sized D1, five at a Power 6 school, and finally 12 at one of the biggest, most prestigious programs in the game. He coached at small Catholic schools and massive state schools; schools subscribed to football and those adoring basketball, those that paid the rent every month and those that paid for a vacation house.

Rather quietly, fittingly so, Beilein entered the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame over the weekend. There exists a band of friends, fans and acolytes working and petitioning to get him into the big one — the Naismith, over in Springfield, Mass. — and will maybe one day get it done, but, for now, this is where he resides. Beilein hasn’t the slightest clue how many college players he coached, but with them, he won 829 games and made 20 NCAA Tournament appearances, including two Final Fours. Not bad for a former JV high school coach.

It sure feels like a time to reflect. So Beilein calls and says what’s on his mind.

Hope. Luck. How it all came to be.

“Hard to explain, you know?” he says.

Other coaches, young and old, dial up Beilein all the time. Often, it’s those hanging on, white-knuckled. At least once a week a call comes, he says. “It’s some coach who is just searching.” They don’t necessarily ask about this play or that set or how to push the pieces around. They ask instead about how to make it. How to turn a program around.

“I absolutely love it because I see myself — that desperate survival mode,” Beilein says. “When you’re in it, you need something to cling to that will give you hope when things aren’t going well.

“When it comes to rebuilding a program, hope and luck are the two biggest things you need.”

This, really, is the tributary of Beilein’s career. Think about it.

One of the many bizarre factoids of what was a 41-year college career is that nearly every job Beilein took came on the heels of someone else being fired or resigning.

At Erie Community College in 1978, Beilein took over a program that hadn’t had a winning season in seven years.

Nazareth College, his next stop, is the outlier. Ol’ Joe Gigliotti posted a 69-47 record there before stepping away in 1982. The program was moving from NAIA to Division III when Beilein took over for one season. He went 20-6.

At LeMoyne College, Beilein replaced Mike Lee, who went 34-68 in four seasons and resigned instead of being fired.

Next was Canisius in 1992. Beilein replaced Marty Marbach, fired after a 29–59 record over five seasons.

At Richmond, Beilein replaced Bill Dooley, who went 43-69 in four seasons and was fired in 1997.

At West Virginia, he replaced Gale Catlett, who retired in 2002 after an 8-20 season, ending his 24-year tenure.

At Michigan, he followed Tommy Amaker, who finished his six years in Ann Arbor with back-to-back 22-win seasons, but couldn’t reach the NCAA Tournament and was fired in 2007.

Beilein, meanwhile, was never fired from a college job. Something that sticks with him is the variability of it all and how others’ misfortune, in some ways, set up his successes. Fact is, in order for Beilein to have ever become this legendary figure and the winningest coach in Michigan history, he needed first to win at two mid-major programs to reach the big time. Both instances of him winning at those two crucial pit stops — Canisius and Richmond — came with massive strokes of good fortune, even if he didn’t know it at the time.

John Beilein took two Michigan teams to the Final Four, the crowning achievements of a long career in college basketball. (Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Marbach originally beat out Beilein (and Stan Van Gundy) for the Canisius job in 1987. As a result, it was he, not Beilein, tasked with transitioning Canisius from the ECAC up to the Metro Atlantic. Marbach went 18-18 in the ECAC his first two years. Then he went 11-37 in the Metro over the next three seasons and was fired with one year remaining on a six-year contract.

In his second go-round as a Canisius candidate, Beilein was hired and given a $45,000 annual salary. His first team, built around underclassmen recruited by Marbach, finished 10-18 overall and 5-9 in the MAAC. The next year? With three of his top four scorers coming courtesy of Marbach, the Golden Griffins went 22-7, won the Metro, and went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1957.

At Richmond, Beilein was hired to replace Dooley, who was let go after failing to live up to Dick Tarrant’s preceding 12-year tenure — one that produced five NCAA Tournament wins and March upsets over Indiana, Georgia Tech, Auburn and Syracuse. Several of Tarrant’s players transferred out after Dooley’s hiring. When it came to Beilein, though, the leftover Richmond players stuck around. In his first game at the helm, he started four of Dooley’s former players and beat Virginia in double overtime. That team went on to go 23-8, 12-4 in the CAA, and snatched the league’s automatic NCAA bid with three wins in the conference tournament. Beilein’s name hit the national scene by returning Richmond to Cinderella status—a first-round NCAA upset of BJ McKie and third-seeded South Carolina.

All these twists along the way. Beilein was obviously a gifted tactical coach and skill developer, but so many of the pieces that fell in place could never be planned, never be drawn up.

“Oh, impossible to know,” he says.

There were the jobs he didn’t take. Probably four or five offers while at Canisius, four or five at Richmond, four or five at West Virginia, and, yes, a handful while he was at Michigan. In an alternate universe, he might’ve paved his early road through UNC Asheville or Colgate or Army or George Mason. And who knows where those might’ve led.

A year before going to Michigan in 2007, Beilein accepted an offer from a deep-pocket suitor. His wife, Kathleen, was onboard, and they were packing up and heading out of Morgantown. Beilein went into his WVU office for what he thought was the final time. Then he went to practice and was overcome with emotion.

“Could see in their faces that it was going to be a special team,” he remembers. “I just said, you know, I can’t do this. I can’t leave these guys.”

He stayed another season. Michigan AD Bill Martin called the next spring.

When Beilein did go from one job to another, each move came with its own inner turmoil. Saying goodbye. The fear of leaving something good. The fear of another rebuild. Starting over. All told, Beilein’s career spanned eight moves and 10 different houses.

“I’d go from a place that was really rockin’ and rollin’ to a place that needed a lot of work, and each time, I’d think, ‘Oh, man, did I bite off more than I can chew? ‘” he says. “I’d wonder, Did I let my ego get in the way — that desire to move up instead of just being content in a good situation? Each time, it was extremely emotional. Tears. Actual tears. Grown man tears.”

Beilein would get his new program rolling, but inevitably come to the tension of worrying he’d peaked. Winning was always followed by looking around, wondering how much more could realistically be done.

Beilein speaks of these memories as a quantum. In a flash, he’s back in December 1999. Richmond is coming off a narrow home loss against Western Michigan, its fourth L in five games. Beilein is in his third season at the school, having gone 23-8 in Year 1, 15-12 in Year 2, and is now 4-6 to start Year 3. Feels like things are spiraling. Two key sophomores are suspended and a tough stretch in the schedule is coming, starting with a game at Marist. Beilein tells the Richmond Times Dispatch, “We have to get out of this incredible funk.”

It’s half time. Marist is up, 39-23. Beilein is pacing. He’s 46 years old and worried it’s all over.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘This is really, really bad, man. We’re not going to make it,’” he says, 22 years later.

Turns out, the Spiders outscored Marist by 29 in that second half to win 76-63. There was no genius halftime adjustment. Beilein just asked his guys to find something in themselves, and they did. A bunch of 18- to 20-year-olds. College players. They finished the year 18-12 overall, third in the CAA and reached the conference tournament title game. All in all, a good season.

Two years later, Beilein was off to West Virginia.

How does that happen?

There’s no one answer.

When current college coaches call Beilein, searching for wisdom, trying to understand how he did what he did, and won where he won, these are the things that can’t be explained, can’t be passed down. Was he a great coach? Without question, yes. But there are also the breaks it takes that can’t be drawn up. That’s the nature of coaching. Beilein looks back to his days at the D2 level and remembers some of those opposing coaches being “just as good as the ones that I coached against who ended up winning national championships at the highest level.” Difference is, he entered the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend. Most of the others didn’t.

Maybe this is why, now 69 and working in a support role with the Detroit Pistons, Beilein doesn’t look back at his years on the sideline in terms of winning and losing, but instead as “surviving.”

And, yes, it was a hardest lesson learned at the end. The quintessential college coach should never have left college. Beilein didn’t survive his late-career soiree in the NBA. That half-season with the Cleveland Cavaliers is thumbtacked to him. It happened.

“I’ve come to peace with it,” Beilein says of how it all ended. “I know that what I should have done is retired at Michigan at that time (after the 2018-19 season) and then re-evaluated. With another group going pro and all the rule changes coming, NIL and the (transfer) portal, all that on the way, the timing was right to retire, then maybe look at being an assistant in the pros, and then entertain the idea of being (an NBA head coach). But I convinced myself and everybody else that I could (rebuild an NBA team) and the truth was, I couldn’t.”

So that didn’t work, but all those coaches still call. There’s plenty to learn from John Beilein, the Hall of Famer, even if he can’t explain it all.

(Top photo: Mike Mulholland/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)


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