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College Basketball

Hands-on assistants a key to success for John Beilein, Michigan

Photo: AP

One reason why Michigan coach John Beilein (left) has been so successful is his ability to defer to assistants like Bacari Alexander (right).

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The media gave John Beilein the Big Ten Coach of the Year award, and Beilein sounded a little annoyed about having to interrupt his busy March to find the nearest dumpster. The Michigan coach has no interest in being anybody's coach of any year. This is probably because he doesn't want credit for his players' achievements. But he has another reason to reject it:

"I delegate like crazy now."

Beilein has long been considered one of the great minds in college basketball. He has also become one of the game's best CEOs. He did it by hiring some of the best assistants in the country -- including at least one, LaVall Jordan, who will lead plenty of teams into the tournament himself someday. Year by year, Beilein has entrusted Jordan, Jeff Meyer and Bacari Alexander more. It has energized him, empowered them, and made Michigan one of the best programs in the country again.

Head coaches get more publicity in college basketball than in any other sport, especially at this time of year. TV cameras love them. Reporters constantly write about them. You rarely hear about assistant coaches. But modern-day programs are too big, with too many responsibilities, for one man to run himself. The best programs need more than one great coach.

Beilein is an unlikely example of this. He has never been an assistant coach in his life, except for a USA basketball team last summer, and he admitted the experience was strange. At the beginning of his career on college basketball's lowest rungs, he didn't even have any assistants. He still has a natural inclination to try to do everything himself.

"It's still hard," he says. "There are still things other head coaches would never do. I still break down three-quarters of the film for the team. I don't think a lot of coaches do that, but I do it because it helps me become a better coach. I watch plays over and over again, and I can change angles and do things. At the same time, I have no problem with saying, 'OK, Vall, you do the cuts today. I'm ready to move on to the next thing."

Beilein made changes to his staff after a disappointing third season at Michigan. That directly contributed to his success since then: four straight NCAA tournament bids, two Big Ten titles (one shared), a national-title game experience.

I spent the first week of the 2013 NCAA tournament with the Wolverines. I was allowed in every meeting and film session, and in the locker room for pregame, halftime and postgame talks. I saw more a much more collaborative coaching staff than I expected. Alexander, Meyer and Jordan are constantly sharing ideas with Beilein.

"Half of them I embrace, and half of them I say, 'I don't like that,'" Beilein said. "But they're bringing me stuff."

In meetings, Beilein listens to Jordan like he has been coaching for 35 years -- when in reality he has only been alive for 34. In his four years on staff, Jordan has brought along three young point guards -- Darius Morris, Trey Burke and Derrick Walton, who were all underclassmen.

"He very rarely raises his voice," Beilein says. "He is a teacher. He is willing to change, and look at the game from different perspectives. We've been really good for each other."

Jordan is so admired within the program that Alexander, another rising coach, endorses him to be the next head coach at Michigan.

"In my mind, I think he would be a great progression, when and if the time comes, when coach Beilein decides to transition on," Alexander says.

Alexander is 37, and he set a goal for himself to be a head coach by age 40. But he looks at Jordan and thinks of the Michigan football team's defensive coordinator. Says Alexander: "I would be more than willing to be (Jordan's) Greg Mattison. We want to continue to work together. I just think the world of him."

With his command of a room, desire to teach and ability to formulate and communicate a game plan, Jordan seems like a young Beilein, right down to his inability to promote himself. He was a finalist last summer at Butler, his alma mater, but as he says, "That was a unique opportunity. I was not hunting." He does not have an agent.

"You know what? I don't look around," Jordan said. "Maybe I'm different. I just kind of do the best job I do here. And if it's God's will, it will happen. I love it here, I love our guys. We've got a good thing going and good chemistry. People probably ask me that question more than I'd like."

He laughed and said, "You know this thing isn't so bad, at Michigan."

The program was the best thing in the Big Ten this season, by three games, even though preseason All-America Mitch McGary missed the entire conference season. Michigan should do whatever it can to keep this going. In January, Michigan made a big deal about hiring former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who will be paid more than $800,000 per year. Football is a larger beast than basketball, but the athletic department would be wise to reward Beilein's assistants, too. They have earned it, and if Michigan doesn't pay it, somebody else will.

In the meantime, nobody is too worried about the next step, because they are enjoying this one too much. Beilein is 61 and Meyer is 59, but they seem younger. Jordan and Alexander are in their 30s but seem older. Like this year's Michigan team, everybody on the staff just fits together. The best assistant coaches don't star in commercials. But they do cut down nets.

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