John Beilein's long winding road to the Final Four
So many people are talking about John Beilein's journey this week, but really, they are talking about the end of the journey. That's the story here, isn't it? Beilein has coached for 36 years at seven schools, and this weekend, at age 60, he will finally coach in the Final Four. Validation. That's a hell of a story.
Except ... that's not the story, not to Beilein. That's just the end of it. But what about the first 35 seasons? Why are they just a prelude to this weekend? Don't they have value? And if they don't have value, then what kind of life is this?
"It was probably in his head, or my head: Wouldn't it be nice to be in the Final Four someday?" his wife Kathleen told me this week. "But I don't think it was really what drove him so much."
On dark Michigan winter mornings, before he leaves for work, John Beilein usually pulls out a very small book. It fits in the palm of his hand. It is called "My Daily Bread". It's a prayer book. It belonged to his mother for many years before she passed away in 2000.
Beilein, a Catholic who attends Mass every Sunday, reads a passage from "My Daily Bread" at home. Then he takes the book to the office. He reads it before games. He brings it on the road. He bought copies for his sons Mark, Patrick and Andy, and for his daughter Seana. He bought more copies for other friends, or to give to people who seek his help, when he thinks the time is right.
Seana says when her father reads the prayer book, "it's more about the reflection," than religion. It is a moment to be thankful. His Michigan teams huddle for a brief prayer before games, but it's so deliberately generic that it is barely even a prayer. Essentially, the players thank whoever or whatever they think is responsible for them being there.
Beilein does not talk much about this. He practices his religion but doesn't promote it. Yet he is shaped by his religion every day. It helps explain how he climbed to the top without seeming to climb at all. He won't allow himself to be driven by the petty feuds and raw ambition that fuel so many other successful coaches.
Sometimes his wife and kids tease him: Come on, you're a good coach. Admit it! He won't say it. He just works, the way he worked on his family's apple farm in upstate Burt, N.Y, as a kid.
Four years at Erie Community College. One at Division III Nazareth, in Rochester, N.Y. Nine at LeMoyne College in Syracuse.
At one point, the Canisius job opened up, and man, did he want it. Division I! It was in Buffalo, near his hometown. It was his dream job. He interviewed. Canisius hired somebody else. "He was devastated," his wife says. He kept working.
After he spent nine years at LeMoyne, Canisius called again.
This time, he got it.
People asked him about getting rejected the last time around, a big, juicy apple for the kid from an apple farm: Just take a bite and let your ego take over. Tell them Canisius finally realized its mistake. Say you felt you deserved it instead. Instead, Beilein just said last time, "I wasn't ready." Back to work. He coached Canisius for five years.
We're up to 19 years now, and we still haven't left western New York.
A lot of coaches commit so completely to their jobs that they wake up at age 50 and realize their kids don't really know them, or resent them. Beilein's work just made his kids admire him more. They saw him driving the van and help his players move into their dorms. He looked at recruits' transcripts to see if they were good students, not just good enough to get into school. In a profession that so easily corrupts, he remained uncompromised.
"It's hard to say what" it is, his son Patrick says. "But you see him walking down the street ... you see just acts of kindness a lot with other people. Giving a homeless guy 20 bucks on the street. Just little things."
They adopted his teams, and not just the ones he coaches. The kids are all Buffalo Bills fans like their father. John listened to St. Louis Cardinals games on KMOX radio as a boy and got hooked. All of his kids are Cardinals fans. They have never lived near St. Louis. And think about this: John never had a favorite NBA team, and so Patrick, a basketball junkie who is now the head coach at West Virginia Wesleyan, has never had a favorite NBA team.
Patrick decided as a kid that he would play college basketball for his dad. He didn't care what level. When Patrick was in seventh grade, John left Canisius for Richmond. Five years later, he went to West Virginia.
Patrick was ready to join him. But John told him candidly: "I don't think you're a Big East player." He could come to West Virginia as a walk-on, but he probably would never get in a game.
"I said, 'I don't care,'" Patrick said. "'I want to come play for you anyway.'"
Patrick played in 128 games for his father and scored 1,001 points. He says now that his father was right: He wasn't a Big East player. He just fit the system. And that system got West Virginia to the Elite 8 in 2005, where the Mountaineers led Louisville by 20 points before losing in overtime.
The next week, John took Patrick to the Final Four. They sat in the stands. At halftime of the first game, they left.
"It was too painful," Patrick said. "We looked at each other ... 'We gotta go.'"
If you talk to John Beilein in November, any November, you will walk away wondering if his team will even win 10 games. He doesn't say this. He'll tell you his guys are young, they're small, they're eager to learn but it takes time, and he needs to be patient. But he isn't poor-mouthing his team for effect, or managing expectations. He says it because he likes the challenge of figuring it out -- the more problems his team has, the more they get to solve.
This is why he coaches. It's why his matchup with his old friend Jim Boeheim this weekend is so fascinating. Boeheim, the Hall of Fame coach at Syracuse, will tell you straight: He coaches because he loves the games, and he loves the games because he loves to win. Everything in between is just housekeeping.
Beilein is a teacher. When he takes his team somewhere unusual, like Europe on one of those summer trips, he will walk to the back of the bus and point out the window at all the cool buildings and sights that the players are ignoring. And of course, they still ignore them. But he can't help himself.
The passion for teaching overrides everything else. He blanks on names sometimes. He forgets he has appointments. Patrick says that when Michigan made the Sweet 16 this year, his dad could probably only name two of the other 16 teams. He is just completely consumed by the next game -- not by the stakes, but the challenge. His mind starts spinning, and nothing can stop it.
After the bracket came out on Sunday evening this year, Beilein did not watch film of his first opponent, South Dakota State, until Monday morning. He knew if he watched, he wouldn't sleep. He woke up early Monday and dove in.
When he gets edited game or practice film, he edits it again. He conducts the film sessions himself. His system is predicated on having good shooters, but Beilein doesn't just find shooters. He molds them, starting with how they hold the ball -- a relaxed grip, instead of the tight grip that most players have, so the shot is smooth. He says he can't create a great shooter. But he can help a good shooter become great.
Boeheim is 9-0 against Beilein. But Patrick points out a good reason for some of those losses: "Boeheim had pros, and we had me."
Beilein has pros now: Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Tim Hardaway Jr. There were always questions about whether he could adapt to NBA-level talent, or whether he was just a system guy, but the methods keep working. He has tweaked the two-guard system to run ball screens for his star, Trey Burke, and he is constantly adjusting those screens -- how Michigan runs them, and how the Wolverines defend them.
He remains relentlessly positive. He very rarely curses; in a game-day speech to his team, he animatedly used the word ... "keister." One of his favorite drills is to ask his players to make 50 three-pointers in five minutes. It doesn't matter how many they take. Beilein doesn't want his players thinking of themselves as failures -- that's not how you hit clutch shots in an NCAA tournament game, and it's not how you get the Canisius job a few years after you were rejected. Faith.
When the Beilein children were young, they would line up with their "lucky charms" to give their father when he coached. A My Little Pony. A G.I. Joe. Some Legos. And Beilein would thank them and stick the toys in the pocket of his sport coat and keep them there throughout the game.
"We just wanted to be a part of it," Seana says. "It was always such a team effort."
When Beilein went to Richmond, Seana stayed back in Buffalo for her senior year of high school and lived with extended family. Along with visits and phone calls, her father wrote her letters every few weeks to tell her how proud he was, and that he knew it was hard. When the year was over, Seana went to college at Richmond. Patrick, of course, played for his dad at West Virginia. Mark graduated from West Virginia, too. Andy went to Michigan.
Does that count for something? With so many coaches filled with regrets, does it matter that Beilein has so few? Or is this Final Four what matters?
It's a results business, and a results world. But John Beilein is a process guy. He speaks fondly of the year West Virginia won the NIT, because the team got so much better from October to March.
In a results business, nine years at LeMoyne is way too many. To a process guy, nine years of coaching is a joy.
Did he want this level of success? Of course he did. If he didn't, he would have stayed at Canisius. But he did not permit himself to chase it. He did not fix a transcript or buy a player or leech onto a famous coach so he could raise his profile. Even now, Beilein's friends in the business are true friends, people he worked with or got to know well. He is not a glad-hander.
"That's why I think it means so much to us," Kathleen says. "We started where we started, and we've been able to just ... make our way. John has worked hard and kept his integrity, the values of what he's always believed, and just kept it going. Now I feel he has reached the very top. I think it means more when you do that. You appreciate everything along the way. It's always been work hard, stay the course, and good things will happen."
Last week, after Michigan completed an incredible comeback to beat No. 1-seeded Kansas, Beilein smiled. It was a full, uninhibited smile, so rare for a coach who gets lost in the game.
A lot was made of that smile. Beilein was overjoyed, he was relieved, he was amazed that his team had pulled this off. That's what most people saw.
His family saw something else. That smile was Beilein acknowledging to himself what he would never say to others: He was a good enough coach to beat the best teams in the country. He had proof. His team had just done it.
"That was a testament right there," Kathleen says.
Maybe her husband will win a national championship this weekend and maybe he won't. But Kathleen Beilein plans to frame a picture of that smile.