Originally posted on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 4/2/13
It's 927 miles from Newfane High School to the Georgia Dome. By car, the trip from Western New York to Atlanta takes about 15 hours. For John Beilein, it took 38 years. "I don't know that I would recommend my career path to anyone else, but it worked for me" the Michigan coach said before leaving for his first career Final Four. "I wouldn't change a thing." Beilein was 22 when he ended his playing career at Wheeling College with a degree in history and a desire to be a basketball coach. Instead of trying to find a job as an assistant, he took the Newfane job while studying for a master's degree. After three seasons with the Panthers, he was ready to take the next step on the coaching ladder -- jumping all the way to Erie Community College. After he did his time there, he was on to Division III Nazareth College, where he recruited someone who quickly passed him on the coaching ladder. "Jeff Van Gundy was playing for his dad at Brockport, but when his dad got fired, he wanted to come to Nazareth," Beilein said. "I talked to both of them and got everything arranged, but right after he signed, I got the job at Le Moyne." Beilein spent eight years at the Division II school, located in, of all places, Syracuse. That's when he first ran into Jim Boeheim -- the same man he and the Wolverines will face Saturday night in Atlanta. "I was coaching at this Division II school, and I would look up into the stands during a game and Jim would just be sitting in the stands, watching us play," Beilein said. "That shows you how much he loves basketball." Boeheim was getting his first look at a coach that he would get to know quite well over the next 30 years. "Even then, you knew he was a great basketball coach," Boeheim said. "He's had a lot of jobs, but he's never struggled at any level. He won at Erie and Le Moyne and every step on the ladder. "It's amazing to see any coach be able to have that much success at so many different places on so many different levels." Being in Syracuse gave Beilein the taste of the big time, but he still had a while to go before he would get there. "We weren't even taking long bus trips at Le Moyne; they were van trips with me in van one and my assistant in van two," he said. "We'd be coming home from a game against St. Lawrence or Potsdam, driving home in a whiteout, trying to stay alive. And I'd be listening to Georgetown and Syracuse on the radio, wondering what it would be like to coach in games like that." In 1992, with Boeheim's help, Beilein finally got a shot at Division I when he was hired at Canisius. "We never played each other when I was at Le Moyne because Big East teams didn't play Division II teams back then," Beilein said. "But we knew each other, and there was a lot of mutual respect -- enough that he helped me get the Canisius job." In five years there, he took the Golden Griffins to two NITs and, in 1996, the school's first NCAA tournament in 39 years. That led to his next coaching job, one that moved him out of upstate New York for the first time in his life. At Richmond, Beilein found himself in the same city with another school that would become part of this year's NCAA story -- Virginia Commonwealth. Like Canisius, Richmond was a five-year stint that included one trip to the NCAA tournament, including his first win, and two NIT berths. His last game at the school came when he lost to, of course, Syracuse in the 2002 NIT. Shortly after that game, and 27 years after he started at Newfane, Beilein got his job in Boeheim's Big East. Beilein took the job at West Virginia, and with the Mountaineers, he took his first serious runs at a Final Four berth. In 2005, he was nearly there. The Mountaineers got to the Elite Eight, knocking off Chris Paul and Bobby Knight along the way. In the Albuquerque Regional final, West Virginia led Rick Pitino's Louisville by 10 points with six minutes left, but collapsed down the stretch and lost in overtime. The Cardinals could easily be Michigan's opponent in the national championship game, and Pitino knows what he would be facing. "I've known John for a long time, and he should have been in the Final Four before now," he said. "He's a great coach, and I suspect he'll be get here a few more times." Beilein made it back to the Sweet 16 in 2006 -- a run that started with two victories at the same venue this run started at, the Palace of Auburn Hills -- but lost on a buzzer-beater to Texas. A year later, he was in Ann Arbor, trying to rebuild a program that had fallen on hard times since the Ed Martin scandal. In six years -- his longest stay at any school -- Beilein's gotten the Wolverines into four NCAA tournaments and now has them in the Final Four for the first time in 20 years. Beilein, 60, knows there are a lot of places he could have stopped climbing the ladder. He could have settled down in Newfane with his family and his master's degree, and be nearing the end of a legendary high-school coaching career. Or he could have been happy in Divison II or the Atlantic 10. But no matter where he was, from a high-school gym to those Western New York blizzards to the Richmond Coliseum, he was never willing to settle down. "I've been a nomad, but that's because I always believed I was a good enough coach to make it to the highest levels," he said. "It took a long time to get here, but I knew I could do it. I just had to be patient." So now he's heading for Atlanta and the biggest stage of his long career, but don't make the mistake of thinking he's suddenly going to be satisfied. There's no bad way to win a NCAA title, but a Final Four win over his mentor and a victory in the championship game over the coach and team that broke his heart eight years ago? That would be the ultimate statement that, after almost 40 years of wandering, John Beilein had truly found the promised land.
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