Michigan's Beilein still loves to look back

Associated Press  |  Last updated April 04, 2013
Earlier this week, John Beilein was asked to say a few words about the season he spent coaching Nazareth College - 30 years ago. Specifically, he was asked what it was like having Jeff Van Gundy on the team, but it turned out the questioner was off by a year. Van Gundy didn't arrive at Nazareth until later. No matter. It was another chance for Beilein to offer a quick history lesson. ''My first game at Nazareth was at Brockport State. Jeff Van Gundy was the starting point guard at Brockport State and his father was the head coach,'' Beilein said. ''Both teams showed up with gold uniforms. The Brockport State guys had to go back to their rooms to get their new uniforms.'' Beilein went on to explain how Van Gundy switched schools, heading to Nazareth around the same time Beilein left to take a job at LeMoyne. The anecdote had nothing to do with Michigan or this week's Final Four, but the 60-year-old coach was happy to tell the story - and that was no surprise to anyone who observes him on a regular basis. Now in his 35th season, Beilein is still a stickler for details. ''He's coached so many games and won so many games, but he has an unbelievable memory,'' Michigan guard Josh Bartelstein said. ''He's always talking about former players, former teams, games. He loves sharing that kind of stuff, and it's cool, because you realize how much experience he has and how much he's seen.'' Beilein is in his sixth season at Michigan, and this is his first Final Four. His path has been methodical to say the least. He began at Erie Community College in 1978. After four seasons there and one at Nazareth, he coached LeMoyne for nine years. Beilein eventually settled into a bit of a pattern, staying five seasons each at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia. He reached the NCAA tournament with all three of those teams before taking over at Michigan in 2007. ''I think he had a real vision for his coaching life,'' Richmond athletic director Jim Miller said. ''He wanted to be tested at the highest level.'' When Beilein came to Michigan, he still had a bit to prove. His reputation as a teacher and tactician was solid, but the Wolverines were not far removed from being one of the nation's glamour programs. Beilein had been to a regional final with West Virginia, but he didn't exactly fit the stereotype of a young up-and-comer. ''He's got very, very high standards,'' said John Maddock, an associate athletic director at Canisius who worked with Beilein as a sports information director. ''He does adapt, but he can be old school.'' Could Beilein recruit elite talent to Michigan? Would his approach, particularly his heavy focus on fundamentals, seem stifling to players with NBA aspirations? These last couple seasons have helped quiet the doubters. In 2012, Michigan tied for its first Big Ten title since 1986. This year, the Wolverines were ranked No. 1 in the country at one point, and now they're in the Final Four. Beilein's Michigan team is talented and unselfish, young but coachable. Point guard Trey Burke - the AP's national player of the year - fits the coach's system beautifully with his smooth combination of quickness and savvy. Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. add extra athleticism, and Beilein allows them to be creative. ''You cannot get stale when you're fighting for your life in all those situations I was in. Each opportunity that we embraced, the program was at a low, or one of its lower points,'' Beilein said. ''When you're in survival mode, you find ways to improvise, to get better.'' Discipline is still important to Beilein, both on and off the court, but this year's Wolverines can freelance a bit and push the pace in transition. ''You have to gain trust from your coaching staff,'' Hardaway said. ''We've gained the trust from him.'' Less than two weeks ago, Michigan faced its first major test of this NCAA tournament when the Wolverines took on Virginia Commonwealth and its relentless press. In a fascinating contrast of styles, Michigan picked the Rams apart. It was a triumph of preparation and poise. That victory put the Wolverines in the round of 16 for the first time since 1994, and Beilein took some time that weekend to enjoy the moment with family. His description of the celebration quickly became a punch line. ''I think we had subs that day, so it was crazy,'' he said with a laugh. ''The whole thing was really a knock-down, drag-out party.'' That's apparently what passes for wild behavior from Beilein. Two wins later, the Wolverines are in the Final Four, and their basketball smarts will be tested again Saturday by Syracuse's zone defense. Win that game and another after it, and Michigan will have its first national championship since 1989. If that happens, Beilein will surely be asked again to reflect - and chances are he'll look back on those days at Nazareth, Canisius, Richmond and all his other stops. This well-traveled coach learned some new lessons every step of the way. ''I'm sort of always thinking about, `What can we do right now to be a better team? What can I do to be a better coach? A better father? A better teacher?''' Beilein said. ''Always with the idea that if you do all those things, anything is possible in your life.''
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