BY RUTH LINCOLN
Daily Sports Editor
Published March 15, 2009
John Beilein jumped out of his large leather chair, embraced his wife and children to his right and ran on to his jubilant players.
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The man who had just been hiding his inevitable nerves, sitting calmly, with his legs crossed and left hand sitting reassuringly on the back of redshirt freshman Laval Lucas-Perry's chair, was ecstatic.
With hundreds of screaming fans in Crisler Arena, Michigan's men's basketball coach had just led his team to something huge — its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998.
When Beilein first met with his players in April 2007, he brought the NCAA Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rings he earned at West Virginia to share. As each player slid the rings on and off, Beilein’s message was clear:
“We're going to put these on as soon as we can,” Beilein said through the Athletic Department in 2007. “NCAA rings, we're going to go after it as soon as we can. There's no timetable. Just do your best, and our coaching staff and everyone will do the best they can, as well.”
That was 534 days ago. It has been 11 years since Michigan’s last Tournament appearance. On Thursday at 7:10 p.m., that will change.
Yesterday, Michigan became a legitimate Tournament team. And Beilein deserves a lot of the credit.
He’s been everywhere
Thirty years of head coaching experience speaks pretty loudly,
and 26 winning seasons is even clearer.
Never as an assistant, Beilein has learned how to win as a head coach at all levels — community college, NCAA Division II, and for the last 17 years, Division I.
In April 2007, after six seasons under former-Michigan coach Tommy Amaker and no NCAA Tournament bids, Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin brought in someone with a winner’s résumé.
Known as a true teacher, Beilein directed his programs to greatness with a quirky offensive system and an ability to make seemingly average players into household names.
“John Beilein can win at whatever level you put him at and still maintain the integrity of the institution and the integrity of his program,” said John Maddock, an associate athletic director at Canisius who served on the Canisius search committee that helped hire Beilein. “He finds a way. … He’s got a track record that if you buy into what he’s selling, you’re going to win.”
Beilein has sold his system well with 10 postseason appearances.
But he also shows loyalty to his players.
In 2006, Beilein’s West Virginia squad dropped its final regular-season contest by three points to Cincinnati on the road.
More than 400 miles away, in Buffalo, N.Y., two of Beilein’s former players, Michael Meeks and Daryl Barley, were being inducted into the Canisius Sports Hall of Fame. Immediately after the Mountaineers' game ended, Beilein boarded a plane bound for Buffalo. He made Meeks and Barley’s afternoon ceremony and then took the two out for dinner. A few chicken wings and another plane ride later, he was back to Morgantown.
“That’s why he’s a special guy,” Maddock said. “That’s why he’s so successful and why players play hard for him and people work for him. He’s extremely loyal, extremely passionate about what he does and he cares about people.”
In his six seasons, Amaker was known as a class act. His integrity and straight-laced recruiting brought Michigan out of a dark sanction period. He led the Wolverines to two NIT Finals and won the title in 2004.
But his teams could never quite make it to the Big Dance.
“It was good with both guys,” said assistant coach Mike Jackson, who also worked under Amaker. “But it’s been really good to just learn from someone who’s won so many games, done so many things and been in this situation a lot of times.”
Beilein is now one of just seven coaches to lead four different teams to the NCAA Tournament.
He has done it with a variety of players, some he recruited and some he didn’t. But before he even conducted his first practice in Ann Arbor, he needed to get Michigan’s best on board.
Winning them over
Like he had done at his previous stops, Beilein made a phone call shortly after earning the head job.
DeShawn Sims had just finished his freshman season. Sims came in as a highly touted big man with potential for a good outside shot, but Amaker limited his playing time.
Beilein was new coach and wanted the most from Sims.
Beilein called and Sims was all ears.
“I had a delightful 10-minute conversation with him,” Beilein said. “And what I was most impressed of … I said, listen, we gotta address this issue. Are you in with this thing as you get a new coach?
“And there was never any doubt in his mind or my mind, showed no wavering at all. ‘Coach, I came to Michigan to help turn the program around.’ And it was great chemistry from the beginning.”
In the Wolverines’ marquee wins this season — UCLA, Duke and Purdue — it was Sims who dominated the stat sheets.
Since his freshman season, Sims has blossomed as an agile post presence and crashed the boards as the Big Ten’s fourth-leading rebounder. He can also hit outside shots with some of the Wolverines’ best sharp shooters.
And as Sims jumped from his chair as he heard Michigan’s name called yesterday as the South Region’s No. 10 seed, he had one person to thank.
“Coach Beilein deserves 90 percent of the credit,” Sims said. “He’s done a great job of getting us to believe. Believing has been lost in Ann Arbor since probably the last time we went to the Tournament … Once you teach people to believe, it’s very easy from there.”
It’s easy to believe now. Amaker recruited players many thought would return the program to greatness during his tenure. When Beilein took the helm, he inherited Amaker’s highly touted recruiting class. And Beilein had to make a few more phone calls.
One was to Manny Harris.
Harris, Michigan’s 2007 Mr. Basketball, was set on becoming a Wolverine.
When Amaker was fired, the then-high school senior told reporters his plans were still intact. But then his classmate Alex Legion decommitted and Harris was faced with a difficult decision.
“I told (Harris) that the reason why he should stay is if he turns that program around, which he’s doing now, and come back to the Dance, put up good numbers over four years, he has a good chance to go down as one of the greats,” Ken Flowers, Harris’s high school coach, said.
In high school, Harris would slash to the basket and draw fouls with ease — not exactly a characteristic of Beilein’s previous sharp shooters like Kevin Pittsnogle and Joe Alexander.
“Beilein is more of jump shooting, and it really wasn’t much of his game,” Flowers said of Harris. “But working out this summer with me and all year last year with Coach Beilein, he really understands the system right now and it’s working.”
Now, Harris still mesmerizes with his drives but can also drain a game-changing 3-pointer.
Within Beilein’s system, Harris has 93 more rebounds and 56 more assists than at this point in his freshman season.
Flowers said Harris has always been very headstrong and competitive, putting in extra effort to improve. Harris has become a complete player and is considered a leader on his team.
“He came in and went straight to business and didn’t let up one bit on me or my teammates,” Harris said of Beilein. “It was a lot him showing me the ropes. But I was able to take it — don’t argue with him, don’t fight with him, and just want to get better.”
Harris and Sims wanted it, and Beilein has shown them the way.
Beilein said he’s going to enjoy a cold beer and savor his team's NCAA Tournament bid, but just for one night.
It’s not enough to have Michigan simply make the Tournament. He expects more.
"We had to get to this point to have people believe," Beilein said. "You know about recruiting, what this does to people saying, 'Are they going to get it done there? Is that style going to work, are those type of recruits going to work, is this going to work?'
"Okay, it worked so far … now we've got to continue with the program so we can not just be happy to be in, but to be in and advance, which is obviously what we're trying to do on Thursday."
Unlike Beilein’s previous stops, Michigan has the name recognition to attract the country’s top talent. But Beilein has made a name for himself by fitting players into his system and maximizing their ability. Will he need top talent to grow the program?
Beilein brought in freshmen guards Stu Douglass and Zack Novak this season. Two of the team’s best sharp shooters, the duo has taken away playing time from Amaker’s original recruits like sophomore point guard Kelvin Grady, redshirt sophomore forward Anthony Wright and senior forward Jevohn Shepherd.
But the Wolverines have stayed together.
“What I love about this program is that is a unified team,” Martin said. “There are not factions among that team, it’s all about the team. There’s not, ‘I’m not going to pass it to that guy because I don’t like him,’ It is not that at all. It’s a very cohesive team. Again, that’s a reflection of the leadership through the coaching staff.”
After a 10-22 season in his inaugural year in Ann Arbor, Beilein faced many doubters.
Could his system survive the Big Ten? Would he recruit better players or just ones to fit his system? And could he lead Michigan to its first NCAA berth since 1998?
“Naw, I didn’t,” Jackson said when asked if he thought Michigan would make the Tournament this season. “I think we set goals from the very beginning about where we wanted to be. And we’ve taken one of those steps today.”
Michigan is starting to follow the same path as Beilein’s previous teams: struggling to learn his system in the first year, bouncing back in the second and build a winning tradition.
“We were hoping probably more of an NIT thing would be a step," Beilein said. "When you're 10-22, you're not expecting (the NCAA Tournament)."
“I said it would be a roller coaster. … I'm not trying to tell anybody I'm wiser than anybody else, but experience tells you you're going to be up and down.”
And to be up in the middle of March is pretty good.