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.