In 41 years, John Beilein has never been an assistant coach.
That’s often the first fact you learn when you turn on a Michigan basketball game. It’s repeated ad nauseam, and for good reason — going from Newfane High School to Ann Arbor without ever taking an assistant coaching job is a feat worth mentioning.
It’s also not true.
Before the summer of 2013, John Beilein got a call from Sean Ford, the men’s national team director for USA Basketball. Ford asked him to be an assistant coach for the first time in his life, serving under Davidson’s Bob McKillop at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia.
“I felt, cause I never served in military service — probably wish I had, but I hadn’t — that I had to do something along those lines from my country if I could,” Beilein told The Daily, standing along the back wall of Crisler Center’s media room Friday afternoon. “… When I saw the trip in Russia, I just thought, ‘That’s a unique opportunity for me to go visit.’ I’m a huge history fan and Russian history included. So it was appealing to me.”
If you don’t remember that competition, there’s a good reason why. The World University Games is a sort of Olympic-style tournament for college athletes. It doesn’t have much of a foothold in the US, and in the basketball tournament that year, the Americans came in ninth place out of 24 countries.
Some of the names on that roster — Doug McDermott, Adreian Payne, Yogi Ferrell — comport well with college basketball’s best players at the time. Others, well, don’t.
“You gotta realize,” McKillop said, “we coached a team that — guys at that time were not committed to spending a month in Russia when they could’ve been home. It wasn’t a lot of fighting to get on that roster.”
When the coaching staff — McKillop, Beilein and South Carolina’s Frank Martin — got to the Olympic facility in Colorado Springs there wasn’t a team for them to coach. According to them, there were between four and seven days for tryouts and practice before leaving for Russia.
Beilein is a stickler for details. He starts every freshman off by teaching pivots and chest passes, stuff they’ve done by muscle memory for years. Here, the coaching staff had time to teach a fast break, a transition into their half-court offense, a base defense and a handful of out of bounds plays. Then it was off to Kazan, Russia — a 12-plus hour flight — and straight to the athletes’ village.
You’ve probably heard about Olympic villages as an idyllic space. Athletes from all countries interacting, exchanging culture and building friendships paints a pretty picture. This was not that, at least for the coaching staff.
The Americans were confined to college dorm rooms at a local university. Beilein roomed with Frank Martin for the roughly 18-day jaunt in the type of room you’d find in dorms at Michigan. Difference being, Beilein was 60 years old, Martin 47.
“When you’re 18 years old, you sleep on a street corner if you have to,” Martin said. “When you get our age, you gotta sleep in a small little dorm room bed and you got your laundry hanging from racks inside the room, different than what we’re all used to.”
On the second night, around 3:30 a.m., Martin woke up to the noise of someone talking. It was the voice of John Rooney, the St.Louis Cardinals’ play-by-play announcer, crackling through Beilein’s iPad.
“I was like, ‘Coach, what are you doing?’ ” Martin said. “And I realized, he's the biggest St. Louis Cardinals fan of all-time.”
For the rest of the trip, Beilein and Martin listened to Cardinals baseball every night, sitting around the iPad radio and bonding.
That dorm room — and the living space around it — was as containing as it gets. They practiced in a rec center, ate in the facility on campus, lived in the dorms. Beilein, McKillop and Martin would, on occasion, venture out to a restaurant simply for the sake of going somewhere else. On Sundays, they attended mass, the only English-speaking people in the church.
“It made me happy I live in the United States of America,” Martin said. “Driving around, seeing people, we had a couple days where we had time to sightsee and going to see a mosque was unbelievable. Going to see the Kremlin was unbelievable. But life is hard. And you can tell life is hard by being around there.”
Despite that, John Beilein the assistant coach found himself less stressed. He could spend more one-on-one time with players, do the things he’d never have time for running the show.
“I think it was really good for me to see how assistants can keep the team rolling in good and bad when you have that role,” Beilein said. “I had a new appreciation for what an assistant has to go through when he has to just shut up. But I also had new appreciation for when the head coach has all that responsibility, there’s other things you can do to help the team.”
Beilein didn’t have designated responsibilities running the offense or working with a position group, but quickly established himself as running film sessions. Most coaches have their video coordinator cut film, editing for what they want to see. Unless there’s a quick turnaround, Beilein does it himself, taking two hours to see the whole game again.
In Russia, he did not only that, but taught it off his own laptop. That word — taught — is purposeful. It made an impression.
“You get 12 guys together in Russia and they’re looking at film sessions and they’re wondering, ‘What the heck are we doing here?’ ” McKillop said. “And John is doing a magnificent job of getting their attention and streamlining the way he cut the film so that it becomes attention-grabbing to the guys that were watching it.”
The lack of practice time in Colorado Springs reared its head immediately, as the Americans lost an exhibition game against Russia shortly after their arrival in Kazan. Then they beat the snot out of three straight teams, still without really gelling.
The roster had been together for weeks compared to months for its opponents, and had yet to adjust to international rules. That became clear fast against Australia and Canada.
“We got called for like 30 travels cause of the European rule — you have to put the ball down first,” McDermott said. “That was a tough rule for us to adjust to.”
After coming in expecting to win gold, Team USA was knocked out of the medal round with back-to-back nine-point losses.
USA Basketball’s approach has since changed. Instead of trying to assemble a college All-Star team, one college team and coaching staff goes, so as to avoid the pitfalls of that 2013 team.
As for Kazan though, the trip wasn’t memorable for basketball, but for the time Beilein was so convinced that a group of local dancers hailed from Mongolia that he walked straight into the middle of them after a performance to figure it out, eventually proving himself right.
In other words, it was memorable for everything else.
“If I was offered to go to the World University Games, I don't know if it’s something I’d do that one again,” Martin admitted. “But I can tell you this: doing it with John Beilein made the whole trip worth it.”
After the team’s last game, a 97-70 win over Finland to clinch ninth place, they were on the next flight home. Having missed two weeks of the July recruiting period, their own assistants operating in lieu, the coaches had no choice but a quick turnaround.
“When we left Kazan, we all flew home to our respective homes,” Martin said. “Got dressed, took showers and away we went.”
After a monthlong reprieve, Beilein was right back where he had been for the prior 36 years — a head coach, comfortable as ever.