The last time the Michigan had to replace its head coach, the program was unrecognizable to those familiar with the current Wolverines.
Michigan in 2007 had barely scraped relevance since the breakup of the Fab Five in 1993. It hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1998 — an appearance later vacated by NCAA sanctions. It lived under the shadow of the football team and a group of recruits who had since been banned from the program.
CJ Lee, a Michigan guard from 2006-09 and current director of program personnel, was there when then-coach Tommy Amaker was fired. Even with Amaker’s uninspiring record, his firing still incited some disappointment. After all, he had helped drag the program out of its sanction-induced low point in the early 2000s.
Lee, though, knew the Wolverines were getting someone good in John Beilein. Lee went to high school in western New York, where Beilein recruited some of his AAU teammates and had seen Beilein’s success at West Virginia. The Beilein he knew of back then was a coach who ran a unique offense and a 1-3-1 zone, a coach with a good reputation but questions about whether he could stick at a high-major program like Michigan.
Twelve years later, when Beilein left the Wolverines to take the helm of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday morning, he was a coach who still ran a unique offense, albeit one of a different vein, but had ditched the zone — and ditched control over his defense, hiring assistants with greater expertise in the area. He was a coach whose reputation had exploded, who hadn’t just succeeded at a high-major program but taken it from no-man’s-land to consistent contender. He was a coach who had become, in some ways, impossible to replace — the unenviable task that now falls on the shoulders of athletic director Warde Manuel.
“The first couple years, people were kinda wondering, does (Beilein) have what it takes?” Lee told The Daily. “And it just shows that his ability to morph, his ability to adapt, his ability to change, his ability to figure out that place and figure out his way of doing things here — it was incredible. And it worked.”
Beilein got Michigan back to the NCAA Tournament in his second year, and the Wolverines have made it in eight of the past nine years — with five Sweet Sixteens and two appearances in the national title game. His performance surpassed even what could have been considered the best-case scenario.
“It goes without saying, he brought Michigan basketball back to prominence,” Lee said. “I would say he restored the image in the hearts and minds of a lot of people, probably in the court of public opinion. Certainly, coach Amaker did a great job in his time, coming out of the sanctions, and then coach Beilein took it to a level where you’re back in the Final Four.”
Zack Novak, a Michigan guard from 2008-12, joined the program in Beilein’s early days. Back then, the team was filled with Amaker holdovers, and Beilein was tasked with not only developing his young players, but getting buy-in from his older ones — a test he passed with flying colors. Then, he began to build the foundation of the Wolverines’ new identity. Novak saw the beginning of that foundation, with Michigan’s NCAA Tournament appearance in 2009. By the time he left in 2012 — with a Big Ten regular-season title and a No. 4 seed in the tournament — he saw a program that finally stood on solid ground.
“From day one, when (Beilein started) recruiting me, the first step was, get back to the NCAA Tournament,” Novak told The Daily on April 13. “But he was very firm that Michigan should be a premier program and we needed to build the foundation to get back to where it should be. And so, I think from day one, he had a vision and he had his guys that bought into the vision.
“And I think you gotta give credit to a lot of the guys who came from coach Amaker, who rolled over. Kind of a difficult situation, right? Two very different styles of playing. And those guys easily could have been cancers on the team and not bought into the vision, and instead they did the opposite. And really set the foundation for what was to come. Now, with that being said, I’m not gonna lie to you and say that I thought we’d be in two national title games in the next 10 years. I think it’s gone a bit beyond what the original vision was.”
From there, Beilein built Michigan into what it is now, all with the perception that he runs a clean program. Beilein is one of the few high-major coaches who is widely believed not to cheat. He instilled his values in every player, from Lee and Novak until now. Former Michigan sports information director Bruce Madej remembered Beilein as someone who always talked about family and community. Even as Beilein began to crave the greater challenge that the NBA would bring, that community was what the Wolverines were to him.
In a way, the NBA is a culmination for Beilein. This is someone who has never held a permanent position as an assistant coach, instead climbing the ladder from high school JV to community college to Division II to mid-major to Michigan. Professional basketball was the one step he had never taken.
“What has happened to John Beilein in his life and in his coaching career has been miraculous, it's really been magical,” said Jeff Neubauer, the current Fordham coach and a former Beilein assistant at Richmond and West Virginia from 1996-2005. “… Who he has been throughout his life is to take on a massive challenge — most of them were places where people didn’t think he could succeed. So he’s gone to different schools throughout his career and done amazing things over and over. So my speculation would be that this is his opportunity to take on another huge challenge, climb another mountain.”
Now, Beilein is firmly entrenched as a Michigan legend. No matter who you talk to, former players, assistants and people around the program have nary a bad word to say about him — as a person or a coach.
And regardless of what the future holds, Beilein will always be remembered as the coach who brought Michigan back to soaring heights, the coach who firmly implanted a new culture and the coach who did things the right way — in every sense of the word.
“I tell people all the time when they ask me about playing for, working for coach Beilein, is that as good of a basketball coach as he is, he’s a better person,” Lee said. “And I think that, over the last 12 years, the fan base and college basketball in general has got to witness an incredible, incredible human being who happens to be a basketball coach on the sidelines, in Ann Arbor.
“And I really hope that they cherish that. I hope they recognize how special that is to have the human being, the coach, the man, the success. How rare that is, for it all to come together like that. So I just hope that people are appreciative and he is honored for his time, because he did a tremendous job.”
Additional reporting by Ethan Sears