For Beilein, all that's left is a title

Sunday, April 15, 2018 - 5:46pm

In his first season on the job, Beilein's squad limped to a 10-22 record.

In his first season on the job, Beilein's squad limped to a 10-22 record. Buy this photo
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Just months after Michigan fired Tommy Amaker and hired some coach from West Virginia in April of 2007, the men’s basketball team opened offseason workouts. It was a directionless program, desperate for national relevance and one — just one — NCAA Tournament berth.

It was day one of the John Beilein era. And, little did anyone know, day one of perhaps the greatest sustained period of success in Michigan basketball history.

At the beginning of the workout, then-assistant coach John Mahoney barged into the weight room, hooting and hollering.

“We’re trying to win a motherf-ing national championship,” he yelped. “And that’s why we’re here.”

Guard Jevohn Shepherd gave his teammate Anthony Wright a glance. Wright still recalls what Shepherd said next.

“Man, this guy has to calm down.”

Zack Novak was a member of Beilein's first full recruiting class at Michigan.

Zack Novak was a member of Beilein's first full recruiting class at Michigan. Buy this photo
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John Beilein was plenty calm.

He looked down, then at the clock, then back up. He took five steps to his right and shook Jay Wright’s hand with a smile, walking off the court 40 minutes short of immortality once again.

For the second time in six seasons, he and his team had fallen one game shy of fulfilling that brash weight room proclamation 10 years ago. Maybe it’ll happen one day. Maybe not.

But there’s a pit that still lingers in fans’ stomachs, a laundry list of “what-ifs” that will live forever. It’s an emotion bred from a program-wide attitude change, cultivated through day-to-day, incremental improvement. There’s one guy responsible for that. That same coach from West Virginia has now qualified for the NCAA Tournament seven times in the last eight seasons, made the Elite Eight three times and the championship game twice. His resume vaults him alongside the premier coaches in college basketball; he directs a program that is now a model of consistency.

It’s not a change that happened overnight or without its fair share of trial and error.

But to fully understand the Beilein-led transformation, take a dive into a desperate timeout, a huddle at the Big Ten Tournament in 2009. 

A glimpse into a fledgling program learning what it really takes to win.

Michigan's loss to Villanova marked the second time in six seasons it lost in the NCAA National Championship Game.

Michigan's loss to Villanova marked the second time in six seasons it lost in the NCAA National Championship Game. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

He had to call timeout to get something out in the open. After all, a potential NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in 10 years — and the entire trajectory of the program — hung in the balance.

It was the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, and Beilein’s squad trailed Illinois by 20 late in the second half. Beilein and his team had all but conceded hope of a comeback.

If this team — sitting at .500 in conference play — came short of the NCAA Tournament, murmurs asking for his job would only amplify. It would’ve been 11 seasons and counting without a tournament bid, two under Beilein. In a candid moment, he warned his team of what a blowout loss might mean. For the team. For the school. For him.

“Beilein called timeout just to say, ‘Look the committee is watching this game,’” Wright, a Michigan forward from 2006-10, recalled. “‘If we get blown out this could hurt us.’ He literally said that during the timeout. He said, ‘We’ve got to get this as close as possible.’ It wasn’t ‘win the game,’ just ‘keep it close.’”

The timeout was a blunt reality, a mark of tempered expectations. That coveted leap to prominence doesnt come without putting one foot in front of the other, taking one small step after another.

Michigan trimmed its deficit, losing by a respectable 10 points. It would later be selected as a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it fell to the Blake Griffin-led Oklahoma Sooners in the second round. Still, there’s no way to see the 2008-2009 season as anything other than an unmitigated success.

In the first season free of scholarship limitations due to the Ed Martin payment scandal, the Wolverines made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 seasons.

Every tidal wave begins with a ripple. That rag-tag group in 2009 laid the foundation for what came next.

Jordan Morgan didn't know what rebuilding the program meant. But he wanted to be a part of it.

Jordan Morgan didn't know what rebuilding the program meant. But he wanted to be a part of it. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

“Culture shift” is a phrase that gets thrown around in sports, when change wants to be sugarcoated with a smile. It can often be meaningless and exaggerated in its tone. There are countless examples of failed attempts at culture shifts in sports because culture, as it turns out, is hard to shift.

This isn’t one of those stories.

As with everything John Beilein does, this change took time, and it was a process. But the results have been on display for nine years now. The national runner-up Wolverines are a shining beacon of a college basketball program, and it’s easy to forget it hasn’t always been that way.

“When he first started recruiting me in 2007, the program … was obviously not in a good place,” said center Jordan Morgan, a member of the Wolverines from 2011-14. “At that point in my life, Michigan going to Final Fours and winning Big Ten Championships, it was a little bit hard to fathom at the time just because of where Michigan was at.”

At the start of Beilein’s tenure, “where Michigan was at” could only be classified as oblivion. It hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1998, and at a school in the heart of the Lloyd Carr era in football, the basketball team toiled with mediocrity more than disaster.

Well removed from the Fab Five era, with the 1989 national title a faint memory, Michigan had yet to turn a page on the court.

Final Fours? This team just wanted to make the damn tournament.

It was stuck with the only thing worse than failure: Irrelevance.

Hiring John Beilein, a little-known Jesuit coach with a measured attitude and a sunny disposition, did little to change that reputation overnight.

Internally, though, the overhaul began immediately.

“I’m not sure I really knew what ‘rebuild that program’ meant,” Morgan said. “But from the minute that I met him, he used to talk to me about rebuilding. Rebuilding a program. Building something special. Being a part of rebuilding that. And that was what made me want to go to Michigan in the first place.”

Before practices even began, Beilein and his staff instituted a number of tests — tests of skill and of athleticism — that each player needed to accomplish before he could even step on the practice court.

They ranged from conditioning requirements, like running a mile in 5:30 or less, to skill-based measures, like making 50 threes in five minutes.

Couldn’t do it? No practice. No games. No exceptions.

Those tests still exist today, though they’ve evolved with more focus on skill than the mile run, for example. The best of the best can now peak at 70 or even 80 threes in that same timeframe.

“If you could do those tests, it didn’t necessarily mean you were gonna be a better basketball player. It was testing your mental toughness, I think,” said guard Zack Novak, a Michigan forward from 2008-12. “He was coming in, saying, ‘I’m going to get you as tired as you can be, and you’re not allowed to practice until you show me that you can get through that and win these drills.’ ”

And once you made it into practice, each drill had a winner and a loser, with punishment doled out to the latter.

“You have to learn how to win,” Novak said. “That’s a real thing. Just the way that we competed in practice, every drill. … He just had us learning how to win, how to execute when the pressure was on.”

But learning how to win doesn’t automatically translate into winning.

The players struggled to grasp the complexity of an offense that has since come to be accepted as one of the most efficient in the country.

At the time, its genius was also its biggest flaw.

“There are so many plays, and there are always plays within the plays,” Wright said. “And there are always counters of the plays within the play that can change just by someone doing an action.”

Confused?

You wouldn’t be alone. Bewildered players asked questions that often took 30 minutes for Beilein to explain before his team could execute it all.

And this frustration seeped onto the court. In his first season on the job, Michigan scuffled to a 10-22 record, the most losses in a single season in program history. In his first three seasons, Beilein guided his group to a middling 46-53 record, and couldn’t crack a single top-30 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com.

Questions sprouted about the direction Beilein was leading, and with good reason. Beilein’s propensity for nabbing lower-ranked recruits who fit his scheme and the culture of the program he wanted to cultivate began to draw ire. According to Morgan, Beilein paid no mind.

“For him, he’d rather fail putting together teams like that than to succeed and sacrifice on his integrity.”

But “failure” and Beilein don’t often compute. Over the next decade, the program’s faith in him would be rewarded in droves.

With a cultural overhaul, Beilein has reshaped annual program-wide expectations.

With a cultural overhaul, Beilein has reshaped annual program-wide expectations. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Charles Matthews called his teammates back.

Following a particularly rough practice before the NCAA Tournament, Matthews and his teammates broke the huddle and began walking back to their locker room. The redshirt sophomore wasn’t satisfied.

“Charles said, ‘No, no, no, come back. We’re national champions,’” recalled freshman Isaiah Livers. “And he does it again. ‘National champs. National champs.’”

This time, 10 years after Shepherd and Wright shrugged off their screaming assistant coach’s vision, Matthews’ team was all ears. It became a rallying cry — a motivator to “play on Monday night,” as the team referred to the title game.

No one asked him to calm down and no one thought his proclamation was the least bit unreasonable. It was a chant the Wolverines kept through the April 4th title game against Villanova, coming just short of bringing the dream of a national championship to fruition.

And it wasn’t just a chant. It was symbolic of a mindset — an entirely realistic annual goal — of a program with sky-high expectations. This is no longer the meager program in a timeout huddle pleading to keep the margin close in order to maintain its waffling NCAA Tournament berth.

It’s a program telling you it won’t settle short of a national championship. And meaning it.

There's only one hill left for Beilein to climb — an elusive national title.

There's only one hill left for Beilein to climb — an elusive national title. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

On occasion, Beilein will distance himself from the intensity of his day-to-day grind and reminisce with Greg Harden about the state of the program 10 years ago.

Harden, an executive associate athletic director, was Beilein’s administrator then and is again now. Harden and Beilein are two of the only remnants from an era now a deeply suppressed memory.

“We talk about a few of those days,” Beilein said last Wednesday with a hearty chuckle. He’s allowed to chuckle now. There wasn’t much chuckling then.

“I look at them fondly, as it’s part of the foundation of growing. There’s things that happened in those days that were not great for me or the program. I saw a great quote that came from Sean McDermott of my beloved Buffalo Bills, ‘You don’t lose, you learn.’ When we lost, we learned and we got better from it. And we’ll lose again, and we’ll continue to learn.”

He can say that now — just weeks removed from the winningest season in program history, fresh off his second national title appearance in six seasons — and it’s taken with sincerity.

As well it should. Over a week removed from the end of the season, Beilein still regularly wakes up at 5:45 a.m. instinctively to review tape and prepare for the next game, only to recall there’s nothing left to prepare for.

He’s as process-oriented as any coach — any human — out there. But while that focus is so finite in its implementation — from tape to meetings to the practice court to games, rinse, repeat — it rarely comes with a necessitated end goal.

None of that is to say the losses, particularly in the two title games, don’t irk him. Beilein waited months before re-watching the Louisville game from 2013. He tried to re-watch the Villanova game, but shut it down after seeing two plays that drew frustration.

“I’m still mad about that (Louisville game), too. It’s, like, pointless,” Beilein said when asked about watching those games. “Pointless right now.”

Still, it’s a near certainty that John Beilein has never said, “We’re trying to win a motherf-ing national championship.” In fact, it’s a safe bet that the mild-mannered coach has never said “motherf-ing” in his life.

But it’s no longer a mindset worth chiding. To Matthews, Livers and every athlete who walks into the locker room at Crisler Center these days, it’s the expectation.

“He pretty much ran the table in terms of taking over the job and making it a culture thing, where the NCAA is expected, competing for the Big Ten title is expected,” Wright said. “All of that is expected things. They were calling for his job when they lost to Ohio State. They were, what, 10-2? 11-3? They were calling for his head, because he’s put these expectations that he created. These crazy expectations are because of him, because of the great job that he’s done.”

It’s now an implication that John Beilein’s name is perpetually prefaced with “Hall of Fame” and “greatest coach in program history.” It’s not even worth an argument. The only thing left unetched on his plaque is whether he adds a “national champion and…” in front of that esteemed title.

Regardless of how his career finishes or when it finishes, Beilein has written his legacy into the apex of Michigan history. There’s only one hill left to climb — the same one John Mahoney was yelling about all those years ago.

Will it happen?

“I hope,” said junior Moritz Wagner, happy to weave in and out of questions about his NBA draft status. Three days later, Wagner became Beilein’s 10th early departure for the NBA in the last nine years.

Does it need to happen?

“People always say this, ‘Coaches are great when they win national championships.’ That is true. But there is a lot more — especially in college basketball,” Wagner said. 

“You can’t just measure that with national championships.”

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