John Beilein is back at home in Ann Arbor

Tuesday, October 6, 2020 - 9:44pm

John Beilein has found an enjoyable new life in his return to Ann Arbor.

John Beilein has found an enjoyable new life in his return to Ann Arbor. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

John Beilein’s press conferences last January in Cleveland were tense, a little gruff, almost defensive. The NBA had not been kind to him, and it showed. 

That is not the John Beilein who spoke with The Daily on Tuesday afternoon, back in Michigan, where he became a beloved figure from 2007-2019.

The John Beilein of Tuesday afternoon is relaxed. Happy. His excitement is measurable as he talks about getting to play tennis for the first time in seventeen years, gleefully adding that his golf game has improved like you wouldn’t believe. He talks about getting to spend time with his grandkids, his smile practically audible through the phone.

John Beilein has come home to Ann Arbor, and it has made a world of difference. 

***

If there’s one thing that retirement has taught the winningest men’s basketball coach in school history, it’s how to teach a dog some new tricks.

I don’t say old dog, because Beilein and his wife Kathleen have recently adopted a puppy. In his spare time, Beilein’s been reading up on dog training strategies — by my estimate, the puppy will be barking at pick-and-rolls by Thanksgiving.

But Beilein has picked up some new tricks, too. He’s teaching a class at Michigan this semester, and, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s all online. So Beilein has learned how to use Zoom, with some help from his graduate student instructor. 

But even with the technology challenges, Beilein, who hasn’t taught since he was a high school coach in 1978, is thrilled to get back in the classroom.

“I’ve loved it,” he said. “I have a whole new respect for the faculty, and all the preparation that you have to do, and how hard it is to do a Zoom class of 66 students as well. But I’ve loved every minute of it. Teaching leadership, coaching, it’s really empowering.”

It’s a natural next step for Beilein. He gave a graduation address to the School of Education in 2019, and when Dean Elizabeth Moje asked him if he’d ever be interested in teaching, the answer was absolutely — as soon as he was done coaching. When things didn’t work out in Cleveland, Beilein called Moje, and in a few months’ time, he found himself the lead instructor of EDUC 240.

His coaching days may be over, but Beilein is hoping to have as much impact on his students as he once did on his players. In his spare time, he’s reading everything he can find on how to be an effective leader (never mind the dozens of basketball players who’ll tell you in a heartbeat that he already is one). 

It’s clearly prescient — the course is titled “Coaching as Leading” — but it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of things Beilein wants to learn about with all his newfound time. When he’s asked what he’s most excited about, he pauses for several seconds trying to decide.

“I’m a lifetime learner,” Beilein says. “That will never stop. There’s all kinds of things. Knowledge is powerful. And I’m always looking for new ways to learn more about the world and how it works.”

But his excitement about learning doesn’t stop at the end of his lengthy reading list. Beilein is learning as much from the class as his students are, he says.

“Well, the Zoom thing is new,” he laughs. “But we’re reading all types of resources that we’re getting more information from, and the speakers that we’ve had come in — you’re always learning from them.”

***

It speaks volumes of Juwan Howard’s success in his first season as the Wolverines’ head coach that when Beilein left Cleveland, there was barely any talk — and none of it serious — of Beilein returning to his old role. 

It’s a good thing, too, because Beilein recognizes it as much as the rest of us: Michigan is done with the Beilein era. It’s Howard’s program now.

“I just have a lot of respect for Juwan and the team,” Beilein said. “I don’t want to do anything that would be a distraction.”

But that doesn’t mean Beilein doesn’t care about Michigan basketball anymore. COVID-19 restrictions have prevented him from attending any practices with the team as of yet, but provided he’s not stepping on anybody’s toes, Beilein is more than ready to get back to work in Crisler Center.

“If and when — I’m going to do it whenever I can possibly do it,” Beilein said. 

He’s smiling through the phone again. Beilein clearly still cares deeply about Michigan basketball. It’s what made Ann Arbor home.

Even when he was the head coach in Cleveland, that was always the case. And eventually, no matter what the NBA brought, he was always going to come back someday.

“We never sold our house in Ann Arbor — we didn’t even try to,” Beilein said. “We were going to sell it in the spring, but when things didn’t work out in Cleveland, it was easy… We call Ann Arbor home. We have for thirteen years.”


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