Mike Persak: Beilein is Michigan's man
John Beilein stood in front of another scrum of reporters after another celebration.
This time, his Michigan men’s basketball team had defeated Florida State, 58-54, to earn a spot in the Final Four, Beilein’s second in the last six seasons.
The coach fielded questions that were mostly about the game and the crowd and his team’s journey to this point. Then, he got a strange one — one you wouldn’t expect of a coach that’s widely thought to be clean who just clinched a spot in the sport’s final weekend. It was about those FBI reports.
Do you see yourselves as a model of doing things the right way?
Beilein’s answer started before the question even finished, and it steered away from the topic he didn’t want to talk about.
“I see ourselves as just trying to do the right thing,” Beilein said. “And if people want to model us, that’s up to them. There’s no, like, we’re gonna show people. We’re just trying to do the next right thing like any of you guys would do.
“What does the University of Michigan do? They do the right things. And we’re just trying to model this great University.”
It’s something a lot of coaches might say, because everybody loves their school. Michigan fans, always boastful, might even point to that statement as a rallying cry, calling him a “Michigan Man.” Detractors will roll their eyes.
But prideful fist-pumping and chest-thumping and even the FBI reports aside, Beilein built this team the right way, a successful way.
All season people have talked about how this is a squad of misfits. They’ve all come together to be a part of the Wolverines, and they were all brought here by Beilein, the man who has somehow made all the unwanted puzzle pieces fit together.
“We’ve got people from all over the place — different backgrounds, different personalities,” said junior forward Brent Hibbits. “And Coach Beilein’s just really good at figuring out what people are good at and putting all those things together and helping people with their weaknesses.”
If that’s Beilein’s forte, then this is his masterpiece. You could see his fingerprints all over the Staples Center, which was mostly maize and blue.
Look at Saturday night’s leading scorer, for example. Redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews worked tirelessly to get to the point he’s at, peaking in the stretch run. Beilein railed on him daily over the past two years to make sure he reached his potential.
Take graduate transfer guard Jaaron Simmons. When he never cracked the starting lineup after transferring to Ann Arbor, who could have blamed him for checking out and even feeling negatively toward his coach?
But Beilein kept him on board. He constantly compliments Simmons’ attitude, and now even Simmons is contributing in a backup role.
Then there’s Beilein’s older guys. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson and junior forward Moritz Wagner have all been through the wringer with their coach. They’ve reached Sweet Sixteens and Big Ten Tournament championships with him.
They came from 2-star ratings and Division III colleges and European countries to be the catalysts of a Final Four team.
All three have grown in basketball with him, and they’ve grown relationships with him.
Now look at the bench. There are the walk-ons. Beilein sees them grow too, and if you ask about them, he shows frustration that they haven’t quite grasped the potential he sees in them.
But he works and harps on them still, because he sees the future that maybe they can’t. He sees what he thinks they can become.
“He’s always pushing you,” said redshirt freshman Austin Davis. “He’s never gonna overlook you. I don’t care if you play a minute all season, if he sees you, you know, doing something wrong in practice or doing something along those lines, he’s always gonna correct you. And he’s always looking to make every single one of us better. That’s just one of the amazing parts about him.”
Now look at the assistant coaches sitting next to Beilein. Luke Yaklich and Deandre Haynes came from Illinois State. Saddi Washington has been here two seasons after spending 10 at Oakland. Beilein gave them a chance, and it’s paid off. They’re as much a part of the improvement in this basketball team as any player or even Beilein himself.
And they feel Beilein’s influence too.
“He’s just the most passionate, caring, attention-to-detail, full of grit every day, but at the same time an unbelievable family man and an unbelievable mentor to not only the players, but our staff,” Yaklich said. “When you become a part of the Michigan program, you become a part of the Beilein family — Coach, his wife and his grandchildren and his kids.
“If we’re in the middle of a meeting talking about beating Michigan State, and my wife or kids walk through the hallway, the meeting stops. ‘How you doing? What’s going on? How’s school?’ That’s what it is. For him to embrace my entire family and then allow me to be myself every day and then to grow within our system, he just challenges you every day to be good, to be prepared.”
It’s all a part of the Michigan family that Beilein has built and fostered in his tenure.
It shows itself in rare moments, like when the Wolverines took in Jude Stamper — a kid born with Arthrogryposis Multi-Congenita who came to be a part of the team through a program called Team IMPACT. Jude and his family were there for Saturday’s win.
It shows itself in Austin Hatch, a former player who has lived through two plane crashes that killed his family members. He’s there too, on the end of the bench, just as big a part of this team as he’s ever been.
It’s an atmosphere that allows for individuality despite discipline, and it’s led the team to where it is today.
Where it shows itself most is in victory. After the nets were cut, Beilein called all his assistant coaches and their families together for what Haynes called his favorite moment of the night.
“The one moment I loved the most is when Coach B brought the families on stage,” Haynes said. “We all sang the fight song, and after all we’ve been through as a family, as a team, we always come together. And just to see us all out there together and just the kids, the players, the wives, it’s a magical moment for all of us.”
Now look at athletic director Warde Manuel, who came from his spot behind the bench to celbrate on the confetti-filled court. Manuel can be unabashedly proud of what occured Saturday night, because he can trust his coach.
Beilein’s the man who says his best friends in the profession are his assistant coaches, because he talks to them the most. He’s the man who only recruits players who have a “unique interest” in Michigan. Truth be told, he’s an athletic director’s dream.
“He’s the stability of what we’ve been doing in basketball for the last decade,” Manuel said. “We didn’t have that kind of success consistently until John came. You would have to go back to the 80s and early 90s to get that kind of consistency. We had lost it there for about a 15-year period, 10-year period. So I’m glad John’s here and bringing it back. I love working with him.”
Now look at the Wolverine faithful who flocked to Staples Center. They were at Madison Square Garden for the Big Ten Tournament and even a smattering came to Wichita last weekend.
They cheer loudly when Beilein cuts the last net down. He turns to them and tells them “one more,” talking about the one last net he’d like to cut down this season — after a national championship win next weekend. He talks about the fans like they’re part of the family, too, and it’s easy to believe him. They’d follow Michigan anywhere, but they’re only here because Beilein built a team good enough to make it to the Elite Eight.
So call Beilein what you want. But thanks to his attention-to-detail and rabid pursuit of perfection, the Wolverines are where they are.
Even if you prefer not to use the term “Michigan man,” Beilein is Michigan’s man. And he’s a damn good one.
Persak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MikeDPersak