Beilein and Boeheim, from a small gym in Buffalo to the Final Four

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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 1, 2013

When Michigan coach John Beilein was in the early stages of his coaching saga, there was a man who would occasionally sit in the stands and watch. Nothing unusual about that.

The unusual part was that this man had a coaching pedigree that far exceeded the man he was watching, a pedigree that eventually landed him into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005.

Back in the early 1990s, Beilein was coaching Canisius College, a small Division I school in Buffalo, N.Y. The gyms would be tiny and cramped — nothing like the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where Beilein’s current team will play in the Final Four this weekend.

On Saturday, the Wolverines will play Syracuse in the Final Four. Jim Boeheim, the coach of the Orange and the man that used to sit in the stands and watch Beilein at Canisius, will be the man on the opposite bench.

“I’ve always admired his coaching at every level, watching his teams play,” Boeheim said in a teleconference on Monday. “We’ve never even gone out to dinner, but I just have tremendous respect and admiration for how he coaches.”

Before Canisius — Beilein’s first Division I job — he had slogged his way through the lower rungs of the coaching world, from high school to community college to Division II. Canisius was the stepping stone, leading him to Richmond, W. Va., and eventually Michigan. Without Boeheim, there’s a very good chance Beilein wouldn’t have gotten that job.

“I was a borderline candidate,” Beilein said. “He really got me on the board. Ended up getting the job. That was 20 years ago. So I owe him a lot, and admire him a lot, as well.”

It didn’t stop there, either. Beilein’s first job at a major program was at West Virginia in 2002, and again, there was some help from a coaching friend of his, the man that used to sit in those rickety bleachers.

“Especially when the West Virginia athletic director called me, I told him to hang up the phone and call John Beilein back and hire him without waiting another minute because he’s a great coach and he’s won every place he’s been,” Boeheim said. “He’s just a tremendous guy and a great basketball coach.”

Beilein will be tasked with trying to crack Boeheim’s famed 2-3 zone, while Boeheim will be trying to stop a Michigan offense that he described as “probably the best offensive team in the country,” and one that will be “by far the biggest challenge of the year.”

In a tournament that showcases quick turnarounds against completely unfamiliar opponents, both coaches will have a whole week to prepare for one another this time around. That could benefit Beilein, who in nine attempts has never won a game against Boeheim. Still, Boeheim won’t be overlooking Beilein on Saturday, especially because Beilein has never had a team quite as talented as this one.

“He’s been successful wherever he’s been,” Boeheim said. “I remember him at Erie, Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond, you name it. West Virginia. He’s won every place he’s been. That’s difficult to do, to be able to go to five or six different places and win.

“John has been able to win at every place along the line, and nothing different now.”

Without Canisius, and without West Virginia, who knows where Beilein would’ve ended up. Maybe not at Michigan. Without Boeheim, maybe every part of Beilein’s trajectory stays the same, and the two would still be coaching against each other on Saturday in the Final Four.

Then again, probably not. For Beilein to be here now, in his first Final Four, he needed those recommendations. One doesn’t happen without the other.

It’s fitting that in a season rumored to be Boeheim’s last, the man who could potentially end his run at a title is a man who he helped put into that position, way back at a small school in Buffalo.