By Jake Lourim, Managing Sports Editor
Published April 16, 2015
John Beilein gathered his team in his suite at the Crowne Plaza in Albany, New York, and did something you don’t normally think about John Beilein doing. It was March 1, 1996, the day before his Canisius team opened the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament against Loyola (Maryland).
“And he told us, ‘We’re going to win,’ ” recalled Mike MacDonald, then an assistant coach at Canisius. “He told them to believe, and they believed in him.”
But no one else did.
As a No. 5 seed that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1957, Canisius was already a long shot.
Then, the Monday before the tournament, MacDonald was on a recruiting trip when he called back to Buffalo to see how things were going. He got even worse news: the team’s star player, Darrell Barley, had broken his thumb. He would miss the conference tournament, and the Golden Griffins had just become an even bigger underdog.
Still, Beilein thought they were going to win.
“We go into the tournament,” MacDonald said, “and it was just like, ‘Alright. This is what we got.’ ”
What they had was an unproven program with unproven players and an unproven coach in Beilein who still had never made the NCAA Tournament.
“Everybody was really down,” MacDonald said. “John was pretty down too. I remember (another assistant) Phil Seymore talking to him, saying, ‘Hey, we gotta rally these guys. We gotta get them going.’ ”
But history hadn’t been on their side. Two years earlier, Beilein’s Canisius team had gone into the conference tournament on a 15-game win streak but lost in the semifinals to Loyola, 88-70. The next year, his team won at Cincinnati and Charlotte in the regular season and made the NIT semifinals, but again lost in the conference tournament semifinals against Saint Peter’s, 60-56.
Still, Beilein thought he would win. He was determined not to let history repeat itself.
“We knew the window was getting closed, and we had to win,” MacDonald said by phone earlier this month. “And we did. It was amazing. Unbelievable coaching job. Classic case of taking the guys and putting them in position to play to their strengths and letting the guys go, letting them do their thing.”
The day after the team meeting, Canisius topped Loyola, 74-67, in the first round of the MAAC Tournament. The next day, the Golden Griffins upset top-seeded Iona in the final seconds, 63-62, to reach their first conference final. Finally, they booked Beilein’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament with a 52-46 win over Fairfield in the final.
Beilein’s March magic was born.
He has since recaptured that magic at Richmond, at West Virginia and, most recently, at Michigan. But if he hadn’t made that run through the MAAC Tournament in 1996, there’s no telling what would have happened. The senior class that included Barley would have departed without making the NCAA Tournament, and Beilein might never have made it to Ann Arbor.
Through the years, the players have changed, the opponents have changed and the scheme has changed. But one thing remains constant: John Beilein.
Making the NCAA Tournament at Canisius in 1996 started a run of success that allowed him to go to Richmond in 1997, to West Virginia in 2002 and finally to Michigan in 2007. But after years of changing locations, Beilein is the same coach.
“We start off every single year reviewing how to pass and catch a ball,” said Sean Lonergan, a sophomore on this year’s team. “Catch on two feet. Pass with the seams so shooters can shoot. Everybody gets one-on-one instruction with their jump shot to make sure that you’re lifting up.”
Yes, at Michigan, Beilein starts the season by teaching his players to catch the ball on two feet.
It was no different 19 years ago. Barley remembers doing the same drill for 40 minutes. Ask that team’s point guard, Javone Moore, what he recalls from Beilein’s practices, and his answer is eerily similar to Lonergan’s almost two decades later.
“I remember every single thing he’s ever taught us,” Moore said. “When you’re passing the ball, pass with two hands. When you’re catching the ball, give the guy a target with your outside hand so the guy can’t steal it.”
When Barley and Moore get a chance to watch Michigan practice today, they still recognize the drills they did almost two decades ago. The same process earned Beilein his first NCAA Tournament at Canisius in 1996, and it has brought his Michigan program to the highest level of college basketball today.
He has his way. And he won’t give in to outsiders who want him to deviate from it.
“You’ve got to have your beliefs as a coach,” MacDonald said. “He has a reason for it, and he does it. They’ve worked over time. He’s won a hell of a lot more than he’s lost.”
That’s not to say Beilein is stubborn. He adjusts his scheme and tweaks concepts to fit his players. Barley doesn’t ever remember playing zone defense in 1996, while Beilein’s teams have used it on and off since then.
But the basic tenets, both broad and subtle, remain constant. He won’t leave a player in with two fouls in the first half. He won’t foul up by three points in the closing seconds of the game. And he won’t rush a team’s development, sacrificing future wins for an extra one this year, no matter how much people want him to.
That would mean abandoning the process that has gotten him here.
Two weeks before Canisius began the MAAC Tournament in 1996, the Golden Griffins faced Loyola, their eventual first-round opponent. That night, they lost 64-63 after senior Mickey Frazier missed a shot in the final seconds.
That kicked off a three-game losing streak to end the regular season that sent Canisius down to the middle of the conference.
“Mickey was a kid who at the beginning of the season had said he wanted to sit on top of the rim,” MacDonald recalled.
Two years earlier, it had been a Loyola player who did it after winning the conference title. Now, Frazier wanted it to be his turn.
The following week, Canisius played at Manhattan to cap the regular season. Frazier had been struggling down the stretch. Beilein was determined to reverse that, no matter how crazy his methods were.
Early in the first half, Frazier hit a 3-pointer. Then, Beilein did the unthinkable: He sat a senior for the rest of the night so he would go into the conference tournament on a high note.
A week after that, Frazier was sitting on top of the rim as a champion.
Beilein’s confidence in his players has never wavered through the years. He has used it to bring the best out of players from Canisius to Richmond to West Virginia to Ann Arbor.
This season, days after Michigan upset Ohio State to snap a tough five-game losing streak, Beilein maintained that confidence despite the circumstances.
“You recruit high-character kids, and they get better and they don’t point fingers at each other — we’ve been united through the whole thing,” Beilein said on Feb. 27. “When you see other teams, locker rooms get torn apart mentally because of stretches like that. We’ve had none of that.
“They understand we’re not good enough yet — we’ve got to keep working, we’ve got to keep working. Just reinforce that idea: There may be great players out there, but you can still accomplish something and keep the foundation going if you have the right people on the bus.”
Moore couldn’t recall having any off-the-court issues on the 1996 team. Yes, that team was on a losing streak. Yes, its star player was injured. Yes, it had struggled in the conference tournament in the past. But at the end of that weekend, Mickey Frazier was the one sitting on top of the rim.
After 18 years, Javone Moore can still hear John Beilein’s voice in his head.
“ ‘You can never get in trouble for being early,’ ” Moore recalled his old coach saying. “The things he teaches you basketball-wise are things you carry over into life. Little things like being on time and valuing someone’s time are very important.”
There was another part of Barley’s career that he never forgot: He started his last three years and parts of his freshman year, injuries and all, just as Beilein promised he eventually would.
“One thing about (Beilein),” Barley said, “he was from the old school. If he tells you something, he’s going to do it. And that’s what I always respected about him.”
For Beilein’s way to work, he needs players who will buy in — guys who will show up on time, who will put up with passing and catching on the first day of practice, who will appreciate the process of getting better.
He needs the right people on the bus.
“You can see it in each player that he recruits that they have similar things in common,” Moore said. “They’ve probably all been winners at their high school. He recruits winners. They’re good in the classroom. They’re all coachable. They can shoot. He knows what each individual needs by the time he steps on campus, and when he gets there, that’s what they’re going to be working on.”
Throughout his career, Beilein has been well-known for winning with unheralded recruits. But MacDonald contests the notion that Beilein “does more with less.” Rather, he does more with the right guys. If those guys are top recruits and Mr. Basketball finalists, that’s great. If not, he’ll take them anyway.
“He’ll see something in a guy that others may not see,” Barley said. “I don’t think he falls into that ‘I need to have this five-star guy.’ I think he would rather have a four-star or a three-star and mold them into an NBA player or mold them into an All-American.”
Beilein enjoys not only the winning that comes with having great teams, but also the process of forming them. He enjoys molding players like Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas at Michigan just as much as he did Darrell Barley at Canisius.
“He knows college basketball isn’t a one-year thing,” Lonergan said. “You always have the opportunity to grow, and there’s always going to be teams that are older and more experienced, stronger, faster, whatever it may be.”
Beilein may think college basketball isn’t a one-year thing, but many of his counterparts think it is. He doesn’t have 7-foot first-round NBA draft picks. He’s playing a different game than everyone else at the elite level. In many ways, he’s playing the same game he played at Canisius in 1996.
Nineteen years, three stops and hundreds of wins later, at a higher level with more pressure and better competition, Beilein faced an even tougher situation in 2014-15. More than half of his team missed at least one game with an injury or illness.
The Wolverines — none of whom had ever missed the NCAA Tournament — suffered loss after devastating loss in January and February, yet they never hung their heads, a product of their even-keel coach.
“The biggest thing is the coaches just sticking with everybody and realizing it might not come as easy as it has in the past, because the older guys have just had more opportunities and more reps at it,” Lonergan said. “We’re just going to keep working and get there.”
But 19-year-olds can’t always have the same perspective as a 62-year-old veteran who had to lose twice in the MAAC semifinals before making his first NCAA Tournament.
Lonergan is asked if Beilein’s mindset trickles down to his team. He pauses. He’s honest.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” Lonergan said. “Situations like that are tough. … It’s really easy to put your head down and be like, ‘We’re still not there.’ But those little things are what you really have to realize the team’s going to grow on.”
The team did grow, to the point where it lost to Wisconsin in overtime on Jan. 24, then at Michigan State in overtime a week later, then at Indiana at the buzzer a week later, then at Illinois in overtime four days later. Four essentially one-possession losses in three weeks, yet the Wolverines kept coming back.
Reflecting on this year, MacDonald recalled a conversation he had with Beilein in the middle of this season.
“Sometimes you do your best coaching in years like this,” Beilein told MacDonald. “You go to the National Championship Game, everyone thinks you’re a great coach, but sometimes you’re letting Trey Burke do his thing and you’re not coaching as much.
“It’s years like this when you really earn it.”
Beilein had gone through the same process with this team as he has with any other. He started the season with tireless attention to the fundamentals, prepared for each game with exhaustive scouting reports and kept his team improving all season.
In the last few weeks of the regular season, freshman guard Aubrey Dawkins, one of the best athletes on the team, had thrown down thunderous dunks but also missed some. Beilein had talked with him about going up for an easy layup rather than a highlight-reel slam, the fundamental play rather than the flashy one.
Finally, almost eight minutes into Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament opener, Dawkins stole the ball and sprinted down the court with an easy look at the basket.
That time, he drove to the hoop for a layup — and it rimmed out.
But then Beilein did what no coach in college basketball ever does after a missed layup: He turned around to his bench and yelled, “That’s good, though!”
He was still yelling “Great job, Aubrey!” when the Wolverines came back on defense.
The comment seemed odd: The way Michigan’s season went, that miss easily could have been the difference between moving on to play No. 1 seed Wisconsin and going home for the offseason.
But Beilein saw positives, even if he didn’t see results.
A day later, Dawkins — sitting at his locker, head down, after a season-ending loss to the Badgers — took a minute to reflect on the play.
“He wants us to grow and keep being aggressive,” he said. “That’s all we gotta do. You can’t make every shot. That’s just basketball. But the fact that we’re making the play still, it shows our ability to see the game and just grow.”
When told about Beilein’s reaction to a missed layup, MacDonald saw the same coach he worked for in 1996.
“That’s what a good teacher does,” he said. “You’re a little kid and you’re learning how to ride a bike, and you pedal once or twice and then you fall over. What did your mom and dad do? They didn’t yell at you. (They said), ‘Good job, good try, you’re learning.’ ”
“It’s the same thing. (Beilein) is a persistent teacher. He really will zero in on what guys need to do.”
Before he hangs up the phone, MacDonald has one more story to tell about 1996.
When Canisius finally won the MAAC Tournament, cut down the net and reached the NCAA Tournament, its first matchup was No. 3 seed Utah. The Utes were coached by the late Rick Majerus and led on the floor by Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac and Andre Miller, all future NBA players. There were some challenges that Beilein’s four-year plan couldn’t yet meet.
“We got freaking drilled,” MacDonald said. “They killed us.”
The game was, however, at the same time as a 14 vs. 3 upset that did end up happening — Princeton vs. UCLA. Canisius’ magic ran out, so the nation stopped watching.
“The entire country, even Buffalo, got switched off our game, we were getting killed by so much, and (they) went to the Princeton-UCLA game,” MacDonald said.
“The bubble pops sometimes.”
That happened again this year. Beilein went through the same process that has brought him to the top of college basketball before. He just ran out of magic.
But as Lonergan said, Beilein knows college basketball isn’t a one-year thing. He’ll get his guys back in the gym again next year, passing, dribbling and catching just like always. He’ll give his team a chance in the end.
That will be enough. It always has been.