There was a moment — with Moe Wagner marauding his way through the defense and galavanting around the court — when John Beilein stood on the brink of immortality. It was the first television timeout, and the team donning maize was starting to believe.
If that Michigan team with that cast of misfits could win a national title, there was no doubting John Beilein’s place in history, nor his spot on the Mount Rushmore of Michigan athletics. Then, or ever.
During the break in the action, I frantically typed out a sentence: “It’s now Bo, Beilein and everybody else.”
That sentence, along with the Wolverines’ hope, was erased soon thereafter, as a far-superior Villanova team cruised to a 17-point win and the national title. It was the second time in five years Beilein had come 40 minutes short of that elusive title. After the game, with his players back in the locker room in tears, Beilein stood outside of it, in many ways as the University’s de facto spokesman.
“That’s a very sad locker room, not because we lost the game,” Beilein said then, flashing a prideful grin, “but because they know something special just ended.”
Monday morning, John Beilein accepted a job to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers, leaving behind a program he built from nothing as perhaps one of the 10 best in the country. And with it, something special just ended.
“We shared some of the best moments of my life together, and I will always be grateful for that,” Beilein said in a statement Monday afternoon. “At the same time, I felt very strongly about this new and exciting opportunity with the Cavaliers.”
In the abstract, the move is not all that surprising. Beilein worked his way from JV high school coach to Erie to Nazareth to Le Moyne, to Canisius to Richmond to West Virginia and then Michigan, and he won everywhere. It is only human nature for Beilein, age 66, to want to test his coaching mettle at the highest level. By nature, it takes curiosity and self-belief to reach the heights he has. The Cavaliers job will serve as the ultimate test of those qualities. In that regard, who could blame him?
But emotions can’t account for the abstract, they can only evaluate reality. And this one will sting.
Above all, there was a comfort with John Beilein that everyone enjoyed. He was trustworthy. He was empathetic. He always — always — made a point to commend the opposing team and coach. He did things the right way. In many ways, he was antithetical to the college basketball ecosystem and in many ways, it appears, that ecosystem contributed to driving him away.
It is for all these reasons that made this morning’s nuclear bomb hurt.
Before Beilein, the Wolverines hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons since 1994-1995. Now, the program is coming off its eighth NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years.
Before Beilein, Sweet Sixteens weren’t in this program’s vocabulary. Now, they’re the expectation — notching five Sweet Sixteen appearances in Beilein’s 12 seasons, including each of the last three.
Before Beilein, this program didn’t matter to a soul beyond the walls of the Crisler Center practice facility. Now, it is lauded among the nation’s elite.
Once the dust has settled, those feelings tangled in complicated bits of anger, disappointment and understanding will gradually meld in nostalgia. In 2007, Beilein inherited a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998. In his 12 seasons he became the winningest coach in program history, with 278. He paved the greatest era in Michigan basketball history. In every way, he leaves the place better than he found it.
No matter who inherits this program will take the reins on a different plane than it was a decade ago. And if all goes well, he can sustain the infrastructure of a program at a humming stasis.
So, Beilein never secured the national title that seemed ever-so-close. He never quite joined Bo at the pinnacle of Michigan coaching lore. Chances are, he will ride out the rest of his career in the NBA.
But it’s clear Beilein’s legacy never hinged on the immortality a national title would have brought him or any gaudy statistics. John Beilein’s legacy instead lies in resurrecting what was once dead.
And for that, he leaves a Michigan legend.