INDIANAPOLIS — John Beilein is having more fun than you.
Even for those who have known the 64-year-old basketball coach for any amount of time, who could have imagined him firing a Super Soaker in the locker room for a post game celebration like a child who just unwrapped the same toy for Christmas?
That’s because the old, methodical, disciplinarian John Beilein ain’t around anymore.
Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to John Beilein 2.0.
This latest model of the Michigan basketball coach still has some of the features from the previous version you’ve grown to enjoy and love.
He still focuses on player development, still stresses the fundamentals and still acts like he’s a teacher first and a basketball coach second.
But as this season has gone on, Beilein has had less and less to worry about and do as a coach. And as it’s turned out, less has turned into more for the Wolverines.
“He’s enjoying this moment just like we are,” said senior guard Andrew Dakich. “It’s really cool to see our coach be so relaxed. He’s still the same guy, he’s just joking around a lot more and having more fun with us.”
More than any other team he’s managed, Beilein has loosened his control of the reigns at the helm of Michigan and given it to the assistant coaches and veteran players alongside him.
That started even before the season, when Beilein brought in assistant coaches Billy Donlon and Saddi Washington.
Specifically with Donlon, Beilein has come to view him as more than just an assistant as the season has unfolded. He’s given almost full control of the defense to Donlon and let him script a large part of the narrative of this season as it has unfolded, even allowing his assistant to vandalize a few walls in the process.
Whenever Michigan has needed an extra boost of motivation, or something out of the box, Donlon has stepped up to deliver that. For Michigan’s home game against Illinois, he penned “Streetfight” on the wall in the Crisler Center locker room. In Washington for the Wolverines’ Big Ten Tournament game against Purdue, he used that same sharpie to ink “Not today” on a Verizon Center wall, telling his players that it was not the day Michigan would be packing its bags and heading home.
Again on Sunday, Donlon was in charge of preaching the message of the game. He walked into the main area of the locker room with pictures of each players’ and coaches’ family, and taped them to the wall.
“Everyone had a picture with them and their family,” said senior wing Zak Irvin. “He said, ‘When times get tough, think about them. Think about the people who you do it for.’ I think it really hit home for everybody and I think that really showed in the second half.”
Beilein’s faith in all of his assistants is higher than ever, and that has shown over this postseason run.
It’s not easy scouting and developing game plans in such a short turnaround time, and Michigan’s coaching staff has been doing a masterful job doing so over the past two weeks.
Beilein says his staff is more connected than ever. There are no egos in the room, everyone is focused on their individual role.
That dynamic also extends to how all the coaches interact with the players. Beilein says more than anything, his assistants have excelled at connecting with the players. The coaching staff has instilled a belief in their players that anything is possible moving forward, and without that belief, Michigan wouldn’t be winning these games.
“The trust has gone up because we’ve got a lot of juniors and seniors now who are really leading this team and playing good basketball,” said senior forward Sean Lonergan. “I think that’s taken some of the pressure off coach (Beilein) to always be that stricter coach because this is really turning into a player-to-player accountable team instead of a coach-to-player accountable team. We’re holding each other accountable, which takes the pressure off of him a little bit.”
More than ever, the players are calling the shots for Michigan, especially in this postseason run. Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. is now overriding Beilein’s offensive play calls from the sidelines multiple times a game. In timeout huddles, players are yelling at each other for motivation and to correct mistakes.
“At some point, they’ve gone beyond buying in, they’ve taken ownership,” said assistant coach Jeff Meyer. “We’re on the ride with them now. That’s the reality of it. They are running the Wolverine Express right now.”
Beilein is now focused on making longer-term adjustments based on the Wolverines’ strengths rather than getting knit-picky over every little mistake made.
That was on full display on Sunday, as Walton once again took leadership to coach one of his teammates through a situation Beilein would have in seasons past.
“Now you have guys yelling at each other for not doing their job,” Lonergan said. “You saw it today with Derrick after (sophomore forward Moritz Wagner) scored a big bucket. He looked at Moe straight after as he was running down the floor and said, ‘I’m glad you scored but I need you to go down there and get a stop for us.’ You see things like that, you hear people in timeouts always yapping in each others’ ear.”
The players and coaching staff have come together to take the load off Beilein and create something special, and Beilein himself is turning into a new man. He’s loose. He’s relaxed. He’s fun.
It wasn’t a personal choice, but more so the result of his changing surroundings. After 40-plus years of coaching, there aren’t very many ways to change other than by the unforeseen circumstances Beilein has had to address throughout the season.
But he’s changed nonetheless. And for this new John Beilein, there’s nothing else to focus on but a title.