Feel free to criticize John Beilein as a coach all you want.
Personally, I’ll consider you an idiot if you do. Thankfully, though, with the Wolverines’ shocking performance this season, I think the cries of rabble-rousing Michigan fans calling for Beilein’s head have been finally — and rightfully — reduced to nothing more than a whimper.
But even those people with an apparent vendetta against Beilein — the ones that wanted him fired after one down season, when the expectations were too high for the team anyway — have to recognize and appreciate what the Michigan coach represents.
I love college basketball, but, like all sports these days, it’s becoming increasingly susceptible to corrupting forces. A lot of coaches are more than willing to take advantage of that.
Kentucky coach John Calipari is lauded as one of the top men in his profession, and his results certainly speak to that. But a basketball public and a national media — all too easily blinded by wins and championships — seem to conveniently forget that wherever Calipari has stopped as a head coach, NCAA allegations have followed in his wake (and he’s already been in several recruitment gray areas in his two seasons at Kentucky).
Jim Calhoun is already in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. But his plaque doesn’t include the recruiting violations that the NCAA recently found him guilty of at Connecticut. And Rick Stansbury has found success at Mississippi State — but with the ongoing Renardo Sidney saga, it’s clear the coach is willing to sell his soul for more wins.
But Beilein breaks that mold. Some are appalled that the man doesn’t embrace the win-at-all-costs mentality that many — too many — of his peers have adopted. Of course Beilein wants to win, but he does it the right way.
Beilein will never recruit someone like Sidney. Those type of high-caliber players — brought up in a corrosive AAU culture shadier than Bernie Madoff, carrying more baggage (read: potential violations) than a 747 airplane — represent a slippery slope down the gray areas of college basketball.
I’m not saying Beilein won’t recruit good prospects, just not those athletes whose commitments come at the cost of selling out one’s character. Heck, he even avoided talking publicly about his own son when he played in high school, for fear of breaking obscure NCAA rules.
John Beilein still takes to heart what the core values of amateur athletics are supposed to be.
The term student-athlete actually means something in Beilein’s lexicon — he genuinely cares about how well his players do academically, recognizing that a college degree is just as valuable as a Final Four berth in the long run. In fact, when trying to figure out travel arrangements to Ohio State this season in the face of the looming Snowpocalypse, players missing as little class as possible was an important factor in the team’s plans.
For Beilein, college basketball is about developing his pupils both as players and as men. He talks a lot about his team being a family, but he’s not just blowing smoke. These Wolverines are his first group composed of solely his recruits — players who want to play the right way, who want to learn, who want to grow with their teammates — and their chemistry is readily apparent in the locker room.
Why do you think all these NBA fathers are sending their sons to play for John Beilein? Because they know that after four years of his coaching, teaching and benevolence, they’ll emerge ready to play pro ball if they’re talented enough, ready to enter the business world if that’s their calling — ready for any challenge in life.
As the NCAA continues to care more and more about its profits, as other coaches continue to care more and more about their own individual success, Beilein stands out as a positive force — fans of all teams should take heart that coaches like him still exist.
That’s why Saturday’s postgame scene was so gratifying for college basketball fans who still care about class. There was Tom Izzo, ripping an opposing player when his own teams have done far worse than making a contested layup at the end of a five-point game. There was the Michigan State coach, begrudgingly complimenting Michigan with all the genuineness and grace of a sore loser.
But then there was Beilein, constantly praising his opponent, turning down several opportunities to campaign for an NCAA Tournament berth, answering each question calmly and humbly despite notching the biggest rivalry win for the Wolverines in years.
Perhaps I’m out of touch; perhaps it’s time to recognize what college sports are turning into, and it’s time for the Wolverines to join up or get left in the dust.
But as students here, we should be proud that we’re above the system. Call it stereotypical Michigan arrogance, but I refuse to apologize for still wanting to play by the rules, for still hoping that true amateurism can someday return to our sports culture.
If you still don’t think Beilein is the best coach for Michigan — if you want him gone, or want the Wolverines to join the Kentuckys and Connecticuts in the moral basement of the NCAA — by all means, feel free to start crying out “Sparty on!,” or to go join the Ohio State bandwagon.
You probably belong there anyway.