The challenge

Jessica Boullion
The choice – Carly Benson (SHAY SPANIOLA/Daily)
Jessica Boullion
The challenge – John Beilein (RODRIGO GAYA/Daily)
Jessica Boullion
The comfort – Kevin Borseth (AP PHOTO)

It seems as if Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein could have just as easily gone into the construction business as becoming a coach. That’s because the 59-year-old has made his passion for building incredibly clear.

Specifically, the Burt, N.Y. native takes pride in leaving programs in better shape than what he found them.

“It’s what drives me,” Beilein said of being able to lift a struggling program. “We had some success at West Virginia and did things that some people didn’t think we could do. It’s a good feeling to be able to do that.”

At each of his three Division I coaching stops, Beilein has taken a club that had a losing tradition and righted the ship within two years. At Canisius, the team was a dismal 8-22 before Beilein arrived from LeMoyne, a Division II program. In just its second season (1993-94) under Beilein, Canisius turned things around completely – finishing 22-7, winning the conference and reaching the NIT. Just two years after that, Beilein took the school to its second NCAA Tournament.

The same thing happened at Richmond, Beilein’s second Division I stop. The Spiders were a disappointing 13-15 in 1996 – the year before he arrived – and an eye opening, NCAA Tournament berth worthy 23-8 in Beilein’s first season as coach.

His tenure at West Virginia was no different. Three years after accepting the job there, Beilein did it again, lifting a program that had eight wins in 2001-2002 before his arrival to a 24-win campaign and Elite Eight performance by year three.

“I think he flourishes in positions that require rebuilding to be done,” said West Virginia wrestling coach Craig Turnbull, who has coached the team for 27 years and has had to share the same arena floor with Beilein’s basketball teams for the last five years. “It seems to be a real strength of his to be able to build a program. It forces him to pay attention to the little details along the way.”

Beilein’s track record – a winning record in 26 of 29 years as a coach – has forced athletic directors across the country to pay attention to him. And Beilein deserves every bit of that attention, according Canisius baseball coach Mike Rappl.

“If you check his history, each place he goes, it’s more of a challenge each time because he’s done so well everywhere he’s been,” said Rappl, who coached women’s basketball at Canisius during Beilein’s stint there and still remembers playing high school basketball against the Michigan coach. “He’s been sought after because he’s always been so successful. I don’t think he’s necessarily trying to build a program and then leave. He’s just always wanted the challenge and to see what he could do at the next level, and Michigan is on that next level.”

But before Beilein could even focus on getting his feet firmly planted on that level, the newly hired coach was bombarded with questions concerning everything else.

There was the $1.5 million buyout he had to pay for leaving West Virginia to come to Ann Arbor, which he settled after he was hired.

Then there was the issue many people bring up with schools like Michigan, where football is far and away the athletic department’s biggest draw. But Beilein addressed the question of the football program’s “shadow” with the most buoyant response imaginable.

“Are you kidding me?” Beilein asked rhetorically. “(The football program at Michigan) is nothing but a breath of fresh air and sunshine.”

Lastly, and probably least veiled, people have questioned the coach’s ability to recruit in the state of Michigan. While Beilein says he has recruited inside the state before, he readily admits his lack of familiarity with the area.

But he claims that issue had no bearing on his decision to come to Michigan whatsoever. “Having to recruit in an area I’m unfamiliar with would never be a deterrent in terms of me taking a job,” he said. “You just get familiar with it. It’s not rocket science.”

And even if the recruiting process was rocket science, you have to believe it wouldn’t change a thing for the optimistic Beilein.

It would just make for that much more of a challenge.

The choice

Junior Michigan women’s basketball player Carly Benson thought she knew where she wanted to spend her college basketball career. She had fallen in love with the coach, the program had a winning tradition and, as if that wasn’t enough, the school was only a little more than an hour away from the Carney native’s home.

No, the school wasn’t Michigan. Benson had her eyes set on Wisconsin-Green Bay.

“Wisconsin-Green Bay ended up being my No. 2 choice,” Benson said. “It was actually No. 1 for awhile.”

Eventually though, Michigan became her destination.

She made that choice following the 2004-2005 season, in which Green Bay finished 27-4 and the Wolverines were 5-23.

She made that choice despite feeling a stronger connection with Green Bay’s coach at the time, now Michigan women’s basketball coach Kevin Borseth, than with the Wolverines’ Cheryl Burnett.

But even those things couldn’t stop her from reaching the conclusion she did.

“The schools that were recruiting me when I was in high school may have had more successful teams,” Benson said. “But it’s hard to turn down Michigan and the chance to play in the Big Ten.”

Chances are Benson’s not alone when it comes to choosing Michigan for the intangibles.

Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin cited the program’s ability to hire Dawn Plitzuweit, Division II Grand Valley State women’s basketball coach for the previous five years, as an example of someone choosing Michigan despite having another glowing option available.

Before coming to Ann Arbor to take a job as an associate head coach, Plitzuweit had to resign her post. Though it may seem like a common-sense decision to take an associate head coaching position at a more visible program, keep in mind that the 36-year-old had won a National Championship at Grand Valley.

And Plitzuweit was in the running for numerous Division I head coaching positions after leading her team to the title in 2006.

“Her (taking a less authoritative job) says a lot about Michigan,” Martin said. “The block ‘M’ as a brand is so powerful that she just wanted to be at this program.”

Plitzuweit herself said that Michigan was “absolutely” the only school where she would have taken a lesser position than the one she held at Grand Valley.

And as for Benson, she can’t wait for the upcoming season. Benson always wondered what it would be like to play for Borseth since declining his offer to play at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Now she’ll finally know.

“My decision to (turn down Wisconsin-Green Bay to) go to Michigan had nothing to do with coach Borseth,” Benson said. “He was the whole reason I originally wanted to go to Green Bay. Now I feel like I have the best of both worlds with him here as the coach.”

The comfort

Being comfortable has always been important to Borseth. That accounts for much of the reason he has held just two Division I head-coaching positions – Michigan Tech and Wisconsin-Green Bay – during his 20-year coaching career.

His wife Connie claims at least four schools – Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Colorado and Indiana – contacted her husband about their coaching vacancies in the past.

“Looking back at opportunities he’s had in the past, I think somewhere deep down inside him, it just wouldn’t have been right for him to take those jobs,” she said. “It’s not to say that we knew this day would come, but he always felt that this would be the right opportunity for him and that this was the one that was going to feel right.”

In April of 2005, Borseth felt the timing was right to take a new job. He accepted an offer to take over the Colorado program and was scheduled to appear at his introductory press conference.

But just two hours before that conference was set to begin, Borseth backed out, saying he couldn’t take the job.

Borseth said the only reservation he’s ever had when considering whether to take a new job was his family. When he was offered the Colorado position, Borseth was concerned about moving his five children – 9, 8, 8, 4 and 2-years-old at the time – who had just become accustomed to the Green Bay area.

While Borseth had some of the same concerns about taking the Michigan job, he eventually realized the opportunity in Ann Arbor was very different from the one he had received from Colorado two years before.

Borseth said when he was offered the Colorado position, his wife’s father and grandmother were both ill, prompting him to stay at Green Bay.

“At Colorado (I would have been) a plane flight away from being at home and Connie’s dad and Connie’s grandmother,” Borseth said. “Since that time, they’ve both passed. But having to get on a plane with seven people to go between Denver and Michigan to see them would have been extremely difficult for me and my family.”

Connie Borseth said her husband had always wanted to coach at Michigan, but that didn’t automatically make leaving behind all of the support and relationships in Green Bay an easy task.

Aside from the move itself, Connie said having to leave behind close friends in Green Bay will be the hardest thing.

“It was a difficult decision to leave on some level because of the family we had built in Green Bay,” she said. “But at the same time we talked about it, and figured out that everything he had done previously was to get where he wanted to be, and this is where he wanted to be. I think he always would have wondered had he not taken this job.”

But now he won’t have to wonder.

Instead, he’ll finally be able to live out the dream he had always envisioned – and do so in comfort.

“I’m a midwestern person,” said Borseth, a Bessemer native. “I know a lot of people that live here. I’m closer to home. I’m from Michigan. I’ve always wanted to be in Michigan.”

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