For Beilein, Michigan it's about survival
Coach Beilein’s long road to title hopes at Michigan
ATLANTA -- Michigan head coach John Beilein listens to the question, and his eyes flash serious for a moment. The memories of where he once was appear to be coming back, and some of them stand in stark contrast to the opportunity that’s before him.
He’s got a chance to win the biggest prize in all of men’s basketball, the NCAA Division I championship. Beilein’s four-decade rise to the sport’s pinnacle has been well documented, but the look on his face says that there’s so much more to the story.
Beginning with his first high school coaching gig back in the 1970s, Beilein has never stayed at any one school more than the nine years he spent at LeMoyne in Syracuse, N.Y. This is Beilein’s sixth year at the helm of the Wolverines, and there were several schools before and between those stops.
He could never get comfortable anywhere. He couldn’t afford to. He wouldn’t allow himself to.
“[Moving so often] is probably the reason why we’re still here and we’re still coaching 35 years later,” Beilein said. “You cannot get stale when you’re fighting for your life.”
At virtually every stop along the way, Beilein took over a struggling program and turned it around. He might have had one losing season right out of the gate, but no more than that.
“Each opportunity that we embraced, the program was at a low,” Beilein continued. “We’d say, ‘OK, that clock is ticking. They’ll be with you the first and second year. If you don’t start turning it around, it’s going to be somebody else.’ ”
As a result, Beilein was instilled with a drive that has never waned. Beilein is now one of just nine coaches to take four different schools to the NCAA DI tournament – and he also went to the DII dance with LeMoyne.
In 35 years as a collegiate head basketball coach, Beilein’s teams have experienced only five losing seasons.
“You’re in survival mode,” Beilein said. “When you’re in survival mode, you find ways to improvise, to get better. You self-examine yourself daily. It keeps you sharp. It’s really been a key for us.
“It wasn’t intentional. I’m talking survival. You have four children. You’re trying to make it. You’ve got to do what you have to do. We’ve been changing and changing and changing.”
Could he ever have imagined all those years ago being just two games away from an NCAA national championship? Surprisingly enough, he insists he never did but there’s a good reason for that.
“I didn’t think much about that, so, no, I didn’t think it was possible,” Beilein admitted. “I’m sort of always thinking about, ‘What can we do right now for us to be a better team? What can I do to be a better coach, a better father, a better teacher?' If you do all those things, anything is possible in your life.”
Even if he didn’t necessarily dwell on it, making the Final Four became more and more of a possibility as he ascended through the ranks. He took West Virginia to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, and in 2009 guided Michigan to its first national tournament in 12 years.
Now that he’s here at last, the approach he has taken makes it all the more special.
“It’s tremendous, but it’s pretty much the way I’ve lived my life about each day,” Beilein said. “Just try and do your best. Anything can happen, good or bad, and you’d better be able to deal with it, either way.”