By virtually every measure John Beilein is a great basketball coach. He is tactically brilliant, has experienced success at every level, and consistently gets the most out of players. In a business where coaches can go from on the verge of unemployment to a great job with just one magic tournament run, Beilein's story is different. In the same way that a child graduates from elementary school to middle school to high school on to college, grad school, and the working world, Beilein has worked his way up the ladder. Tonight his Michigan Wolverines take on Kansas. A victory would get Beilein within 40 minutes of the Final Four.
After playing college basketball at Wheeling Jesuit, the Western New York native returned home to coach Newfane High School. As one of nine kids, this opportunity kept him close to family. From Newfane he latched on at Erie Community College, and then Division III Nazareth College. From Rochester he moved to Syracuse taking over the program at Division II LeMoyne College. After failing to land a variety of Division I jobs, Beilein finally got his opportunity at Canisius University. His first job outside the state of New York came at Richmond University. He parlayed success there into a job at West Virginia. And finally he reached Ann Arbor.
John Beilein has never been an assistant coach. He has more than 700 career victories. He has won 20 or more games 18 different times. He has taken five teams, four at the Division I level, to the NCAA Tournament. He has had to work and earn every job he has ever had.
Jim Boeheim played at Syracuse, became an assistant at SU, Roy Danforth left, and Boeheim was named the head coach at age 32. When Beilein was 32, he was coaching his second of nine seasons in Syracuse, at LeMoyne.
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Beilein's record would be even better that his 63-percent career winning percentage if it wasn't for the unique way he coaches. At three of the four Division I schools he has worked, the first year or two were rough. He likes skilled players who can shoot and pass with high IQ's. He takes those players, and teaches them his system, sometimes at the expense of toughness or size. It takes time to recruit his guys.
Much like his offense, which is uniquely geared towards three point shots and backdoor cuts frequently with four or even five players standing on the perimeter, Beilein's defense is a mix of conventional and individual. While he doesn't use his signature 1-3-1 zone a ton, when he does it is precise and frequently disrupts his opponent’s tempo and what they have consistently done throughout the season.
Michigan averages the fewest turnovers a game in the country, is number one in assist to turnover ratio, ranks among the top 10 in field goal percentage, and has fouled less than all but one team in the NCAA. The Wolverines played one of the 10 toughest schedules in the country this year, yet have the most wins for a Michigan team since the Fab 5's sophomore season. The Maize and Blue won the 1989 National Championship. Beilein is four wins away from a school record 32 wins in a season, and a second title. Not bad for a guy who couldn't get out of Western and Upstate New York in any of his first five coaching jobs.