It wasn’t that long ago that Michigan’s basketball program was not merely unsuccessful, but the shame of the athletic department, if not the university.
Bo Schembechler, then Michigan’s athletic director, fired basketball coach Bill Frieder after he found out Frieder had flown out to accept the coaching job at Arizona State just a few days before the NCAA tournament was to begin. Schembechler famously barked, “A Michigan Man will coach Michigan!” Assistant Coach Steve Fisher filled in, and the team “shocked the world” by winning Michigan’s first-ever national title in basketball.
But, on the eve of Fisher’s ninth season, he, too, was fired, because some of his players had been paid by a booster. Another assistant coach, Brian Ellerbe, was named the interim coach, which usually is a mistake – and this proved no exception. At Ellerbe’s first Big Ten tournament, in 1998, the Wolverines pulled a rabbit out of a hat to win it, and Ellerbe was named the permanent head coach. But three years later he was also fired, partly because of a bad record, but mainly because some of his players had been paid by the same booster.
The NCAA launched an investigation that lasted years. Tommy Amaker, the next coach, had to deal the investigation, the probation that followed, and subpar facilities. He never made the tournament, but he left Michigan’s program much better than he found it.
Former athletic director Bill Martin started raising the money and making the plans for a new practice facility and a complete renovation of Crisler Arena – which ultimate cost about $100 million when it was finished in 2012 – and hired Michigan’s current coach, John Beilein, to take advantage of it. Beilein came to Michigan with a strong resume, having taken three different schools to the big dance, but not a high profile.
Beilein is the eighth of nine children, all of whom had to find their own way to college. For Beilein, basketball was the ticket. After he graduated from Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University) he took a job back home – in sanitation. One day, he was working in a sewer, knee deep in you-know-what, when his father’s face appeared in the light of the manhole above. He asked John if he wanted a job at the local high school, which was looking for a social studies teacher who could coach three sports. Beilein gazed about his surroundings, then looked up at his father, and said, “Yes. Yes, I believe I would be interested.”
When Beilein told this story to my class a few years ago, they laughed. But a moment later, with the image of his father still in his mind, the coach briefly choked up, and had to take a moment before moving on. That this memory could make a millionaire basketball coach pause, almost four decades later, tells you something about Beilein’s family.
Basketball announcers love to mention that Beilein has never been an assistant coach – which sounds cool, because they don’t tell you where he was a head coach. How about Newfane Central High School in upstate New York, Erie Community College, Nazareth College, Le Moyne College, then finally Division I: Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia, and Michigan.
Along the way, Beilein developed his unconventional offense, which starts with four players on the outside, and one big guy near the basket. From there, they move and pass constantly, trying to get an easy basket inside, or more likely, a shooter open for a three-point shot. When I asked him how he came up with that, he said, “Easy. I was desperate!”
When your team is filled with short guys, as his usually were, how do you beat the big boys? You outwork them, you out-think them, you out-pass them, and you hope you outshoot them. That’s Beilein’s offense.
I’ve been even more impressed by Beilein off the court. In his second season in Ann Arbor, with his team on the verge of Michigan’s first NCAA tournament in 11 years, they traveled to Iowa for a crucial game. Going into overtime, his star, Manny Harris, started sulking – so Beilein benched him, risking everything they had worked for. The Wolverines lost, which meant they had to beat 16th-ranked Purdue on the road – and they did.
That same year, the men’s basketball team achieved the most improved grade-point average of Michigan’s 25 varsity squads.
Nonetheless, when Michigan failed to make the tournament the next year, some fickle fans were calling for his head. Good thing they didn’t get it. Beilein’s teams have made the tournament three straight years. They won Michigan’s first Big Ten title since 1986 last year, and got to the championship game on Monday, for the first time in two decades.
They came up a little short, but the vast majority of Michigan fans seem less upset than proud – not just of what they did, but how they did it. The Michigan basketball program has not been this healthy since – well, ever.
After firing the last four coaches, three in the wake of scandals, Michigan just might have finally gotten the right guy. He just took a little while to get there.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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