On Tuesday night, the Michigan men’s basketball team beat Illinois to earn its first outright Big Ten title in almost three decades. What’s more impressive is how they’ve done it.
Michigan’s famous Fab Five left the stage 20 years ago, and were replaced by Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams a few years later. For more than a decade, the Spartans dominated the state.
Izzo’s teams have earned 16 straight NCAA invitations – and they’ll get another one next week – seven Big Ten titles, five Final Fours, and one national title, in 2000, and he’s done it the right way. His players graduate at roughly an 80% clip, higher than the student body at large. Along the way, Izzo took 18 of 21 against the Wolverines, who have had four different head coaches during his tenure.
But what a difference a few years make. Michigan basketball coach John Beilein has beaten the Spartans in six of their last eight meetings, and returned the long dormant Michigan program to its previous heights.
And by previous heights, I mean 1986, which is the last time Michigan won the Big Ten title outright. I was a senior that year – about the same age as the parents of Michigan’s current players.
This is just the latest of a lifetime of upsets for Beilein, starting with his coaching career itself. He was working in a sewer – literally – 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. John didn’t think too long before he decided perhaps that was a better career path, and climbed out of the sewer.
At the next six stops before Michigan – which included one high school, one community college, two four-year colleges and three Division I universities before Michigan came calling – Beilein’s players were always smaller than their opponents, so he created a system that stressed movement, passing and outside shooting. In other words, skill and savvy over size.
Beilein’s unconventional approach worked at every stop, but he was never part of the fraternity of coaches. It wasn’t because they didn’t like him, but because they didn’t know him. While they were assisting legends like Bob Knight and Dean Smith, and getting to know their network of friends, Beilein skipped the assistant step altogether, leading smaller schools in the middle of nowhere on his way up. That was just one more reason why so many people doubted his unique system would work on the Big Ten’s big stage.
After Beilein’s third season in Ann Arbor, when his Wolverines couldn’t manage to win even half their games, a lot of folks concluded he wasn’t ready for prime time. Beilein didn’t listen, sticking to his system, but overhauling his staff.
Those were two big time, gutsy moves – and both worked. The next year, Beilein’s Wolverines won the Big Ten title. Last year, they got to the NCAA title game, and this week, they took another Big Ten title – the third straight banner they’ll be hanging in Beilein’s honor. Unlike a few Michigan banners from the ’90s, which were taken down due to NCAA sanctions, these will be up as long as the building.
Because Beilein’s system stresses brains over brawn, he can afford to pass up most of the five-star high school prospects other coaches salivate over, and take the players they don’t want. The list is long, and includes Zack Novak, Trey Burke, Caris Levert, and Nik Stauskas – smart, coachable kids who either graduate on time or go to the NBA. Then Beilein and his staff develop these overlooked players, turning them into Big Ten stars and, oftentimes, NBA regulars.
Beilein has also attracted the sons of NBA stars like Jon Horford, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glen Robinson III. Their parents are rich, so their sons can’t be bought by unscrupulous coaches. They also know how slick other coaches can be, so they can’t be fooled, either. So when they pick John Beilein’s program to develop their sons as people and as players, that tells you something.
Beilein pulled off his latest surprise this season. In the off-season, Michigan lost two stars to the NBA, then first team pre-season All-American Mitch McGary had to bow out for back surgery in December. Most experts believed, without McGary, Michigan had no chance for another Big Ten title, and might even miss the NCAA tournament. Two months ago, I wrote: “Do not count them out.” But that’s a far cry from predicting a Big Ten banner. The team showed more guts than all of us watching them.
Even now, many naysayers believe Michigan won’t go far in the NCAA tournament. But do you really want to bet against Beilein…again? He has a history of proving the doubters wrong – a history that spans his entire life.
If John Beilein is not the Big Ten coach of the year, Michigan should demand a recount. Don’t be surprised if he wins the national award, too. It’s hard to imagine a more deserving recipient, on or off the court.
Not bad for a guy who started his coaching career by climbing out of a sewer.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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