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If Not Beilein, Then Who?

Finally! A healthy debate to spice up the off seasons. Brian over at Mgoblog got tired of my pillaging his comments section so he launched a broadside at my questioning of West Virginia Coach John Beilein being Option 1 on Michigan's coaching search list. Consider my colors raised, sir.


Time to do battle! Yarrr!

As Brian points out, over the past few days I've been "poking holes in [my] Beilein voodoo doll... holes made of words! " To some extent this is true, but my words make the holes, they are not holes in and of themselves.  

I honestly don't have a problem with Beilein as a coach or candidate for the Michigan head coaching position. I do have a problem with the contention that he is the best candidate available and the best candidate Michigan can get. Brian picked apart my rationales last night, and now I must return the favor.

Please bear in mind this post is not to tear down Beilein. Contrary to popular belief I do like the guy. I think he's a solid tactician, but I have my doubts about him. When Beilein first appeared on Michigan's coaching radar I wrote the following:

Potential Impact: Medium. While well respected, Beilein's got a good but not great resume. He's a known entity with solid coaching chops but no ties to the area and nothing that really blows you away. I believe he should be considered before guys like Lickliter, but he's probably candidate four on the list.
Chances: 35%. I think he's a shoe-in for an early interview. After coaching the Mountaineers, Michigan is a MAJOR step up even if we fans don't think so. As Rosenberg points out, he's got all the qualities Michigan looks for in a coach which is why I think he's one of the early favorites. He's not my first choice but we could do a lot worse.

Now, to the argument. The fisk is on the other foot... or something...

Brian takes issue with three points from my previous post on Beilein.
1.    That Beilein is a safe choice for Michigan the same way Amaker was six years ago.
2.    My questioning Beilein's recruiting ability.
3.    Well if you don't like him, then who the hell would you get there smartypants?

I will address them in order.

A "Safe Bet" Six Years Later

Brian's first problem is my assertion that Beilein is a "safe bet" just like Tommy Amaker.

This is ludicrous. Tommy Amaker had been a head coach for all of four years. Seton Hall failed, failed, had a Sweet 16 run as a ten seed with two OT wins, and then failed miserably despite the return of most of the Sweet 16 team from the year before. Amaker did reel in the nation's top recruiting class before "failed miserably." How on earth does this constitute a safe bet? The dueling NIT appearances in their (hypothetical) final years before becoming Michigan's coach are vastly different. If last year's WVU Sweet 16 team, which returned their stars from the previous year's run, had collapsed into the NIT and then we had decided to hire Beilein, that would be equivalent.

Ludicrous? NSFMF. Instead of tearing down, I will build up, observe.

Prior to Amaker taking over at Seaton Hall Prior to that, he served as an assistant coach at Duke for Mike Krzyzewski from 1988-97. During that time Duke played in the National Championship game four times and came away with two National Championships. Amaker was a very highly touted young coach at that time. He built a solid reputation as the assistant coach who was responsible for the Blue Devils' defensive success. That success transformed into his first head coaching gig at Seton Hall. And it's not like Tommy walked into the Garden of Eden when he took over Seton Hall either. In 1996-1997 Seton Hall was 10-18 (5-14) and in 1995-1996 they were 12-16 (8-12). In Amaker's first year he got them to 15-15 (9-10) and the NIT. In his second the NIT 15-15(9-11). His third 22-10(11-7) and the Sweet 16. Not a bad three year run for a program that was dead in the water before he arrived.

The next year Amaker recruited the best class in the country, but only returned two true starters from his Sweet 16 group. The returning "stars" were Darius Lane, Ty Shine and Sam Dalembert. All were returning as sophomores and Lane was the only one to average double figures the year before. Eddie Griffin and Andre Barrett were freshmen starters. It was a very young team that didn't gel. Amaker and the Pirates went to the NIT with a 16-15 record. Amaker took the Michigan job at the end of the season. Seton Hall's "miserable failure" in 2000-2001 was the result of losing three critical senior leaders (Holloway, Kaukenas, and Morton) the year before and starting all underclassmen.

As evidence that Amaker wasn't just a shot in the dark look at what he accomplished in four years. Amaker made Seton Hall respectable again. After years of Seton Hall being a joke, all of a sudden they were a legitimate Big East threat based on the work Amaker did in his four years there. He came from an excellent coaching pedigree, was squeaky clean, and recruited like a candyman at a fat farm. More importantly he recruited at Seton Hall, a school that's only relevance was losing to Michigan in 1989 in the national championship game. Seton Hall is not exactly in Beverly Hills either. The surrounding area is at best, a tough neighborhood and he got top players to attend it. He was successful in a legitimate power conference, and just like Beilein, was a bucket away from the Elite 8 the year before going to the NIT.

I also don't think it's fair to say "Seton Hall failed, failed, had a Sweet 16 run as a ten seed with two OT wins, and then failed miserably" based on the information above. If so, then WVU failed, failed, Elite 8 run where they squeaked by three teams by a combined 13 points, Sweet 16 where they played SIU and Northwestern State, then "failed miserably."

Contrary to Brian's assertion that West Virginia is

a bunch of unregarded freshmen [who] are in the NIT final at West Virginia

They're not. For the record, West Virginia is starting two seniors (Young, Summers), a Junior (Nichols), and two sophomores (Alexander and Ruoff). The only freshman to see significant time is Da'Sean Butler. BTW, Junior Jamie Smalligan sees a lot of playing time too. So, four upperclassmen lead the way, with two sophomores and a freshman. Sounds like a pretty balanced team to me. A lot like... oh... say... Michigan?

With the conference schedule Beilein had against the soft underbelly of the Big East, his 1-7 record against 2007 NCAA tournament teams, an overall schedule that rivals the Care Bears for cuddliness, and a pile of upperclassmen leading the way, it can be argued that his 2006-2007 season is as much a miserable failure as Amaker's was in 2000-2001.

I maintain, based on Tommy's resume, his head coaching success at a previous dead and buried Seton Hall, his recommendations from the coach everyone considered God at the time, and his ability to recruit, yes, I think it's fair to say Tommy was a safe bet, just like Beilein is.

The Recruiting Battle

This is easily the most contentious topic in the discussion. I look at Beilein's teams and see a lack of not only star power but star ability. Brian sees good recruiting through Beilein's results.

In support, Brian is right to point out West Virginia's offensive efficiency this year.

        Offense        Defense
Raw Efficiency:113.1 ( 15)        97.8 ( 72)
Adj Efficiency:118.6 ( 12)        94.6 ( 62)

However, as I mentioned above, he's produced that with four upperclassmen starting or seeing significant minutes and two sophomores.  If you're a good coach you should see at least adequate results if almost everyone you play has been around your system for two to three years. Beilein does not mold play-doh into the statue of David, but he does run an impressive system that generates good offensive numbers. However, Brian uses the numbers to buttress his support of Beilein's recruiting abilities, and to that I cry foul.

Is it better to get a four-star power forward who doesn't fit your system or a three-star who does? Beilein's ability to recruit is self-evident when you look at the results on the floor. This is how the Steelers' defense was always so good when they were the only team in the league running the 3-4: they got perfect fits for their system that would not have been available if it was more commonly employed. Beilein plucks square blocks and the gurus rate mostly on roundness.

While recruiting is an inexact science, the star system is the only one we have in place to measure incoming recruits. The assertion that "Beilein plucks square blocks and the gurus rate mostly on roundness" implies that he is intentionally passing on better prospects to find gym rats who fit his system. I find this logic flawed on two levels

First, while we decry the ratings system in this argument, we're more than happy to use it to rail on Michigan football coaches for their failures to land 5* talent. Which is it? Is the system flawed top to bottom and we should discard it in favor of what they do on the floor two years later or is it a system that legitimately measures the capabilities of high school athletes? It ain't the best system, but it's the one we gots.

In college basketball, undersized three point shooting guards that need to play zone defense to be effective are in high supply and it's not like people are going out of their way to recruit them. However, they are what is left for Beilein to recruit. He takes what he gets and molds a good system for them. This is not a criticism of his coaching, this is a criticism of his recruiting. The system works because it's automated in the way McDonald's is. You go here, you shoot, repeat. You plug in three point guys when needed and live and die by the three. I don't believe the effectiveness of the system he employs is a measure of his recruiting prowess.

Were he to recruit a bunch of 4* guards and forwards I guarantee you his style would change because he's a good coach. However, he hasn't been able to get them in 29 years of coaching so he sticks with the system that works for the 3* recruits he can get. If a 29 year track record for middling recruiting isn't enough to convince me he's a recruiting superstar, why should I believe he'll turn into Thad Matta in Ann Arbor? If we're to judge Beilein on his successes we must also judge him on his failures. His failure to recruit is a valid criticism regardless of what side of the Beilein fence you're on.

Further stating the following ignores what we've been through the last four years in particular.

It's almost immaterial if he doesn't recruit better in the eyes of the gurus.  In all likelihood he will because the Michigan name still has cachet and the campus is still 30 miles from Detroit.

That's really paid off for us in the past, hasn't it? (cough, Amaker years, cough) Cachet or no cachet, simply standing in Ann Arbor with your arms open and a sign that says "Play for me!" isn't going to do it. Amaker proved that. If the argument is Michigan can't have a top rung coach because it's not a great basketball school on one hand "Rockstar coaches are already making that huge chunk of change at schools that are currently experiencing more success than Michigan -- that's why they're rockstars" then you can't argue kids will play at Michigan just because it's Michigan with the other. And frankly, Michigan's Cachet has steadily declined with Detroit recruits, so much so that they're going ANYWHERE but Michigan. Manny Harris is one of the few in-state stars Michigan's been able to bag, but that's been about it.

Second, comparing college basketball to the Steelers also is a no sale for me. The salary cap was the reason they could employ the system they used, not the irregularity of what they ran. Pittsburgh looked for speed when a lot of teams were still looking at size. Fast but marginally undersized linebackers were cut free and picked up at a discount and plugged into the system. The Steelers were simply ahead of the curve on that one. Now that the NFL has finally caught on, the Steelers don't have that advantage anymore.  Beilein hasn't discovered some magic elixir at West Virginia that no one else knows about. No one is rushing to gobble up his army of three point specialist. He's playing with what he can get in a system that's designed to benefit the talent he has. It's a compliment to his coaching. However it's also and indictment of his ability to bring in top talent.

I will say that Brian's argument here was dead on.

[C]omparing West Virginia to a team that's the preeminent program in one of the most talent-rich states in the country, one that's been to four Final Fours in the past decade... um... no sale.

I overstepped on that comparison. Withdrawn.

With all this said, Brian and I will have to agree to disagree on this point. I believe Beilein's recruiting is subpar and his success is predicated on a system built to maximize the talent he can recruit. I think this shows he is an excellent coach but a bad recruiter. Brian maintains Beilein's success with low star talent shows that the players are not low stars after all.

Either he's a good recruiter who's sneaking Ekpe Udohs from underneath everyone's noses and his coaching really isn't as good as we think, or he's an excellent coach recruiting middling prospects and developed a good system to maximize their effectiveness. He can't be both. I'm betting on the latter.

So What's Your Problem Then If You Like This Guy?

I just don't think he should be No. 1 on the list. That's it in a nutshell. Here's why:

  1. He's expensive
  2. There are legitimate questions about his recruiting ability
  3. He's been successful but no overwhelming.
  4. He's an older coach
  5. There are better names out there
  6. There are coaches with similar records that won't cost as much.
With regard to the first point, $2.5 million to buyout a contract is NBA level money. Unless I'm getting a top value coach, I have a problem with paying that much money. This is one of my biggest problems with his candidacy.

Second, his recruiting. Outlined above. If you don't agree, that's fine. I just don't think he's that good at it.

Third, he is a successful coach. He goes to the NCAAs. But he also spends a perplexing amount of time in the NIT for the quality of coach he is. I maintain it is based on a lack of recruiting that can to some degree be improved with better assistants, but it will never be a strong point. However, if you don't agree with that position, the next logical step is to downgrade his coaching ability which is something I will not do.

Fourth, he is older. At 54 he's one of the older coaches on the Michigan radar. This really isn't much of a negative, but it does mean he's closer to retirement than some of the other candidates.

Fifth, there are better coaches available in the price range we're talking. This was Brian's major question, "Who?"

I've mentioned on several occasions I believe Michigan should go after Bruce Pearl, Jay Wright, Lon Kruger, Billy Gillispie, and Mike Montgomery. Jay Wright has quickly jumped to the top of my list. He's got 13 years head coaching experience including getting Hofstra to the dance twice (2000, 2001). In six seasons at Villanova Wright has a 126-60 record, three straight NCAA appearances, and an Elite 8 trip last year. He can recruit anywhere. High floor, high ceiling guy. Throw money at him. Please.

At this point Pearl, Gillispie, Kruger, and Montgomery are known entities. What is also known is that in order to bag coaches like them, you're going to have to fork over a pile o' cash. As Brian mentions, Gillispie is probably a pipe dream due to his current $2 million a year salary. However, Wright, Pearl, Montgomery, and Kruger are not. All three are at the $1 million a year mark in salary, so tacking on an addition $.8-$1 million on their yearly salary would be fairly enticing. They will require a boatload of money to sign, but they're available.

My point has always been, "it we're going to spend that kind of money, then let's get the best possible coach out there." Throwing $2.5 million to buy Beilein out of his contract makes no sense to me if the aforementioned coaches aren't even approached. If it turns out Beilein is in fact the best possible coach we can get, fine. But until we throw money at some bigger names, we'll never know what we can actually get.

Finally, I do believe there is comparable coaching talent out there without Beilein's price tag. For comparison, I submit the resume of Butler coach Todd Lickliter. In seven Division I seasons, he contributed to teams that won three conference regular season championships, four conference tournament titles, made five NCAA Tournament appearances, two sweet 16 appearances, and compiled a 135-80 record. In six seasons at WVU Beilein has compiled a 127-69 record. He's taken the Mountaineers to two NITs and two NCAA appearances including one Sweet 16 showing and one Elite 8 showing.

Frankly, those are pretty similar resumes. After watching Butler give Florida all it can handle, despite being undersized against huge Gator team, I gained a lot of respect for Lickliter. If we're going to hire a system coach who recruits okay but not great, wouldn't it be smarter to get him at a discount? On paper and on both sides of the court Lickliter appears to run a better show than Beilein.

                 Offense            Defense
Raw Efficiency: 114.4 ( 10)             95.2 ( 35)
Adj Efficiency: 118.0 ( 16)           93.0 ( 48)

If we're going this route, Lickliter is my choice over Beilein.

I hope that helps to clarify my position, not as anti-Beilein, but a pro-Michigan. I will embrace Beilein with open arms if he becomes Michigan's next coach. However, I think it is imperative that Michigan at least try to land some of the other coaches I've named before picking Beilein based on the reasons I've listed.

The fisk is in your court, Brian.