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Rising From the Ashes: John Beilein and the Resurrection of Michigan Basketball

16 years ago, Michigan basketball was publicly reprimanded and humiliated; now the program is the gold standard of college basketball.

Florida State v Michigan Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Michigan fans at large would lead you to believe that Coach John Beilein is a combination of John Wooden, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Ellen DeGeneres, Jack Donaghy, and Atticus Finch.

However, just fourteen months ago, several pockets of the fan-base were calling for his job, and even in 2016 (just two years removed from an Elite Eight appearance and three years removed from a National Final appearance) fans were upset. Thankfully, Maize ‘n’ Brew and Anthony Broome were there to calm you down, telling disgruntled fans “don’t be ridiculous.”

But where was this program two decades ago? How about just one? In a weekend celebrating resurrections, let’s not overlook Beilein’s resurrection and refinement of Michigan’s basketball program.

We begin in dark times; Steve Fisher had been fired weeks before the 1997-1998 season due to an investigation over alleged violations, and Michigan reluctantly tried to move forward with newly hired assistant coach Brian Ellerbe. The incompetence behind this coaching decision makes a Tennessee football coaching search look efficient.

Athletic Director Tom Goss essentially plugged a Titanic sized leak with tissue paper and the New York Times summarized the feeling in Ann Arbor brilliantly: “Ellerbe’s tenuous status as the temporary head coach of the team -- he wasn’t even accorded ‘’interim’’ status -- only served to underscore the turmoil. Since Fisher’s dismissal he had guided a team like a captain expecting reassignment. Finally on Friday, the word came: The interim tag was official for this season, and Ellerbe had on his hands a stunned team struggling to regain equilibrium just three weeks before the season starts.” Yikes.

After regressing over the course of four years (Ellerbe won as many games combined in his last two seasons as he did in his first), Michigan made another coaching change. Two weeks after Brian Ellerbe was fired, the Wolverines lured Tommy Amaker away from Seton Hall and entrusted him with returning Michigan to national prominence. Amaker was one of the hottest names in basketball and at age 35, he appeared to be the coach of the future. His first season was a struggle, but the feeling around campus was optimistic. Unfortunately, although Michigan was done with the past, the past was not yet done with Michigan.

In 2002, an ongoing federal investigation into former Michigan booster Ed Martin had concluded. Michigan self-imposed the following penalties: from the 1991-92 season to the 1998-99 season, Michigan vacated 112 victories, the 1992 and 1993 Final Fours, 1997 N.I.T. Championship, the 1998 Big Ten Championship, and was forced to sever ties with several prominent players of the 1990’s who accepted illegal benefits. Moreover, Michigan was banned from the postseason that year and publicly humiliated.

Chris Webber - University of Michigan Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The NCAA agreed that Michigan’s self-imposed sanctions ‘layeth the smacketh down’ enough to their liking and now it was time for second year head coach Tommy Amaker to clean up this mess and completely change the ethos of the program; he did as well as he could.

Amaker guided his teams to three N.I.T. appearances, including the N.I.T. Championship one year after Michigan’s penalties came down. In most cases, this tournament championship is like a consolation hug from your mother when you don’t make varsity, but at this time for Michigan, it was like a hug from stepmother Scarlett Johansson.

But nonetheless, Michigan had not made an NCAA Tournament appearance (that survived sanctions) since the elder Bush was President (1990) and in Ann Arbor, fair or unfair, Michigan never invests in long-term rebuilding years. Tommy Amaker was fired abruptly after his sixth season in Ann Arbor and Michigan basketball was once again in flux.

Weeks after Amaker’s dismissal, West Virginia’s John Beilein was hired as the next head coach at Michigan.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Through his first five seasons, Beilein was a decent 91-77, including three NCAA Tournament appearances and sadly three opening weekend tournament losses (two in the Round of 32 and one in the Round of 64). At this point, the ‘curse of more’ began to sink in for most. It was great to be back in the NCAA Tournament, but it was time for that next step and few were confident that Beilein was the guy.

The next year, Beilein responded by guiding Michigan to the National Championship game (the block was clean) and tied the school record for wins in a season (31). His encore performance the following season saw Michigan advance to the Elite 8. Michigan basketball has never experienced a more lucrative two-year stretch in program history.

The following two seasons were disappointments: 2014-15 was plagued by injuries and the team missed the NCAA Tournament; 2015-16 saw the Wolverines bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Fans misinterpreted this as a ‘Return to Beilein Normalcy’ and they viewed the previous record setting stretch as a Trey Burke inspired aberration. Once again, Beilein responded.

Last season’s team reached an improbable Sweet 16 and this year’s team is one win away from reaching the National Championship game for the second time in Beilein’s tenure. Not to mention, the team has now won the Big Ten Tournament in back-to-back seasons, a feat that had never been singularly accomplished by any Michigan team since the tournament began in 1998. (Note that Michigan vacated the 1998 inaugural championship.)

Michigan may beat Loyola and advance to another National Title game, or they may succumb to the mojo of Sister Jean. Nonetheless, John Beilein is the best basketball coach in Michigan’s history. Period. In the last six years, Michigan is one of only five schools with two Final Four appearances. And, not to mention, one of the cleanest programs in all of the country.

Florida State v Michigan Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

As a summation of Beilein’s resurrection of the Michigan basketball program and tenure thus far, we of course have to rely on one of my favorite films: The Count of Monte Cristo

“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.”

In a few years when unruly fans are somehow clamoring for his job and that hint of doubt creeps into your mind, just know Beilein will face the storm like he always does, and win.