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An open letter to John Beilein: Thank you for everything

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Our farewell — for now — of the best coach in the history of Michigan Men’s Basketball

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The last time a Michigan men’s basketball head coach was lured away from Michigan for a more prestigious position was right before the NCAA tournament in 1989.

Some of you will remember the story. Bill Frieder announced, seemingly out of nowhere, that he would be taking the head coaching job at Arizona State University as soon as the current season ended. The announcement completely blindsided Bo Schembechler, who was Michigan’s athletic director at the time. Schembechler declared that Frieder’s loyalties didn’t appear to lie with Michigan, and that, regardless of the timing, an Arizona State coach shouldn’t coach Michigan through the tournament. In a bold and risky and quintessentially Bo Schembechler response, he immediately fired Frieder and appointed Steve Fisher, an unproven assistant coach, as the interim head coach.

“A Michigan man is going to coach a Michigan team,” Bo famously proclaimed.

Bo Schembechler’s words are repeated with an unmistakable reverence in Ann Arbor, meaning that once the phrase “Michigan man” left his lips, every future Michigan basketball coach was rendered subject to an elevated level of scrutiny. Michigan coaches no longer just had to win, but they had to do so as a “Michigan man”, a vague and undefined term that Michigan fans have come to associate with an almost unattainable combination of class, integrity, loyalty, and winning.

Although Schembechler coined the term in 1989, it would be almost two decades before the men’s basketball program would see a head coach who was able to build a successful program without scandal or controversy. From 2007 to 2019, the University of Michigan men’s basketball program was head coached by perhaps the only true Michigan man the program has ever seen. This week, he accepted his next position: head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

For Michigan students today, myself included, John Beilein is synonymous with Michigan basketball. To love and root for Michigan basketball is to love and root for John Beilein, and vice versa. I wasn’t alive for the Fab Five era, when Michigan suddenly had a basketball culture for a fleeting two years. In fact, when Michigan hired Beilein in 2007, I was nine years old. The only time Michigan had made the NCAA tournament in my lifetime was in 1998. Michigan lost to UCLA in the second round when I was exactly sixteen days old, and didn’t play in the tournament again until Beilein’s second year, when I was in fifth grade.

Even though I can’t remember a time when John Beilein’s name meant anything other than Michigan basketball, he came to Michigan with almost no name recognition and over three decades of head coaching experience under his belt. Beilein was never in assistant coach. In 1975, he began his career as the head coach at Newfane High School in Newfane, New York, and after three years moved up the ladder to head coach at Erie Community College. In 1989, when Steve Fisher was appointed head coach at Michigan, Beilein was quietly paying his dues, coaching at Le Moyne College, a private Jesuit college in Syracuse, New York. By the time Michigan hired him, Beilein had held seven different head coaching positions, including a relatively impressive tenure at West Virginia University, where he coached the team to an Elite Eight appearance, a Sweet Sixteen appearance, and an NIT championship.

Almost immediately after he was hired, Beilein began turning the Michigan program around, creating a basketball culture where it simply hadn’t existed in over a decade. He did so with a combination of quiet integrity and basketball genius. Beilein is known for a coaching style where he brings everything back down to the basics. No flash, no glamour, just hard work. Instead of fighting other programs for the country’s top recruits, he recruited overlooked guys who he perceived as adaptable team players, and he developed them from scratch, often turning them into NBA prospects in the process. Beilein’s coaching philosophy worked. By the 2011-2012 season, Michigan remained in the top 25 all season and won its first share of the Big Ten regular season title since the 1985-1986 team.

In 2013, John Beilein coached Michigan to its first NCAA national championship appearance since the Chris Webber blunder against UNC two decades prior. This tournament run marks the season during which many current Michigan students first fell in love with Michigan basketball. I was a freshman in high school at the time, and my years as a diehard Justin Bieber fan were coming to a bitter end. (This was around the time Justin Bieber began peeing in mop buckets and trying to smuggle a monkey across the border.) I’ll never forget the day my dad called me in his room to show me a video on his iPad. There was Mitch McGary, Michigan’s charming 6’10” forward, singing Justin Bieber’s hit single “U Smile.” At fourteen years old, that video was enough for me to trade in my Justin Bieber t-shirt for a highlighter yellow Adidas jersey.

John Beilein’s teams were just so fun to watch, in large part because he was intentional about recruiting humble, likable guys who were willing to put the team before their egos. When I started using Instagram, the first celebrities that I followed were Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Spike Albrecht, and Caris LeVert. Six years after the 2013 National Championship appearance, those names can still bring a smile to any Michigan fan’s face. Remarkably, five of them are still in the NBA. And we all knew that the guy who orchestrated it all, the steady, constant force who took care of those boys and brought them together, was John Beilein. As the players came and went, Beilein was the consistent face of Michigan basketball, the person you could root for year after year after year.

Although Michigan lost to Louisville in the 2013 National Championship game, the appearance alone highlighted Beilein’s two most notable qualities: his integrity and his ability to win games. Louisville’s championship win was eventually vacated due to a sex scandal involving players, recruits, and prostitutes. This scandal is just one example of a national college basketball culture that was growing increasingly dirty. To this day, John Beilein is one of the only big-name college basketball coaches that hasn’t been implicated in some sort of cheating scandal, and he was voted by his peers as college basketball’s cleanest coach.

By the time I started college in 2016, Beilein had quietly built the Michigan program into a consistent NCAA tournament contender. My freshman year, Michigan beat Louisville in a close game, propelling them into the Sweet Sixteen. I was watching the game in my friend’s dorm room, and it stressed me out so much that when it was over, I realized I had compounded the peanut butter sandwich I was eating into a ball in my fist. After the game, a video clip went viral in which John Beilein ran into the locker room with a Super Soaker, drenching his team before they could douse him with their cups of water. In the video, guys like Moe Wagner, Derrick Walton Jr., D.J. Wilson, Zak Irvin, and Duncan Robinson react to their coach by jumping and shouting with an unfiltered joy.

I think that video was the moment that cemented John Beilein’s legacy. It became a tradition; Beilein and his coaching staff would run into the locker room with squirt guns several times after that. It was clear that his players absolutely loved him. For lack of more eloquent wording, I think that John Beilein’s legacy is that people love him. Fans, players, students. Everyone.

My sophomore year, Beilein once again coached his team to the National Championship game, and although he again came short of securing the title, he finally began to receive the recognition he deserved. National media outlets began referring to him as one of the greatest minds of college basketball, putting his name in lists with the likes of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. My friends and I drove over 24 hours down to San Antonio to watch the games, and our catchphrase for the weekend became “God bless John Beilein.” The team was full of charismatic, iconic guys like Moe Wagner and Jordan Poole, but everyone knew that John Beilein was the glue who held it together.

A few months later, I was sitting at my desk at my summer internship when I got a notification that Beilein was interviewing for a head coaching position with the Detroit Pistons. I’ve never been cheated on, but I would imagine it would feel pretty similar to how I felt that day. In my eyes, being a Michigan basketball fan meant being a John Beilein fan, and that notification was time I ever considered that Michigan basketball and John Beilein could exist apart from one another.

Beilein wasn’t offered the Pistons job, so we’ll never know whether or not he would have accepted it. But after I had some time to process Beilein’s situation, I began to understand why he would consider leaving Michigan.

Michigan fans are quick to paint Beilein as some sort of saint who only coaches basketball because of some deeply seeded love for his players, and while I believe that he is a genuinely good human being, he’s also an extremely competitive guy. That’s why he wins so much. After being established as an offensive genius at every level from high school to a D1 college, why wouldn’t he want to test his game at the next level?

Besides, as the cleanest coach in a sport that growing increasingly dirty, Beilein wasn’t exactly playing on a level playing field in college basketball. For unspoken but well-known reasons, Beilein didn’t tend to capture the country’s top recruits, which put him at a distinct disadvantage when playing teams full of one-and-dones. Besides, it didn’t seem that Beilein necessarily wanted the flashy McDonald’s All Americans. His strategy involved recruiting the guys who were overlooked, the Moe Wagners, the Duncan Robinsons, the Trey Burkes, and developing them over multiple years into NBA caliber players. But as the policies regarding entering the NBA draft changed, and other programs increasingly built their teams around one-and-dones, it grew clear that Beilein’s talent for developing players didn’t fit with modern college basketball.

To put it simply, even though John Beilein was the best coach Michigan could have ever hoped for, it was becoming increasingly evident that “college basketball head coach” might not be the most fitting career choice for John Beilein anymore.

After interviewing for the Pistons job, John Beilein coached one more year at Michigan, an encore season that none of us recognized. His 2018-2019 Wolverines went 17-0 at the beginning of the season, establishing a school record for best star, and never left the top ten all year. In the NCAA tournament, Beilein made his third consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance, with a team featuring his first and only one-and-done, Ignas Brazdeikis.

Then, when Beilein was offered a position to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers, he took it.

I’m sure we all remember where we were standing when we found out that Beilein was leaving Michigan. I was on the treadmill in the basement of my apartment in Ann Arbor, wearing a sweaty Maize Rage t-shirt. I really don’t have the words to describe how I felt, but I probably don’t need to, because every other Michigan fan felt the same way. Devastated.

Four coaches are tied for the most NCAA tournament wins since 2013: John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, and John Beilein. The clear odd one out on this list is John Beilein, because he never recruited a single McDonald’s All-American and only ever had one one-and-done. Beilein just coached basketball differently, and I came to recognize the type of program he built simply as “Michigan basketball.” The thing is, maybe it’s incorrect to call it Michigan basketball. Maybe it was just John Beilein basketball. The two have always been the same to me, but next year we’ll find out what it looks like when Michigan basketball and John Beilein basketball exist in separate realms. That’s something I never wanted to know.

Here’s what I do know: John Beilein will not retire from Michigan, but he is the truest Michigan man the basketball program has ever seen. I believe that in the coming years, Michigan fans will repeat his words with the kind of reverence we usually save for Bo Schembechler. I wasn’t alive for the the 1989 championship game, and I didn’t live to see the Fab Five debut the baggy shorts and black socks, but I feel so lucky that I went to college during the golden era of Michigan basketball: the John Beilein era.

Twenty years and a couple months ago, Schembechler proclaimed that a Michigan man will coach a Michigan team.

And coach he did.

Thanks, Coach B.