The Silver Lining to the End of Michigan’s Magical Run

The first part of this story, you probably know.

The Michigan men’s basketball stunk so badly in January, just about everyone figured they’d never get to the NCAA tournament in March. They had some talent, but they were one-dimensional: all offense and no defense. Worse, other coaches said Michigan was soft and lazy – two things no coach wants to hear about his team.

Another team, and not a very good one, called Michigan a “white collar team.” Worst of all: They were right.

What could coach John Beilein do? He’d already told his players everything they needed to hear. He worked them every practice. But the results weren’t close to what his previous Michigan teams had achieved.

And that’s when senior captain Derrick Walton, Jr., acted like a senior, and a captain. He called a players’ only meeting, and chewed out his teammates.

This is rarer than you might think, because it’s asking a lot: not many college students are eager to tell their friends hard truths, because you risk becoming unpopular – something few 21-year olds are willing to risk.

Walton decided there was something worse than being unpopular: not achieving your potential, because you were too afraid to speak your mind.

Walton’s meeting worked. The team started playing defense, which is often a grim, dull business. They started losing close games against good teams. Then they started winning close ones. Then they started blowing teams out. The Walton-led Wolverines handed seven opponents their biggest defeats of the season.

Right before the Big Ten tournament started, the team’s plane stopped — well past the runway. The landing gear snapped, Walton received stiches, and Coach Beilein let his team decide if they wanted to hop on a plane the next morning, or forfeit their opening game.

Once again, they decided to toughen up. And boy did they, beating four teams in four days, including the Big Ten’s two best team, Purdue and Wisconsin, both for the second time.

The Wolverines won the Big Ten tournament, and a 7th seed in the NCAA tournament. They won their first game against a hot Oklahoma State team, 92-91, they’re sixth straight. They were as tough as anyone still standing.

And that’s just one more reason I prefer college sports to the pros: you can actually see college kids grow up before your eyes, and become men. You can watch them accept responsibility, respond to pressure, and develop into leaders when following is so much easier. In just two months, we saw Derrick Walton Jr. transform himself from a passenger to a pilot.

On Sunday, they faced an excellent, if morally compromised, Louisville program. A few years ago, a staffer confessed to hiring prostitutes for their recruits. Those players beat Michigan in the NCAA title game back in 2013. This year, Louisville was supposed to compete for the national title.

I watched that game in the Michigan Union. As the game built toward its climax, people gathered to watch the TVs there. I saw undergraduates, graduate students, a 78-year old physics professor, and the guys who clean up the Union, all glued to the TV. When the Wolverines pulled off the upset, they celebrated together. That’s what college sports can do.

They weren’t just cheering the victory, but the values behind it. They admired these coaches and players, and they should have. These guys do it the right way, and that’s rare. Just ask Louisville.

Michigan’s magical run ended last night, in a one-point loss to Oregon – another department that’s had some moral issues.

At some point, Michigan fans have to make a decision: Do they want to win a national title, the way Louisville did? Or do they want a program they can be proud of, on and off the court?

If it’s the latter, then John Beilein is their man, and Derrick Walton Jr is their captain.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their FULL name. 

My latest book, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” debuted at #6 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and is still going very strong. The paperback version,with 57 pages of new interviews with Harbaugh and others, is out. Literati and Nicola’s have signed copies

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.

I also join Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty on her afternoon Stateside show every Monday for a few minutes, and occasionally on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the afternoon Here & Now show. Check ’em out!

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Hope to see you on the road!
-John
johnubacon.com

 

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  • John F. Kwant March 24, 2017 at 6:58 am

    John – you continue to capture the essence of why as a Michgan family are so passionate about our alma mater and its sports teams. They represent the excellence we expect in ourselves and our institutions. Forever, Go Blue!

    Reply
  • Fernando J Canales March 24, 2017 at 7:01 am

    Coach John Beilein is the ultimate College Coach and the Best for Meeeechigan. We do not need to be in the business of getting new coaches every so often…when you have an excellent man and role model that does a great job balancing and conquering all the challenges that go with running a Division I Basketball program, winning and competing….that man needs to stay in place as the Head Coach…..It is great to be a Michigan Wolverine! Beat Ohio! Go Blue!
    Fernando J. Canales
    ’82
    All America

    Reply
  • Rebecca Kraus March 24, 2017 at 7:02 am

    Message (Required)
    John, just wanted to tell you how much I love your writing and how you get to the essence of any situation. Thank you for the enjoyment and insights you provide. Go Blue!

    Rebecca Kraus

    Reply
  • wargill@gmail.com March 24, 2017 at 7:04 am

    I vote for a program we can be proud of.

    Ward Gillett

    Reply
  • Steve Grines March 24, 2017 at 7:24 am

    Excellent piece John. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Jack Wuerker March 24, 2017 at 8:44 am

    Michigan alums and all of the Michigan family always want a program they can be proud of on and off the court. That’s why we want, need and are fortunate enough to have a man like John Beilein as our head coach.

    Reply
  • Carlos Marroquin March 24, 2017 at 8:50 am

    Great read John! These young man, staff and coaches really though us something!

    Reply
  • Bill Hettling March 24, 2017 at 9:47 am

    Great article John. Spot on. Love listening to you on WTKA. Even though it is one day later on the pod cast (I live in Minnesota). Also LOVE all of your books. Only regret, I could never have taken your class! Hopefully Teddy is doing well.

    Reply
  • Dr. Ed Rennell March 24, 2017 at 9:48 am

    Great piece, Always enjoy your insightful approach to the subject.

    Reply
  • Rob Saltzstein March 24, 2017 at 9:55 am

    The greatest silver might be getting Bamba, if that happens.

    Reply
  • dave March 24, 2017 at 10:14 am

    Message (Required)

    Reply
  • dave March 24, 2017 at 10:15 am

    Great game great run saved the season nothing to be sad about
    Annoyed that President Schlissel tweeted “near victors” we are always victors no matter what

    Reply
  • Duane Keahl March 24, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Very well said John….that’s the essence of the MICHIGAN DIFFERENCE.

    Reply
  • Ken W. March 25, 2017 at 4:22 am

    Next time you’re in Tampa Bay, I’ve got to shake your hand and thank you for the stuff you write.

    Reply
  • John Haldane March 25, 2017 at 7:24 am

    Exactly right. Thank you. College sports is about building character and teaching young men about life. Coach Beilein is a perfect fit for that and Michigan values. Thank you for stating it so succinctly.

    Reply
  • YoJACK HAMMur name (Required) March 25, 2017 at 11:08 am

    Message (Required)GREAT ARTICLE AS USUAL JOHN. BELIEVE IT OR NOT, I WAS CHEERING FOR THE WOLVERINES, AND I WAS SORRY TO SEE THEM LOSE. THEY HAD A GREAT RUN !!!

    YOUR FAVORITE SPARTAN
    JACK HAMM

    Reply
  • Superfun Happy Slide March 26, 2017 at 7:24 am

    As usual, another great piece by Mr. Bacon. But sometimes I wonder if playing the morality card, re: Louisville’s ethics, isn’t an example of drawing narratives from the conclusion, instead of a rationalization that even good people make mistakes, regardless of the colours or institutions they commit to.

    Don’t get me wrong, I too have a soft spot for the stories that suggest some institutions, like Michigan, have the type of standards and expectations that help young people make good decisions. But, the fact is, young people, like us old farts, are always one step away from making a poorly thought out decision when certain circumstances present themselves. All I’m saying is that it can take the actions or inactions of but one or a handful of people representing an institution to taint the brand.

    That doesn’t mean the offenders represent the highest ideals of the collective. It just means that the wrong decision was made in the moment.

    Similarly, even though it’s fun to tease OSU about tattoos and chokes delivered from the sideline, the other institutions and their followers shouldn’t get too holier than thou when the negative spotlight is focusing on the latest faux past committed on another campus.

    Just some food for thought.

    Reply

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