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John Beilein: Last of a Breed?

This week basketball coach John Beilein announced he was leaving the University of Michigan for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. It was shocking, but understandable, since Beilein always wanted to coach at the highest level. But it is also a commentary on college basketball, where coaches like Beilein who follow the rules get punished, and the cheaters don’t.

Usually in this business we hear rumors, feel tremors, or flat-out get tipped off that big news is about to break. Not this time. 

When University of Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein signed a five-year deal to coach the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers Monday morning, I was as surprised as you.

After Beilein flirted with the Detroit Pistons last summer, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel gave him a new contract for $3.37 million dollars a year, everyone assumed Beilein, 65 at the time, would never leave. 

It was even more surprising Beilein was going to Cleveland. True, they won their first NBA title just three years ago, but after Lebron James left for Los Angeles last year, the team finished dead-last in the division. 

So why did Beilein do it? First, the obvious: it’s a safe bet that Cleveland, owned by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, made it worth his while. More important, this might have been Beilein’s last chance to coach in the NBA. 

This is a man, after all, who started his career teaching junior high school social studies while coaching Newfane, New York, high school, before he started rising up the college ranks from Division III to Division I. 

Not only has Beilein never been an assistant coach, which is virtually impossible in that profession, he has never been fired – which might be more impressive. 

In 2007, U of M Athletic Director Bill Martin decided that West Virginia’s relatively unknown John Beilein was the guy. Martin dramatically upgraded the facilities, and stuck by Beilein when many fans were asking for his head. 

Michigan had missed the NCAA tournament for almost a decade, and was still recovering from NCAA violations and probation. Beilein not only led the team to four Big Ten titles, and two trips to the NCAA finals, his coaching peers voted him the most ethical coach in college basketball. 

Granted, that might be a slow race, but still better to win it. For all these reasons, John Beilein was simply the best coach in Michigan basketball’s 102-year history – hands down. He never won a national title, but when you factor in academics, character, and ethics, it’s not even close.

If Michigan fans didn’t fully appreciate what Beilein did before — and more importantly, how he did it, they will now. But Beilein’s ethics were another reason jumping to the NBA made sense. The FBI – yes, the FBI – just finished an exhaustive investigation of the cesspool that is college basketball, naming names and holding coaches, programs, and schools to account. 

The NCAA responded with a big yawn, and went back to business as usual. I did not think I could have more contempt for NCAA president Mark Emmert – but I was wrong. 

We can debate the merits of paying players, but we can’t debate what the rules are now. Competing against blatant cheaters has to get old. Perhaps that’s why, in Beilein’s 12 years as Michigan’s coach, he never recruited a single high school All-American. Yet because he might be the best developmental coach in the country, nine of his players were drafted by the NBA.  

Warde Manuel will have his work cut out for him replacing Beilein, with two imperfect options: hire an unproven coach who gets the Michigan culture, or a proven head coach with no Michigan ties, and hope he “gets it.” Either way Manuel will have to take a leap of faith.

It’s worth remembering some of the greatest “Michigan Men” had no previous ties to the school, including Fielding Most, Fritz Crisler, Bo Schembechler, and Beilein himself. (And some of the best “Michigan Men” aren’t men, such as Michigan State alumna Carol Hutchins, who’s won more games as Michigan’s softball coach than any coach in any sport.)  

An aside: the Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry has never been better, on and off the court. In the same coaches’ poll that ranked Beilein as themost ethical coach, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo finished 6th. They battled for Big Ten titles for eight years. 

For those who say Manuel should “just get the biggest name,” it’s worth remembering the excitement of the 90s resulted in the shame of probation, and almost a decade in the wilderness. Most Michigan fans I know care as much about ethics as winning. I’m very confident Manuel feels the same.

One thing for sure: the position of Michigan head basketball coach  is infinitely more appealing today than it was 12 years ago, when Martin hired John Beilein.

College basketball might not see his likes again. 

* * * * * 

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 next book, OVERTIME: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football, comes out September 3. You can pre-order now from amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local book store. We’re setting up the book tour now, which will include a big launch on Tuesday, September 3, 7 p.m., at Michigan’s Hill Auditorium, hosted by Literati, and introduced by WTKA’s Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub. Bring 3,000 of your best friends!

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism, a National Bestseller, is now out in paperback. We’re on our ninth printing. Get ’em while they’re hot! You can order signed copies from Nicola’s Books and Literati. 

My latest book, “The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts,” is on its second printing. Makes a fine Father’s Day gift.

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!

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon.  We just cracked 43,000 followers and counting.   THANK YOU!

Like this story? Please feed the blog, and keep ’em coming! Hope to see you on the road! -John johnubacon.com

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  • Kirk Dodge May 17, 2019 at 8:58 am

    John – thank you for stating more explicitly why, over time, Coach Beilein grew weary of going against the pungent tide of college basketball. I couldn’t help but notice that it was this year, he began to lose patience with referees, the media and probably the larger game of basketball. At least the NBA is open about its profit driven culture….
    Just as we missed what Bo stood for as a coach, we will miss the values and principles of John Beilein.

    Reply
  • max May 17, 2019 at 9:15 am

    John Beilein is a class act and a heck of a coach but i understand why he left and kind of don’t blame him. this is a problem at almost every school but it doesn’t help when player’s stay 1-2 years then leave for NBA. way to much turnover in ncaa basketball and hard to compete when you have basically a new roster ever year or two. football seems to be getting that way as well with the transfer portal. NCAA needs to clean up the cheating/coaches schools ect. my only negative of JB leaving is it was to Cleveland, i would have been more supportive if it was the Pistons. all i ask is please get us a good coach who is ethical. GO BLUE!

    Reply
  • Mark Hayes May 17, 2019 at 9:20 am

    John,

    I heard that Belien had the buyout clause removed from his contract after it was redone poat-Pistons flirtation. Meaning he could walk easily with no risk. Do you know if true?

    Enjoy your work.

    Mark Hayes
    Chanhassen, MN

    Reply
  • Jack May 17, 2019 at 10:00 am

    Didn’t Bo say something along the lines of if you win by cheating you have not really won anything? That general thought process remains true today, in spite of the apparent success and overabundance of cheaters. As much as I hate losing, I would rather lose while acting honestly than win by cheating.

    Reply
  • Joe May 17, 2019 at 10:03 am

    THIRTY years ago two gentlemen by the names Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian authored a book titled “Raw Recruits” (ISBN 0-671-69260-7). Highly recommended if you can find a copy. I will summarize it by saying “There is nothing new under the sun.” The NCAA has done nothing in the past 30 years. Anyone who expects them to change their stripes is kidding themselves. What is that old definition of “Insanity”? Doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

    Reply
  • Geoff Larcom May 17, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    My favorite comment in the many observations about JB is that, rather than compete against the street agents, grifters and boosters that wallow in college bb’s cesspool, he recruited around that society. He didn’t much deal with it, landing off-the-radar folks such as Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Iggy, Mo Wagner, etc, etc. Then he developed the heck out of those players and made them a lot of NBA dough.

    Reply
  • johnubacon May 17, 2019 at 3:14 pm

    Thanks, Kirk, and well said.

    -JUB

    Reply
  • johnubacon May 17, 2019 at 3:15 pm

    Mark,

    Not sure when the buy-out clause was taken out, but I know that he doesn’t have one now, so he leaves without penalty.

    Thanks for the kind words.

    -JUB

    Reply
  • johnubacon May 17, 2019 at 3:20 pm

    That’s right, Jack — and now it occurs to me I should dig up that quote!

    Much thanks.

    -JUB

    Reply
  • johnubacon May 17, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    It’s not the easiest way to do it, Larcs — but perhaps the most elegant solution to this cesspool is to go around it. Only works if you have that kind of coaching talent, of course.

    -JUB

    Reply
  • john w minton jr May 17, 2019 at 9:20 pm

    John

    Let’s hope that the class act has not traded one cesspool for another. John Beilein
    has proved that a Michigan experience is worth something beyond the pay window.
    He has also learned that the playing field provided by the NCAA is tilted toward the
    cheaters, and it is the university administrators that will have to drain the swamp.
    Michigan may be the only university capable of doing this without committing economic
    suicide. When the higher learning folks moved from the academic model to the business model, fourth and very long was the inevitable result.

    bomberjohn5

    Reply
  • R May 19, 2019 at 5:15 pm

    NCAA responds with a yawn on so many levels. Thx for the column JUB.

    Reply

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