February 22, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Bob Wojnowski

A day with Michigan's John Beilein reveals his fire, determination

Ann Arbor -- The image flickered on the screen, and John Beilein froze it.

"See that?" he said to his team. "SEE THAT? That's who we are."

There was a clip of Glenn Robinson III making a steal, of Mitch McGary grabbing a rebound, of Tim Hardaway Jr. drawing a charge. And there went Trey Burke, racing down the floor for a quick-strike basket.

This was Michigan playing defense, playing with a spark, and in the film room in the William Davidson Player Development Center, the players nodded at reminders of what they've been, and still can be. After rising to No. 1 in the country, the Wolverines had fallen lately, losing three of five.

They're still 22-4, still Big Ten contenders, and yet there was a sense of weariness. So Beilein, 60, was doing what he does best, what he has done for 35 years as a college head coach — he was building his team back up, instructing and constructing.

This is strange and familiar ground for Beilein. In his sixth season at Michigan, it's the longest stop of his Division I career, likely the final stop. He has stability, facilities and talent he's never had, and yet at the core, it's not much different than when he coached at West Virginia, or Richmond, or Canisius. He finds versatile players who can shoot, puts them in a system sometimes described as quirky, then teaches with the intensity of a 29-year-old who once chased a referee into the locker room. (Ah, more on that later).

I spent Wednesday with Beilein and his staff, sitting in meetings, watching practice, from morning to the final whistle at 7:10 p.m. Beilein and assistants Bacari Alexander, LaVall Jordan and Jeff Meyer were intent on a few goals during the week before facing Illinois on Sunday — refresh the players, repair cracks in confidence and energy, and address the nasty little issue of toughness.

Sometimes, you do it with film work, or with humor. Sometimes, but not often, Beilein does it with an angry outburst, like the whistle of a slowly boiling teapot, and the chastised player is sent running up the steps of the Crisler Center.

"That's lousy ball-screen defense — LOUSY!" Beilein yelled as he stopped practice. "Can I see some athleticism please, Mitch?! Be an athlete! Don't be a slow big man! Hit the stairs!"

With that, McGary raced halfway up the Crisler steps, then back down. Simple action, simple consequence. Beilein almost never curses but his presence is profound, arms folded, watching everything.

Spend a day with him and you'll find he's exactly as he appears, calm and friendly and enraptured by the nuances of basketball. But one thing should not be misconstrued: His gentlemanly nature does not dim his competitive fire, not one bit.

Major transformation

The day began with troubling news from the training staff, that forward Max Bielfeldt suffered an ankle sprain late in the previous practice. Beilein sipped coffee and shook his head at the report, which meant three players — Bielfeldt, Jordan Morgan, Caris LeVert — would sit out practice.

Inside the training room in the spectacular $23 million Davidson Center is a state-of-the-art performance pool, where athletes can train on an underwater treadmill. There are hot tubs and all sorts of fancy equipment, and taped to a window is a piece of paper with these words: "I want to go to Peachtree St." That happens to be the main road in Atlanta, site of this year's Final Four.

After $95 million in renovation and construction, Michigan basketball finally has the resources to compete, and Beilein can hardly believe the transformation.

"I could never envision what it is now, not in my first three years here," he said. "Remember, I came here probably in the worst economic times Michigan has seen since the Great Depression. But everybody said, 'John, be patient, we'll make it happen. You just gotta hang in there.'"

In five seasons at West Virginia, he had been 104-60 and took the Mountaineers within a whisper of the Final Four. That's when the nation discovered Beilein, the bright, unassuming tactician who'd never been an assistant, who grew up on a fruit farm outside Buffalo with eight siblings.

Last season, he guided Michigan to a first-place tie in the Big Ten, the program's first title in 26 years. There are no limits now, which makes it different for Beilein, although he's pretty much the same. He still designs plays on a table in his office, using painted wooden markers as players.

All morning, the assistants watched tape and made calls as Beilein periodically popped in with questions. After the overtime heartbreaker at Wisconsin and the pounding at Michigan State last week, recovery was ongoing. The Wolverines edged Penn State, 79-71, Sunday, but much more work was ahead.

Beilein doesn't waver in his system, with its emphasis on passing and 3-pointers. There's fascination in the puzzle, in aligning the pieces, and there's little ambiguity in the man.

"With Coach Beilein, what you see is what you get," Alexander said. "There's nothing conjured up with him. He may be packaged in a poised demeanor, but anybody that doesn't think he's an intense competitor is a fool."

Details, details

Lunch time is solitude time for Beilein back in his office, where framed photographs of his four children and two grandchildren dominate the shelves. Its precisely noon and he contemplated going to church for the 12:10 service, but his schedule was too tight. So he heated up chicken marsala from dinner with his wife, Kathleen, the previous night.

"I never, ever eat out," he said. "Now that we're empty-nesters, there's usually a piece of chicken left over for me."

His quips come unexpectedly, a dry humor that's easy to overlook. When the topic turns to toughness, a common theme after the 23-point loss at Michigan State, Beilein has no problem admitting Michigan's shortcomings. But he's not giving up on his players' ability to battle.

He notes the Wolverines started three freshmen and use five freshmen regularly, and don't have a senior in the rotation. They have a terrific backcourt in Burke and Hardaway Jr., and sharpshooters in freshmen Nik Stauskas and Robinson. But big guys Morgan and Jon Horford have battled injuries, and McGary is a talented but unbridled 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman.

McGary is Beilein's most touted recruit and his progress is vital for Michigan's defense and rebounding. On this day, Beilein was less interested in pointing out flaws, and was back to building.

"Our teams are tough, but people may not see it because they're not fouling a lot, or they're not knocking people down," Beilein said. "I think for us to have four road wins, that shows we have the capacity. But to win at Michigan State, at Ohio State, at Indiana, obviously there's another level we gotta get to."

That was the plan mapped out in the 2 p.m. coaches meeting, where Beilein and his staff debated everything from which drills to run, to which phrases to use. When it's suggested Beilein is big on details, trust me, he is. Before the practice facility was built, he made sure the lighting and the floors — down to the positioning of the Block M — exactly matched the Crisler Center, so the shooting environment didn't change.

In this meeting, Beilein was adamant about using words such as "relentless" and "mentality" with the players. It also was decided the film session would consist entirely of clips showing the Wolverines making tough defensive plays. And the staff would try a new four-on-four drill in which the defense was required to make two consecutive stops, or be forced to run.

Beilein joked Alexander, Jordan and Meyer were "Aristotle, Socrates and Plato" for coming up with the idea. Then the conversation turned serious again.

"We know Tim and Trey are our stars," Beilein said to his staff. "The key is, do we have an outlier who can be a difference-maker down the stretch? If you go on a run, there's always someone you don't expect who steps up. Who's that guy?"

Several names were discussed, mostly in a hopeful manner. In the 4:30 p.m. film session, players sat in blue leather chairs and quietly watched the clips, interspersed with commentary.

"Toughness is a huge issue right here, guys," Beilein said. "I can't yell at you and say, 'Get tougher!'"

Alexander chimed in: "Just a reminder, fellas, these aren't stunt doubles in those blue uniforms making those plays. This is Michigan. You're 22-4! That's you!"

Back to Beilein: "When we put it all together, you can see how absolutely terrific we can be, how talented we really are. We need relentless determination this last part of the season."

On the eraser board, one statistic was highlighted — number of charging fouls drawn. Hardaway Jr. leads the team with 13 and McGary is second with seven.

Back on the screen, there was a brief tale of the gazelle and the lion. Beilein read it aloud, that the gazelle must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. And the lion must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve.

"The point is, you'd better be running," Beilein said, staring at his players. "Somebody's gotta win the Big Ten, somebody's gonna make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Why can't it be us?"

Picking his spots

Coaches often find comfort in discomfort, in making sure their players have an edge. But now that the Wolverines have incredible comforts, right down to individual maize iPads in each locker, the pushing becomes even more important. Without great size and experience, the Wolverines have to scrap harder to beat the best, and Beilein searches for that sweet spot between beating them down and building them up.

"There's times in practice when I get upset with people, but it's once a week, not a daily matter," Beilein said. "I want to be as focused as I can. Same with officiating. If I spend my whole time being angry at the officials, I'm not a good coach. If you spend your whole time cursing in practice, it just becomes words. I've changed since I was a 29-year-old chasing referees into the locker room."

Whoa, wait a minute. You really did that?

"Oh yeah, as a junior college coach, yelling through the locker room door. I probably got more technicals in my first two years than I have in the last 10. I think I finally realized it wasn't going to change the outcome of the game. I want my team to see confidence, or patience, or belief on the sideline — and I don't always portray that. I'd like to be better at that, smile more."

No, Beilein's focus on details doesn't include planning his smiles. But there's a precision to him that is, well, fairly relentless.

Shortly after practice began at 5 p.m., Beilein called his team to center court and welcomed a visitor. Brady Hoke strode over and delivered a quick, fiery speech, talking about how hard it is for young players to bust through a wall. The players clapped when Hoke was finished, and McGary pulled the football coach aside for a longer chat.

McGary drew a lot of attention in practice, partly because he's one of the freshmen who needs to bust through the wall, partly because he has the voice and physical stature to be a leader. Beilein was in a feisty mood, booting McGary up the stairs once and sending another freshman, Spike Albrecht, even farther up.

"We'll be here four friggin' hours if we don't get this right!" Beilein shouted. "Why am I wasting my time on this? Get your hands on the ball!"

Meyer, Alexander and Jordan ran the drills while Beilein watched, pacing constantly. The clamor got louder as the practice rolled on, past 7 p.m., until Beilein finally was somewhat satisfied.

"I'm sorry, that practice was very average," he said to me. "You have to have an average practice now and then to know what the good ones are. But we gotta be better than that."

From good, to great

A day that began early with Beilein watching practice tape from home, then conducting meetings and recruiting calls and practice, finally was winding down. His voice was scratchy and he walked with his head down, as if always contemplating the next step.

So is this it, the best step, the last stop?

"That's been the plan from the minute I got here (in 2007)," Beilein said. "I just love being a basketball coach and I love Michigan. I want to get the job done here."

For a moment, his mind went back several years, to the rickety chair in the tiny office next to the old Crisler Arena locker room. His mind also returned to what seems to be a revelatory moment in East Lansing, when the Spartans physically pounded the Wolverines.

For Michigan, that's the standard right now, Tom Izzo's program, and Beilein doesn't deny it. But slowly, the shadow lifts.

"That was the biggest issue when I got here — how are you gonna beat State?" Beilein said. "I said, 'Guys, they're tremendous, they're going to Final Fours, let's just be good before we worry about getting great.' When we swept them two years ago, it didn't make our season. So it can't break our season."

As he walked past the training room, Beilein spotted McGary, and the chance for a bit more repair work.

"Hey, Mitch, let's pick a 20-minute time frame that fits your schedule, so you can come in and just work on your shooting."

"Sure, Coach B," McGary said. "I could do 8:45 in the morning."

Beilein nodded and smiled. He later confided that was his personal reward for the day, that McGary was getting it, and perhaps others were, too.

It was nearly 8 p.m. as Beilein headed back to his office. There was practice tape to watch, a game plan to devise, then dinner at home. Amid the pressures of big-time college basketball, Beilein long has recognized the comfort of home. After years of looking and years of building, he appreciates it now more than ever.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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In his sixth season at Michigan, it's the longest stop of coach John Beilein's Division I career, likely the final stop. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
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