Jim Boeheim is returning to the Final Four for the first time since Syracuse won the title in 2003. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
John Beilein was listening. And Jim Boeheim was watching.
Some 30 years later, they both are talking about what they saw and heard ages ago in upstate New York, when Boeheim already was well into his Hall of Fame coaching career at Syracuse and Beilein was just getting started across town at Division II Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school located a few miles from the Carrier Dome where Boeheim's teams played.
The two never coached against each other then, but Boeheim helped out at some of Beilein's clinics, brought his Syracuse team over for practice once or twice, and "more than just a few times" on cold winter nights he'd show up as a spectator in the bleachers at the Henninger Athletic Center.
"Maybe every other season," Beilein recalled Monday, a day after his Michigan team earned a berth to the Final Four this weekend in Atlanta, where he'll face Boeheim's Syracuse team. "We'd be playing a game, maybe it would be a big game — Philadelphia Textile, different teams that were our rivals at Le Moyne. I would look up in the stands — he never called me for a ticket, maybe he called others — but Jim would be in the stands watching."
Other nights, it would be Beilein sitting in the stands watching Syracuse play. More often, though — and this is a story the self-described coaching nomad frequently uses to paint a picture of his early years in the game — he'd be listening on the radio. Beilein behind the wheel of one passenger van full of players, and one of his part-time assistants driving another, traveling the only way they knew how: economically.
"We'd be up playing St. Lawrence or Potsdam or something, playing St. Rose or St. Michael's, (driving back) in white-outs, snowstorms, listening to the Syracuse-Georgetown game," Beilein said, laughing. "Here we are, (just) trying to make it home alive sometimes."
And now here he is, flying charter, bound for his first Final Four, where he and Boeheim will be sitting courtside together with their teams Saturday at the Georgia Dome, watching and listening and doing what each does best: coaching.
History of success
This isn't the first meeting between these two. It'll be the 10th, with Boeheim having won the first nine. But it's the first time they'll tip off with Beilein's team as the favorite. And for that, I suppose, Boeheim really has only himself to blame.
Boeheim, second only to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski among Division I coaches in career victories, laughed when a reporter on a national conference call Monday asked him to talk about Beilein's career achievements in spite of all the adversity he'd faced.
It was a reference to Beilein taking the road less traveled, never once serving as an assistant at a Division I program — or at any level, for that matter — but instead climbing a rickety ladder that began first at Newfane Central High and later Erie Community College in western New York.
"I'm not sure he's had any adversity," Boeheim said, chuckling. "He's been successful everywhere he's been. I remember him when he started out at Erie and he was great there. Then coming to Le Moyne and did a great job. Did a great job at Canisius and Richmond and West Virginia — you name it, he's won every place he's been. That's difficult to do, to be able to go to five or six different places and win. John's been able to win at every place along the line and it's nothing different now."
Maybe so, but it might've been a different story if not for Boeheim recommending him for a job or two along the way.
Beilein spent nine years at Le Moyne before getting his first shot at a Division I gig in 1992, about the same time Michigan's Fab Five was making its first Final Four trip. That was at Canisius, in Beilein's hometown of Buffalo, where his uncle, Joe Niland, was a former player and coach, and where he'd been passed over for the job several years earlier.
Beilein spent five seasons at Canisius, taking the Golden Griffins to the NCAA Tournament once and the NIT twice, before accepting a mid-major coaching position at Richmond. In his first year there, as the 14th seed, Richmond knocked off South Carolina in the first round of the Tournament. Beilein went on to win 100 games over five seasons at Richmond before getting his next big break in 2002.
That came at West Virginia, where the program was in upheaval after the retirement of Gale Catlett and the abrupt resignation of his newly-hired replacement, Dan Dakich, who never signed his contract and left after less than a week on the job once he realized the mess he'd stepped into.
Bob Huggins already had turned down the job at his alma mater, and the school was scrambling.
But when athletic director Ed Pastilong reached out to Boeheim, who a year later would win his first national title at Syracuse, "I told him to hang up the phone and call John Beilein back and hire him without waiting another minute," Boeheim recalled, "because he's a great coach and he's won every place he's been."
That wasn't simply a coach doing one of his fraternity brothers a favor, either.
"We've never even gone out to dinner," Boeheim said. "I just have tremendous respect and admiration for how he coaches."
This weekend, they probably won't have time for dinner. But there won't be any need for Boeheim to buy a ticket. And Beilein certainly won't have to worry about finding the game on the radio.
Louisville vs. Wichita State
Tip-off: 6:09 p.m.
Records: Louisville 33-5, Wichita State 30-8
NCAA record: Louisville 68-40 (two titles, 1980, ’86), Wichita State 12-10 (no titles)
Line: Louisville by 10-1/2
Series: Louisville leads 19-5 (Wichita State 78-74 overtime, Feb. 28, 1976)
Michigan vs. Syracuse
Tip-off: 8:49 p.m.
Records: Michigan 30-7, Syracuse 30-9
NCAA record: Michigan 40-18 (one title, 1989), Syracuse 60-35 (one title, 2003)
Line: Michigan by 2
Series: Syracuse leads 7-4 (Syracuse 53-50, Nov. 26, 2010)
Monday’s final: 9 p.m.