Ann Arbor -- They were 33,000 feet in the air, way up where you can see just about anything. The music started thumping and the players started dancing, and tucked into a front seat, the coach put his arms up and joined the swaying.
Yes, John Beilein did the "Harlem Shake," sort of. This is Michigan's first Final Four dance in 20 years and Beilein's first, and to appreciate how the Wolverines ended up here, you have to appreciate how the mild-mannered 60-year-old coach connected with one of the youngest teams in the country.
This is a tale that only happens in college, where players are talented enough to pull off great things, but raw enough to recognize the need for guidance. Beilein is meticulous, nearly to a fault, he admits. But this season, and especially during this NCAA Tournament run, the strangest thing happened. Just when the Wolverines could have tightened up, their coach loosened up, and this is how they ride.
"He's kind of mellowed out, got less tense," freshman center Mitch McGary said before Michigan headed to Atlanta to face Syracuse on Saturday night. "I think that's good for our team. I think it's good for him. He's a little old school, but he's getting new age."
For instance, there was Beilein smiling to the beat on the flight home from Texas, captured on a video that has gone viral, as the kids say. Or the moment in practice Tuesday when McGary executed a perfect move and Beilein was so impressed, he did what he periodically orders his players to do — he ran the steps to the top of the Crisler Center and back down. By the time he'd finished, the team was laughing and cheering.
There's been a lot of that lately after the gloom of the late-season stumbles, when the Wolverines closed 6-6 following a 20-1 start. There was a lot of it after Michigan mauled Florida to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1993, as Beilein went around the dressing room and hugged each player. Moments later, they ambushed him with a bucket of red Powerade, then celebrated as if they'd pulled off the impossible, turning Beilein from dapper to happily disheveled.
When the coach stood there later in a sweatsuit, his meticulous nature ebbed just a bit.
"You know, I've worn my tie home my whole career, no matter if it was a five-hour trip," Beilein said. "But I think I'm gonna stay in this sweatsuit on this trip home."
For the record, he was wearing a dress shirt again on the plane in the "Harlem Shake" video, but at least his tie was wrapped nicely around the head of center Jordan Morgan.
Doing things right
Maybe the coach and the players are teaching each other, which is often how it works when a team goes on a run and a transformative joy unfolds. But this is different because the players — three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior in the starting lineup — and coach haven't been here before, and are feeling their way through.
"Coaching this team, it's a bit of a youth movement for your own self," Beilein said. "It's not like it was when I first got here. The distractions have been almost zero all year long. A week ago, Jordan (Morgan) was one minute late for a meeting. That's been it."
Beilein laughs when told he's considered a "players coach" but recognizes the dichotomy, and it's by intricate design. Off the court, he's precise and demanding, from the classroom right down to how the players wear their hats — not backward or sideways, please. On the court, he uses a free-flowing offense that lets super-sophomore Trey Burke run the floor, assess his options and create for others. Flashy is fine, as long as it works. The restrictions off the court accentuate the freedoms on it.
There's one major crime in both areas that seldom goes unpunished — messiness. The Wolverines lead the nation in fewest turnovers and are one of the top passing and shooting teams. Their pick-and-roll has become so effective with Burke sliding behind McGary's big body, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim calls it the best offense his team has faced.
"Coach Beilein really wants you to make sure everything's perfect," Tim Hardaway Jr. said. "He's not a sloppy guy, and he doesn't do sloppiness on the court. But he basically lets the guards call the plays. He says the first 10 seconds of the shot clock are ours, and if we don't have anything, then go into the offense."
It's the Beilein Way, and it has evolved in his 35 years as a head coach. He keeps reassessing, altering his offense and defense to fit his team's talent. He craves versatility in players, but dislikes ambiguity. In other words, it's good to do plenty of things, but kindly do them right.
I watched Beilein and his staff spend two hours earlier this season mapping out a single two-hour practice, down to the minute. Beilein is gentlemanly and polite and unfailingly positive. But he doesn't overlook anything, and is never shy about correcting it.
"He's very strategic in all he does, whether it's how you tuck your jersey in or what type of meal we're gonna have," assistant Bacari Alexander said. "Not in a million years did I ever think you'd see John Beilein actually dancing. But that's one of the reasons we're able to attract the type of talent we have the last few years, his ability to connect and be down to earth. You don't see it in his sideline demeanor because he's so stoic and poised, but he's a guy that really likes to enjoy the moment — when he can."
Oh, Beilein is trying. Alexander is the Wolverines unofficial minister of pop culture, and he can confirm that in addition to the "Harlem Shake," Beilein has done the "Stanky Leg" and the "Bankhead Bounce."
Alexander also has the freedom to conduct pregame speeches that range from passionate to corny. Before facing Florida, he went around the dressing room and placed a potato chip on players' shoulders, to simulate playing with a chip. It's fun, goofy stuff, and Beilein embraces it.
"Coach B knows it's a different era and he just tries to keep up with the flow," freshman Glenn Robinson III said. "Sometimes he'll ask the seniors what the new trends are. He tries to stay hip so he can find yet another way to interact with us."
The right fit
Beilein still admonishes himself for not smiling more or letting loose more. Soaking it all in? It's difficult, although he didn't mind the wet-shirt feel after the Florida game.
Beilein rarely stops fretting or searching, which is partly how he became a nomad, never staying at a program more than five seasons until Michigan, where he's now in his sixth season. He was branded a coach that mainly let his players shoot 3-pointers, and ran an odd 1-3-1 zone defense. That wasn't totally accurate before, and it isn't at all now.
During the Tournament, the Wolverines have gotten tons of points in the paint, with Burke driving and McGary dunking. In some ways, Beilein's philosophy can be summed up by the look on his face last Sunday, as he embraced his wife and family and then watched his team celebrate — let the kids play.
"He makes sure you're not just being a mechanical player," Burke said. "He doesn't want you just running the set — he wants you to cut to get an open layup, or make a play off the dribble. It definitely allows his players to play with more freedom, play more relaxed. But he will let you know when you take bad shots."
Burke and Hardaway Jr. form, arguably, the best backcourt in the country, and neither was highly touted out of high school. It was a fit — both players had room to grow at a program with plenty of room to grow.
Beilein took the Michigan job without even inspecting the facilities, and it was rough for a while. Now, amid the shiny arena upgrades and the bright maize uniforms, the old-school coach adapts, but doesn't waver.
"Here's the thing we talk to our players about all the time — know the difference between running a play and being a player," Beilein said. "We try to put them in position to be in position. I still think we call too many plays, but if we get to the point with a very veteran team, they can run it all themselves. We try to teach them the options, then let them pick and choose."
It's not as complicated as it sometimes appears. For Beilein, you let them play and demand they grow, and occasionally, you go ahead and dance.
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.