It's just about basketball for UM's John Beilein

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
John Beilein leads a Michigan basketball practice in October.

Ann Arbor -- He doesn't put Gatorade on his Cheerios. He's never made headlines for helping out a stranger at an accident scene.

His aura is more granddad than rock star.

He does wear khakis on gameday, at least. But, best we can tell, nobody's dressed up as John Beilein for Halloween.

Michigan's basketball coach is in his ninth year on the job, and has a darn good resume -- having turned around a long-dormant program by making five NCAA Tournament appearances, including two Elite Eights and the 2013 championship game.

However, it's the new kid on the block, Jim Harbaugh, that's getting all the attention.

In the egotistic world of big-time college football and basketball coaches, that'd make many more jealous than not.

Not Beilein, though. He loves it -- the quietness surrounding him, and the hype surrounding Harbaugh.

"I get all that. I'm fine," Beilein, sipping a coffee, was saying in his Crisler Center office last week, during an exclusive interview with The Detroit News. "I don't mind it. I always wanted it to be the program. We're just Michigan basketball, not John Beilein. That's what I want it to be and that's the way I think it should be.

"With Jim there, he can't help the fact -- the guy played in the Super Bowl, he's an All-American, he's in the Indianapolis Colts Hall of Fame, and he's a tremendous player and coach with arguably one of the best football programs in the country. So I love it.

"I love the attention he gets and he deserves it, but I don't necessarily -- that doesn't get at me, let's say that."

This is the 100th season of Michigan basketball, and when this season is completed, only one man, Johnny Orr, head coach of the program from 1968-80, will have coached the Wolverines for more than Beilein's nine complete seasons.

Meanwhile, Harbaugh is UM's fourth football coach since Beilein came to campus.

That's some impressive stability, not just for the basketball team -- but for Beilein, who before arriving in Ann Arbor had bounced from LeMoyne, to Canisius, to Richmond, to West Virginia, never spending more than a ninth year at any previous stop.

Beilein will spend well more than nine at Michigan, though, after signing a three-year contract extension last month that takes him through at least the 2020-21 season, making him one of the top-compensated coaches in the Big Ten.

"This is the final stop," said Beilein, 62, who's embraced his life in Michigan, and has even become a property owner up north. "Michigan basketball is as good as it gets."

Righting the ship

It didn't always look like Michigan would be his final destination, as much as he always hoped it would be.

Michigan was awful his first year, made a surprise NCAA Tournament appearance his second year, and then regressed again his third year. His friend from his West Virginia days, football coach Rich Rodriguez, lasted just three years at Michigan after following Beilein north.

John Beilein sends Caris LeVert into the game against Northern Michigan in November.

Beilein wasn't always sure he wouldn't follow the same path.

"It was close to not working out with me, as well," Beilein said, frankly. "We had a bad year, then we had a good year, then we had a bad year.

"A couple more bad years, I wouldn't be here, either."

Then Michigan went on a darn impressive four-year run that saw it win 104 games, make four NCAA Tournament appearances, and even play for a national championship in 2013, when it lost to Louisville.

Another Elite Eight appearance followed in 2014.

The Wolverines, though, would turn out to be cruel victims of their own success.

The season of the championship game appearance, Michigan was the most nationally-televised program in the country, and the exposure, while nice, also led to some early departures to the NBA -- some well-advised, some not so much.

Trey Burke left after 2013, after two years at Michigan, and was ready. Same with Tim Hardaway Jr., after three years at Michigan.

Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III left after the Elite Eight appearance in 2014, after two years each at Michigan, and they weren't ready.

What it left the Wolverines was a depleted roster that, today, features just one active player from that 2013 championship game, Caris LeVert, who could've gone pro after last season, despite it being injury-plagued, but decided to stick around for one last run. It's a task that appears daunting today, especially with last week's news that the other senior from that championship team, Spike Albrecht, has called it a career following two hip surgeries.

After Michigan lost five key players over two seasons to the NBA, Michigan slipped to 16-16 last season -- injuries also were a big factor -- and has its challenges this year, especially with its big men and rebounding posing concerns as a tour through the physical Big Ten is looming.

"When you lose almost your whole starting five in two years early to the NBA, we didn't recruit it," Beilein said. "Coach (John) Calipari (at Kentucky) has a great plan for that; he's got more coming in. That's never been the plan, to go all one-and-doners or two-and-doners. It was like, build this program similar to how the Wisconsins have built a program. Coach (Tom) Izzo has done a great job (at Michigan State). We've had six guys go pro early in the last six years, they've had one.

"We're trying to get to that, but if we get a great player that is good enough to go pro, we've gotta say it's OK."

Izzo, dying for a second national championship, has started to have an open mind to the one-and-done guys.

Other coaches are coming around, too, after years of griping about a system that's probably not going to change.

John Beilein talks to Michigan assistants, from left, Bacari Alexander, Jeff Meyer and LaVall Jordan during the win over Delaware State last Saturday.

So, why not Michigan?

There are a bevy of issues, but from Michigan's end, only one big one.

"If you don't get them, you will not get the second- or third-tier guys," Beilein said. "We're not gonna say no, but you can spend a lot of time recruiting those young men, but if you don't get them, the next-best guys are gone.

"Now it's really gonna be difficult to build your program.

"That's why you see teams like Butler, Xavier and Dayton -- they take a four-year player all the time and they're always in the NCAA Tournament. I mean, always.

"That's another strategy.

"It's a slippery slope."

Last season was an eye-opener for Beilein, and a first. Never before, after Year 3 at a stop, had he had a team that didn't finish with a winning record. This season's team, led by LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr., Division III sharp-shooting transfer Duncan Robinson and Moritz Wagner, a freshman from Germany, seems full of guys ready to spend four years at Michigan, and early analysis of next year's recruiting class is similar.

Shadows at Michigan

Beilein had a mighty successful five-year run at West Virginia that included two NCAA Tournament appearances -- and probably should've included a third. West Virginia responded to the NCAA Tournament snub in 2006-07 by winning the NIT.

John Beilein is unaffected by the hype generated by Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.

Tommy Amaker, with zero NCAA Tournament appearances in six years, was fired by then-Michigan athletic director Bill Martin on March 17, 2007, and Beilein was hired barely two weeks later, on April 3.

He was hired even though he didn't visit UM. He just talked to Martin and took the job. It was an easy call.

"You have to have some faith that they believe in you and you're gonna make it happen," Beilein said. "You wanna buy a Lincoln Navigator or an Escalade? You're not going to choose wrong."

Beilein, who grew up near Buffalo, as did his wife Kathleen, wanted to get back to the real Midwest. He likes the changing weather, even the snow -- though he wasn't liking the snow those early days at Michigan when the Crisler Center renovations weren't even in blueprints and his office was a mile from the arena.

Things have improved mightily, with the university pouring more than $100 million into the Crisler renovations, plus the building of the William Davidson Player Development Center, where Beilein's spacious office is located. There's even a framed picture of Beilein and that other guy, Harbaugh, hanging on the wall.

Football, it turns out, was actually a big reason Beilein took the leap for Michigan in the first place.

"It was a combination of great academics and, obviously, basketball's important, but I wanted big-time football, too," said Beilein, a huge college football fan since he was a kid. "That was important, I thought, to have something to recruit to, No. 1.

"Recruiting weekends here and those weekends here, those eight weekends, I love every minute of them."

Michigan Stadium, just west of Crisler Center and Beilein's office, can cast quite the imposing shadow.

Just like Harbaugh -- and the hype -- could put a shadow over Beilein.

That's not how he looks at it, though. He's comfortable enough in his own skin to let somebody else have the spotlight.

"Not that Jim's trying to make it about him, but people make it about him so much, and he handles it beautifully," said Beilein.

"I just want this to be about Michigan basketball."