The news struck quickly Monday morning that John Beilein was leaving Michigan to become the new head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. For many, it was a shock, given Beilein’s success in his 12 seasons in Ann Arbor, including two regular-season Big Ten titles and two championships in the conference tournament.
After Beilein, 66, entertained the idea of taking the Detroit Pistons head coaching job last summer, the door again was open for a move to the NBA, and this time he made the jump.
“John’s been courted by the NBA before but he’s coming up on the end of his career and it’s closer to the end than the beginning. Why not take this opportunity?” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told The Detroit News on Monday. “It’s a lot more money, you don’t have to recruit and you don’t have to mess around with all the NCAA rules and the changes going on in college.
“It’s an interesting time and it’s a good move. I think he’ll do well; he’s a great teacher and a terrific tactician.”
Beilein, the all-time winningest coach at Michigan, with 278 victories, leaves the program in a better place than where he found it, when he left West Virginia. His departure on Monday means Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel will have to search for a replacement for the program’s iconic coach.
The fact that there was no forewarning caught many Michigan fans off-guard.
“It seems like a difficult transition to process. Nobody saw this coming; there was no buzz about it,” ESPN analyst and former Michigan player Tim McCormick told The News. “He’s a wonderful person and a great coach. He’s the greatest coach Michigan ever had and he left the program better than he found it.”
Beilein is regarded for his ability to develop young players and pull the best from them. With a Cavaliers roster that has a couple of holdovers from their several trips to the NBA Finals with LeBron James, Beilein will have his work cut out for him. Veteran Kevin Love and rookie Collin Sexton appear to be the building blocks for the Cavs’ rebuild after a 19-63 season.
They could end up with a top-three pick in the draft, depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery. Having another top player could make Beilein’s job more intriguing, with another foundation piece with which to build.
“Having someone who can bring younger players along and is a very good teacher is very valuable because it doesn’t matter whether you come into the NBA at 18 or 24 — everybody needs to improve and get better,” Bilas said. “He can help the players put the work in and continue to improve, so that’ll be a nice thing for Cleveland.
“He’s not going to take an average player and make him great — nobody does that in the NBA. That’s a myth.”
Beilein hasn’t yet assembled his coaching staff, but conventional wisdom leans to him finding some experienced former head coaches or seasoned assistants to aid him in his first foray into the NBA.
The transition to an 82-game schedule will be a big adjustment for Beilein, but he’ll have other differences that will challenge him.
“No doubt, his staff will be laden with NBA-experience coaches,” McCormick said. “He’s been successful at every level. It will be very interesting, but this could be his last (coaching) job.”
It’s not that Beilein will need much help in getting buy-in from his new roster. Beilein brings renown from the college ranks, but garnering the respect from NBA players through his college accomplishments isn’t a requirement.
After 12 seasons at Michigan, basketball coach John Beilein is leaving for the NBA, to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
“I don’t know that anybody does anymore. With the younger players, it’s a mixed bag; I don’t think that matters. You earn that (respect) over time,” Bilas said. “Players respond to coaches who are competent and who are invested in them — that’s basically it. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.
“The whole narrative about college coaches in the NBA has been pushed forever — and it’s always been wrong. If you can coach, you can coach on any level. … The idea that college coaches can’t coach in the NBA has been disproven – and it was never true.”
Billy Donlon was an assistant under Beilein in 2016-17 and is now the head coach at UMKC.
“I'm happy for him," Donlon told The News. "He deserves only the best, and if this is a challenge that he wants to take on, awesome. His integrity, character, work ethic and knowledge of his craft – as good as there has ever been. The definition of a life-long learner and teacher.”
Tony Paul contributed to this report.