Former players: John Beilein made excellence the standard at Michigan

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

John Beilein won everywhere and at every level, from junior varsity and varsity at Newfane High School to Division II Le Moyne to Division I stops at Richmond and West Virginia.

Former Michigan coach John Beilein

But when the Michigan basketball program was searching for a new coach in 2007, Beilein’s name didn’t exactly register with former Wolverine Anthony Wright.

“He wasn't at the top of everyone's list. It was like, ‘John Beilein, who the heck is that guy?’” said Wright, who played for Beilein during his first three seasons from 2007-10. “We had no clue who he was.” 

It didn’t take Wright and the rest of Michigan long to find out. By the second year of Beilein’s tenure, the Wolverines snapped a 10-year NCAA Tournament drought. By Year 5, Beilein guided the team to its first Big Ten regular-season title in 26 years.

And by Year 12, Beilein had revived a once-dormant program, established a successful culture and left a lasting mark — in the form of banners in the rafters and in the record book as the program's all-time winningest coach — before embarking on his latest coaching stop with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

“The fact that he was able to come in and in a pretty swift time be able to continue to make the next step, that's probably the biggest thing,” Wright said of Beilein on Tuesday. “He continued to set the bar. …Being able to come in and continue to reach goals, exceed them and change the overall bar — not just at Michigan but the national perception — that's been one of the most impressive things that I've seen."

More: 'Too difficult to pass up': Beilein pivots to turning Cavaliers around

When Michigan heard its named called during a viewing party for the 2009 NCAA Tournament at Crisler Arena, it triggered a wild celebration. Same thing when the Wolverines shared the conference regular-season crown with Ohio State and Michigan State in 2012.

Over the course of Beilein’s time in Ann Arbor, though, those accomplishments shifted from being fanciful hopes to the yearly standard.

“When you look at where Michigan basketball was when I committed there and when I arrived, really it was in shambles,” said Jordan Morgan, who played at Michigan from 2009-14. “Crisler Arena was kind of falling apart and there was no real respect for Michigan as a basketball school.

“Now it's a disappointment if Michigan basketball doesn't make it to the Sweet 16. If we're not in contention or winning a Big Ten championship, it's a disappointment. When we won the Big Ten championship in 2012, it was unbelievable feat. And now it's an expectation. I think that's really the way you can measure (Beilein’s) legacy — just the way that people view the program from a national perspective. It's a perennial Big Ten power and it garners respect nationally with almost any other program.”

And when one factors in how Beilein got things done, that makes it all the more admirable.

He was voted the “cleanest coach” among his peers in a sport marred by corruption and scandals.

He developed unheralded recruits into NBA Draft picks, turned unknowns into known commodities and racked up nine 20-win seasons while other top programs reeled in prized prospects, one-and-dones and sought-after transfers.

He was a teacher who never stopped learning, who learned to adjust his ways and who  learned how to thrive rather than get left behind over time.

He adapted his offensive and defensive schemes as the game evolved while slowly relinquishing control over every decision and delegating more responsibilities to his assistant coaches.

He led by example with his tireless work ethic, never cut corners and even cut his own film after decades in the business.

And over 12 seasons, it all added up to 278 wins, nine NCAA Tournament appearances, two Big Ten regular-season championships, two conference tournament titles and two trips to the national title game.

“How many coaches represent their school the way he did on and off the court? I mean we're talking single digits, like someone who was Mr. Rogers,” Wright said. “On the court he was an analytical mind god and he carried himself with class. You just don't see that.

“He's honest, sometimes brutally honest, but he'll tell you what he's feeling, what he's thinking. He carried himself in such a way that it's hard to hate Beilein. I don't know anyone who hates Beilein and people have hated Jesus.”

If somebody did, though, Beilein would probably remember their name if he met them.

When Morgan was being recruited out of University of Detroit Jesuit, he brought along a friend when he attended one of Michigan's home games. When Morgan brought that same friend to a second game, Beilein instantly recalled his friend’s name and took the time to talk to him just like he would with anybody else.

"He doesn't sacrifice character for anything,” Morgan said. “He always is able to recruit a team full of high-character players. When you build your teams like that and you invest in them and you care about them, I think that's one of the things that made him able to accomplish what he did.

“And being a man of integrity, that stands out to me and it always will. Just doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do, that's what he used to tell us.”

Wright remembered when Beilein would tell the players how spoiled they were to fly on charter flights — sometimes even the same planes the Red Wings and Pistons used — and eat nice meals when he would have to bus everywhere and chow on McDonald’s earlier in his career.

Then one time before the Wolverines were set to travel for a road game, Beilein went over the itinerary and told the team they would be flying commercial.

“And for some reason I interrupted and yelled, 'Commercial!? What do you mean commercial? We have to fly with the public?'” Wright said, laughing. “He was very beside himself. He went back to the whole thing, 'Man, you guys are so lucky to be flying, period.'

“Realizing how good you’ve had it, I've taken that with me in life. A lot things that I wouldn't have realized if I didn't have those experiences. It just shows you how blessed you are and it really has you appreciating life; a lot of just appreciating what you have."

And appreciating what Beilein did in Ann Arbor, raising the program back to relevance as someone who won’t likely be forgotten anytime soon.

"Michigan didn't just lose a basketball coach. It lost a role model, a key figure, somebody that really epitomized what Michigan is about,” Morgan said. “He was more than a basketball coach and that's why I think everybody is so disappointed not in him but in losing him. That will be hard to replace."

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins