Bacon: John Beilein was one of a kind, and that might have led him to NBA

By John U. Bacon
Special to The Detroit News

Usually in this business we hear rumors, feel tremors, or flat-out get tipped off that big news is about to break. Not this time.

When it was revealed Monday that Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein had agreed to a five-year deal to coach the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, I was as surprised as you.

John Beilein

After Beilein flirted with the Detroit Pistons last summer, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel gave him a new contract for $3.8 million a year, and everyone assumed Beilein, 65 at the time, would never leave.

It was even more surprising Beilein was going to Cleveland. True, they won their first NBA title just three years ago, but after LeBron James left for Los Angeles last year, the team finished dead-last in the Central Division.

So why did Beilein do it? First, the obvious: It’s a safe bet that Cleveland, owned by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, made it worth his while. More important, this might have been Beilein’s last chance to coach in the NBA.

This is a man, after all, who started his career teaching junior high school social studies while coaching Newfane (N.Y.) High School, before he started rising up the college ranks from Division III to Division I.

Not only has Beilein never been an assistant coach, which is virtually impossible in that profession, he has never been fired – which might be more impressive.

In 2007, then-UM athletic director Bill Martin decided that West Virginia’s relatively unknown John Beilein was the guy. Martin dramatically upgraded the facilities and stuck by Beilein when many fans were asking for his head.

Michigan had missed the NCAA Tournament for almost a decade, and was still recovering from NCAA violations and probation. Beilein not only led the team to four Big Ten titles, and two trips to the NCAA championship game, his coaching peers voted him the most ethical coach in college basketball.

Granted, that might be a slow race, but still better to win it. For all these reasons, Beilein was simply the best coach in Michigan basketball’s 102-year history – hands down. He never won a national title, but when you factor in academics, character, and ethics, it's not even close.

If Michigan fans didn't fully appreciate what Beilein did before  – and more importantly, how he did it, they will now. But Beilein’s ethics were another reason jumping to the NBA made sense. The FBI – yes, the FBI – just finished an exhaustive investigation of the cesspool that is college basketball, naming names and holding coaches, programs, and schools to account.

The NCAA responded with a big yawn, and went back to business as usual. I did not think I could have more contempt for NCAA president Mark Emmert – but I was wrong.

We can debate the merits of paying players, but we can’t debate what the rules are now. Competing against blatant cheaters has to get old. Perhaps that’s why, in Beilein’s 12 years as Michigan’s coach, he never recruited a single high school All-American. Yet because he might be the best developmental coach in the country, nine of his players were drafted by NBA teams. 

Warde Manuel will have his work cut out for him replacing Beilein, with two imperfect options: hire an unproven coach who gets the Michigan culture, or a proven head coach with no Michigan ties, and hope he "gets it." Either way Manuel will have to take a leap of faith.

Remember, some of the greatest "Michigan Men" had no previous ties, such as Fritz Crisler, Bo Schembechler, and Beilein himself. And some of the best "Michigan Men" aren't men, such as Michigan State alumna Carol Hutchins, who’s won more games as Michigan’s softball coach than any UM coach in any sport.  

An aside: The Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry has never been better, on and off the court. In the same coaches’ poll that ranked Beilein as the most ethical coach, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo finished sixth. They battled for Big Ten titles for eight years.

For those who say Manuel should “just get the biggest name," it’s worth remembering the excitement of the 1990s resulted in the shame of probation, and almost a decade in the wilderness. Most Michigan fans I know care as much about ethics as winning. I’m very confident Manuel feels the same.

One thing for sure: The position of Michigan head basketball coach is infinitely more appealing today than it was 12 years ago, when Martin hired Beilein. Michigan might not see his likes again.

John U. Bacon, a former Detroit News sports writer, is the author of six national bestsellers. His next book, “Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football,” comes out Sept. 3.