Former Michigan basketball coach John Beilein and wife, Kathleen, co-chairs of the ChadTough Gala Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Former Michigan basketball standout Moritz Wagner, who helped lead the Wolverines to the national championship game in 2018, just completed his rookie season with the Lakers and is already looking forward to games against the Cavaliers next season.
He plans to torment — jokingly, of course — new Cavs coach John Beilein, who spent the last 12 years at Michigan.
Beilein and his wife, Kathleen, were the co-chairs of the ChadTough “Champions for a Change” gala Saturday night at the Crisler Center. The event raised more than $1.2 million and many of Beilein’s former Michigan players, including Wagner, were in attendance to support the cause and the basketball theme.
Wagner was asked how much he looks forward to playing against Beilein.
“Oh, yes. Really,” he said, smiling. “I told him I can’t wait to talk all that smack. That’s who I am, and he laughed. I said, ‘Coach, I’m not kidding.’”
He plans to keep his eye on Beilein’s progress as a first-time NBA head coach.
“I’m going to follow the Cavs all the time and text him,” Wagner said, laughing.
Beilein’s former players have not seemed shocked by his decision, revealed last week, to move on from the college game.
“I mean, obviously, I didn’t go to bed thinking, ‘He’s the Cleveland Cavaliers coach the next day,’ but I wasn’t surprised he got the opportunity, no,” Wagner said. “He’s someone who looks for challenges all the time, tries to improve, tries to get better. I kind of see myself in his situation – I probably would have done the same thing. It’s just a great opportunity for him. A great fit, I think. A great opportunity for his family.
“I think he was waiting for the right situation. He’s almost done everything he can do as a college coach, so I understand what he’s doing. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think what he’s good at — I give him a lot of credit — he was always finding ways to adapt to new situations and adapt to his players. That’s what he’s going to do now, too. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s not supposed to be easy. That’s why it’s a well-paid job and a good job. I’m excited for him to have that opportunity.”
David Merritt, a captain during his final season with the Wolverines in 2008-09, was part of Beilein’s team that season that reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years in the program’s history. He was not entirely blindsided by Beilein’s decision to leave for the NBA because of his dalliance with the Pistons last year.
“If you were in and around the program, you knew how serious last year got,” Merritt said. “That not coming to fruition, you knew it could be a possibility. I think everyone still is shocked and surprised it became a reality.”
Names of potential successors have been bandied about, but Merritt doesn’t want to play the guessing game while Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel navigates the coaching-search process.
“I’m sure Warde will do a great job of bringing somebody that’s going to represent and build upon what’s been created here,” Merritt said. “I’m sure he has candidates in mind that he thinks are going to do an amazing job. We’re going to support no matter who it is. We’re a family. Even though coach has moved on, we’re still a part of Michigan, and we’re going to be rooting on whoever it is.”
Whoever does inherit the program, Wagner believes, is getting one that is firmly established.
“The program defines itself, its culture,” Wagner said. “I think that’s why he got the job in Cleveland, too. That’s what makes him so good that he developed something that goes beyond winning and losing. It’s an environment where people want to come back and feel comfortable within the system. That goes beyond basketball. I think he did an incredible job in his 12 years here, and he’s going to do the same thing at the next level."
A decade after he played for Beilein, Merritt said his coach left Michigan in a better place and restored it.
“It’s a much different program,” Merritt said. “He’s been able to create what it means to play at Michigan. It’s no longer the names on the back.
“The next person is coming into a culture that, I think, is the real reason we’ve had success. We’ve had amazing players. But that consistency in terms of the value system is what truly makes the program a success.”