Niyo: Basketball ‘without restrictions’ lures John Beilein to Cavaliers’ fix-it job

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Independence, Ohio — Every day, it seems, John Beilein sees another sign letting him know he’s in the right place. And Tuesday morning at the Cleveland Cavaliers practice facility, well, here was another.

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein speaks during a news conference Tuesday.

Beilein was wearing a suit and tie when he arrived at the Cleveland Clinic Courts well in advance of his 11 a.m. introductory press conference. But upon seeing one of his players, Larry Nance Jr., getting shots up on the court just outside his office, the Cavaliers’ new boss couldn’t help himself. He shed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and went to work, rebounding for Nance while giving him some pointers.

“Was he out there on the court?” Beilein’s wife, Kathleen, asked later, smiling. “With his tie on?”

She already knew the answer, of course. And it explains everything about why the family was all here Tuesday, two full rows of Beileins for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert to rattle off by name — siblings, kids, grandchildren — before he began ticking off all the reasons his front-office staff targeted the 66-year-old former Michigan coach to help rebuild his NBA franchise.

“He just loves to coach,” Kathleen said. “He says, ‘Just get me on the floor.’ That’s who he is.”

And that’s who he’ll get to be now “without restrictions,” as he puts it, after 40-plus years in the college game — the last dozen as the most successful hoops coach in UM history. Beilein no longer has to worry about “countable athletically related activities” or the NCAA’s 20-hour weekly limits that meant keeping the shades drawn on his office window, lest he catch a glimpse of one of his players trying to improve his game.

“In the NBA, it’s so much more basketball,” Beilein said. “It allows me to do what I love to do.”

So if you’re looking for reasons Beilein’s no longer in Ann Arbor, or why he’s here in the “great state of Ohio” — “I guess I can say that now, right?” he joked — and wearing a red tie for the first time in a long time, that’s probably the best place to start. (For the record, Beilein also hailed Michigan as “the greatest university in the world,” smiling as he added, “Some of you Ohio State people may not agree with that.”)

Sure, like many college coaches, Beilein cringed at all those headlines casting a shadow over college basketball — the recruiting scandals, the FBI investigation and the resulting trials and tribulations.

“But that’s not why I’m the new coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers,” he said.

Nor is it simply the “here-today, gone-tomorrow” frustration so many Division I coaches are feeling in the one-and-done era, where, as Beilein noted Tuesday, it feels like “I’m back to coaching junior college again, right?”

Same goes for the player acquisition part of the equation, a turnabout that prompted Beilein to text his wife from the NBA draft combine last week to tell her, "I love this!" 

"We were interviewing players," Beilein said. "We weren’t recruiting them."

Bad timing

No, just as there’s much more to Beilein than most will ever know — and he prefers it that way, clearly — there was a lot more to this decision, one that was still reverberating back in Ann Arbor on Tuesday as athletic director Warde Manuel neared a decision on his replacement. Manuel wasn't exactly blindsided by Beilein's departure, but it was a blow that left Michigan staggering just the same.

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein speaks to players before a news conference Tuesday.

"I didn’t like the timing — the timing was really bad," said Beilein, who operates without an agent. "But there’s never gonna be good timing. I just don’t know how you end coaching college basketball, if you’re successful, with the timing right. It’s impossible. I hate the way you leave your staff out there, you leave players out there, you leave recruits out there. Yet it’s gonna happen sometime. And so you say, ‘I’m gonna do it’ and then hopefully all the good things we were able to accomplish at Michigan will be what we’re remembered by, not that terrible week that we just surprised so many people."

Surprising? Sure. But this wasn't some impulsive move. Beilein has been intrigued by the idea of coaching in the NBA for years — “a quiet fascination,” as one NBA executive put it — and that was something Koby Altman, the Cavaliers’ 36-year-old GM, picked up on long before he ascended to that role in Cleveland.

Altman recalls meeting Beilein nearly five years ago at the wedding of Mike Gansey, one of Beilein’s favorite players back at West Virginia — Gansey roomed with Beilein’s son, Patrick, in college — who is now an assistant GM for the Cavaliers. But there’d be other meetings over time, typically at the NBA’s annual draft combine in Chicago, and what always struck Altman wasn’t what Beilein knew, but his eagerness to find out what he didn’t know.

“He’s always curious,” Altman said. “Always learning.”

And as the Cavaliers began another coaching search this spring — a year after LeBron James’ free-agent departure forced an organizational reboot — both Altman and Gansey had an inkling where they might end up. The Cavaliers interviewed several NBA assistant coaches after the season, but the criteria they’d written down kept pointing them in Beilein’s direction, learning what they already knew.

They wanted a good communicator and leader who’d establish a culture for a young team. An innovative teacher, too, someone with a proven track record in player development. And after an initial meeting with Beilein, Altman said, “some of my guys were looking at me like, ‘What are we doing here? This is our guy.’”

From there, things moved quickly — “Next thing I know, Dan’s sitting in our kitchen on a Friday night” for a four-hour interview, Beilein said of Gilbert, whom he’d never met — and shortly after the Cavaliers made a contract offer that weekend, the deal was done.

That’s because Beilein had already crossed this bridge in his own mind a year ago after fielding interest from the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons. The Pistons’ job, in particular, intrigued him, and it was only after his candidacy became public last June that Beilein withdrew his name from consideration, ending a courtship that dragged on for nearly a month.

“I didn’t want to go through what I went through last summer,” Beilein admitted Tuesday. “It was gonna have to be my job very quickly. I didn’t want the drama of last summer. But I’d made up my mind, if I liked Dan and Dan liked me … and if they offer me the job, I’m gonna take it.”

Blank slate

Again, though, that’s because he’d already reconciled all the other questions that’d rattled around in his head for years. While mulling the Pistons’ pitch last spring, Beilein talked to Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan — two former college coaches who’d found success in the NBA — and didn’t hear many cons about making the jump to the pros. He heard the same from others, like NBA icon Jerry West, a confidant since Beilein's days at West Virginia, and former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, who was Beilein's final recruit at Nazareth College back in 1983.

John Beilein on leaving Michigan: "I didn’t like the timing — the timing was really bad. But there’s never gonna be good timing."

Beilein admits he "watched the NBA through a different lens this year," which only confirmed his suspicions "that I can do this. Just looking at the way the league has evolved, it was right up my alley, I thought." One of his former Michigan players, Caris LeVert, now a budding star in Brooklyn, also endorsed the move, telling him, “Coach, what we do will work. You just gotta make sure you have the right people on that team that will play unselfishly.’ ” 

In that respect, this Cavaliers job is better suited for Beilein and his system than the one he likely would’ve accepted in Detroit last summer. Instead of the Pistons’ salary cap-strapped roster, Beilein will start with a mostly blank canvas here. There’s some young talent on the roster, including point guard Collin Sexton — a second-team All-Rookie selection this season — and a raft of draft picks, including a pair of first-rounders (Nos. 5 and 26 overall) this June.

Just as important, though, there’s no immediate expectations of winning. Certainly nothing like what Donovan or even Stevens stepped into from college. The Cavaliers went 19-63 last season and might not have bottomed out quite yet. Beilein, who plans to coach the Cavs' summer league teams to get acclimated to the pace of the pro game, noted Tuesday his Michigan teams lost 15 games the last two seasons combined, adding with a laugh, "I realize that probably will not be happening again in my lifetime."

Still, while Beilein talks about  "finding the small victories in losses" for now, he's also aware of the short shelf-life of his predecessors in Cleveland. During Beilein's 12-year tenure at Michigan, Gilbert, who has made a fortune by thinking outside the box and taking risks, went through a half-dozen head coaches, including two Mike Brown stints. The last Cavaliers coach to survive five years — the length of Beilein’s new contract — was Mike Fratello back in the mid-1990s. Asked about that Tuesday, Beilein, who was never fired in his 41 years in college, shrugged, “I'm going to coach as long as I can. I hope that's a long time."

And while he says this’ll be his last stop, he hardly sounds like a guy who’s ready to be done. Beilein is in his mid-60s and only a year removed from double-bypass heart surgery, but he laughed Tuesday when he mentioned a recent chat with his 80-year-old sister, Patricia, who lives in nearby Novelty, Ohio, just east of Cleveland: “She still works full-time, and she said to me, ‘You’re just getting started.’ ”

So about that. Beilein balked at the word “rebuild” Tuesday. He says he prefers “renaissance,” and at one point in his press conference, he pointed to the walls where reminders of the Cavs’ success during the LeBron James era hang. 

“Look at all those banners up there,” Beilein said, grinning. “It’s been done before. Why can’t it be done again?”

It’s a question he’s eager to answer.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo