John Beilein's exit as Cavaliers head coach leaves colleagues, former players 'speechless'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — After a decade of prosperity at Michigan, John Beilein couldn’t find much success in Cleveland.

Beilein’s brief but tumultuous NBA tenure came to an abrupt end when he failed to make it through one season and resigned last week after just 54 games with the rebuilding Cavaliers.

John Beilein's only season as the Cleveland Cavaliers' head coach lasted 54 games.

Michigan coach Juwan Howard said he respected his predecessor’s decision to step down with three more guaranteed years left on his five-year contract.

“He knew what was best for himself and his family,” Howard said Wednesday. “I'm always here and I know he's always been there for me to help him. I always will lend my support to Beilein.”

Beilein, 67, cited the challenges of losing, personal health and his family’s well-being for his sudden exit. By the time of his departure, the Cavaliers were 14-40 and had the worst record in the Eastern Conference. For comparison, that’s as many losses as Beilein experienced in his final four seasons with the Wolverines.

But Beilein also was dealing with issues as Cavaliers players didn’t fully embrace and respond to his college coaching style that stressed fundamentals.

While Howard spent six seasons as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, he said he couldn’t fully relate to what Beilein went through since he was never the one calling all the shots.

"I’ve never been a head coach in the NBA, so I don't know what that experience is like,” Howard said. “I was an assistant coach thinking I know everything and getting all the bright ideas to Coach (Erik) Spoelstra like it worked. It's an adjustment on both sides going from NBA to college, and reverse.”

It’s an adjustment Beilein struggled with from the start. According to multiple reports, players felt Beilein was treating them like kids and not paid professionals, and they quickly grew tired of his penchant for long practices and film sessions.

The disconnect between Beilein and the Cavaliers players grew when he said his team was no longer playing like “a bunch of thugs” during a team meeting in January. Beilein later apologized and explained he meant to say “slugs.”

Washington Wizards’ Moritz Wagner, one of Michigan’s eight first-round draft picks under Beilein, told The Washington Post he wouldn’t be in the NBA if it weren’t for his former college coach.

However, Wagner could see how Beilein’s coaching tactics wouldn’t mesh well with professionals.

“Honestly, it’s a little cringing for me to see all that stuff. I’m a little speechless,” Wagner told The Washington Post. “I do understand the transition is hard for him, especially for his style. I do understand why people would not commit to that and why that would be some type of obstacle.

“There are certain things he has to adapt, and I think he did, too, but like I said, as a player, I think it is hard. It’s not easy to play for him, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. If you commit to what he does, it’s going to make you rich. It made me rich.”

Beilein gave up $12 million in guaranteed money and will be reassigned to a different role within the Cavaliers organization. Cleveland promoted associate head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to take over for Beilein.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he reached out to his former coaching rival to offer his support and added some of the things Beilein went through during his pro stint “were a joke.”

“I absolutely do feel bad,” Izzo said Monday. “I think John is a great guy and a good coach…I don’t look at it as he’s a bad coach because he wasn’t successful there. When you get dealt different cards and when you take over jobs, it doesn’t matter if it’s in football, basketball, whatever, there’s going to be a learning curve.”

Beilein’s coaching career started in 1975 at Newfane High School and included successful stops at Erie Community College (1978-82), Nazareth (1982-83), Le Moyne (1983-92), Canisius (1992-97), Richmond (1997-2002), West Virginia (2002-07) and Michigan (2007-19).

Beilein had a career record of 571-325 at the Division 1 level and led Michigan to national title game appearances in 2013 and 2018 before becoming the latest high-profile college coach to struggle at the highest level.

“Maybe he will come back to college. Maybe he will get another pro job,” Izzo said. “I think he enjoyed what he was doing early on, but I don’t know what that meant later on.

“I think John is a very good coach and I think he can be successful going back to any level he’s been at.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins