Wojo: Beilein gets the message, and it changes everything

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Freshman guard Xavier Simpson, left, has some fun with coach John Beilein during the Big Ten tournament victory over Purdue last week.

Ann Arbor — After the most-momentous week imaginable, after leaping from a plane and diving into a remarkable story, John Beilein and his Michigan basketball team face a curious paradox. They’d like to forget, but they desperately want to remember.

They’d like to move on from the disturbing recollections of screeching wheels and gas fumes, of coaches, players and families sliding out of the plane or jumping off the wings. A week ago, Michigan’s chartered flight bounced hard in strong winds and skid 400 yards before stopping in a ditch, an image that will endure long after this NCAA Tournament ends.

But this is what they hope truly endures: The connection that grows from near-tragedy.

Did the plane mishap spur Michigan to four straight victories and the Big Ten tournament championship? Not exactly. The Wolverines actually were playing very well before the incident.

Did the entire circumstance remind them how moments shouldn’t be wasted, and bond them uniquely? Certainly. That doesn’t mean No. 7 seed Michigan will keep rolling Friday in its NCAA Tournament opener against Oklahoma State. It doesn’t mean the Wolverines automatically should be a fashionable pick to make a magical run. The Tournament is way too tough to be completely bent by the powers of mind and fate.

But something notable has changed, and you see it reflected in large ways — the program’s first conference tournament title in 19 years — and smaller snapshots, like when Beilein charged into the locker room after a win, grabbed a water bottle and started spraying everyone.

One week ago, the Wolverines were shook up, and now appear fully woke up. Nowhere is it more evident than in the 64-year-old coach who famously obscures his emotions, but isn’t holding much back now. He’s responding like his team is playing, unburdened by self-doubt, free to emote.

‘I hope I never lose it’

“I’m obsessed with being a coach and I’m obsessed with training my team,” Beilein said Wednesday as the Wolverines prepared to head to Indianapolis. “And one of my weaknesses, I will admit, is I just don’t value daily life sometimes. I’ll be on that plane after a win or a loss and I’ll have the next game in front of me, and I’ll have the scouting report within 30 minutes. This was God sending me a message that you gotta embrace it more.”

Is that really possible after a life of order and regimen, after 42 years coaching the same way? Realistically, Beilein isn’t sure. Spiritually, he’s willing to believe anything.

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“I’m hoping the perspective I have right now is life-changing,” he said. “I hope I never lose it. But I’m sure I’ll be worrying about some play instead of smelling the roses again some time. … This is something our kids will always remember, but I want them to always remember how they responded. This is the way life goes, and you’ve got to respond positively to whatever comes your way, and boy did they.”

It’s funny because the knock on this team midway through the season, when it was muddling along at 14-9, was that it lacked spark and toughness, and even was called out by opponents. Beilein received criticism for not getting his team to play defense, and then six weeks later, the Wolverines put on an all-time display of connective spirit and mental toughness.

Beilein said the transformation began after an embarrassing home loss to Ohio State on Feb. 4.

It really resonated on the car ride to the airport before the regular-season finale at Nebraska. That’s when Walton bluntly told him the Wolverines were going to win the Big Ten tournament. Beilein was shocked to hear it.

Walton and fellow senior Zak Irvin delivered, and the Wolverines’ offensive and defensive efficiency while winning four games in four days was exhilarating. Watching their stoic coach let loose was nearly as revealing.

“This game can be very stressful in his positon, and it’s a joy to see him having fun with it again,” Walton said. “We have one of the best coaches in the country, we have the best scheme in the country, we just got some loving guys. Coach does a great job of being a very, very, steady, calming factor. … Last week was traumatizing, to be completely honest, and I think everybody just wants to enjoy every moment we have going forward.”

Much of the joy simply comes from winning. But with altered perspective can come altered perceptions, and there’s no questioning the Wolverines’ free-wheeling competitive fight.

Most of the rise is on Walton, as well as the development of the big guys, D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner. But the link between coach and players had been growing, and then tightened in the aftermath of the plane accident and the championship victory over Wisconsin.

“We had a conversation after everything went down,” Irvin said. “Once we landed in D.C. we agreed, why can’t this be the greatest story ever told? Everybody had that mentality: Why not us?”

The players and coaches still think about the plane incident, but basketball returned to focus quickly. Beilein said the image that endures for him is a tough one. He hadn’t buckled his seat belt, so as the plane careened to a halt, he grabbed his wife, Kathleen, so strongly he bruised her arm.

At the same time, he propped his legs against the seat in front of him, “like riding a bull,” he said with a smile.

A wild ride indeed.

‘There’s a richer connection’

It took about two minutes to evacuate the 109 people, including band members, cheerleaders, trainers and children of coaches. That’s a long time when you hear engines still roaring, a short time to alter life perspectives.

Michigan coach John Beilein accepts the Big Ten tournament championship trophy after the Wolverines' win over Wisconsin.

“We were connected, but now there’s a richer connection,” Beilein said. “How that series of events transferred from something that could have been very tragic to something so special, I just don’t know how that happens.”

As he left the press room Wednesday, Beilein said “safe travels everyone,” and smiled at the fresh meaning of it. Outside he was animated and laughing as he discussed his initial plan following the Big Ten tournament to dump a full pail of water on his players, except the pail was leaking.

Don’t misconstrue, either. Preparation for Oklahoma State hasn’t changed, with the standard practices and tedious film work. There still are places to go, although because Indianapolis is less than five hours away, the Wolverines will travel by bus.

Fine with them. As Beilein walked away, “safe travels!” was shouted back, and he didn’t break stride. He threw both arms up, did a quick little jump, then jogged down the stairs, in a hurry to make the next trip.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

twitter.com: @bobwojnowski

No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State

What: First-round game in NCAA Tournament

Tip-off: 12:15 p.m. Friday

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

TV/radio: CBS/950

Records: Michigan 24-11, Oklahoma State 20-12