Wojo: Michigan's John Beilein trying to grasp his finest moment

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan head coach John Beilein answers questions after a practice session.

San Antonio — John Beilein said he never spent much of his life planning to be here, or expecting to be here, or hungering to be here. And upon further reflection, perhaps that’s precisely why he’s here, leading Michigan to another Final Four.

This may not be by design, but it most certainly is not by accident. The little moments lead to the big moments, and Beilein remains a rarity in college basketball, a coach capable of adjusting to changing times and styles, growing in stature without growing in name.

Even here, he’s somewhat the outsider, with the fanciful tale of Loyola-Chicago dominating the attention. If it’s not the ultimate underdog Ramblers and their 98-year nun, it’s the blueblood No. 1 seeds, Villanova and Kansas, led by two of the biggest names in the business, Jay Wright and Bill Self.

The Wolverines are 32-7 and in their second Final Four in six seasons, winners of 13 straight, favorites to beat Loyola-Chicago Saturday night and reach the national championship game. If Michigan fans didn’t fully appreciate what they had in Beilein before, they absolutely do now. This could be – should be – his finest moment, in the midst of his finest season, but to embrace it would almost defy his understated nature. Oh, he’s trying, and players say he’s lightening up more and more, and not just in the post-victory, locker-room water fights.

More: Lookalikes? Michigan foe Loyola has shade of maize in game

“Definitely seen him loosen up a little bit,” point guard Zavier Simpson said. “He’s happier, he’s louder. At breakfast he’ll go through the line and shout, ‘Good morning, eggs!’ He’s playing around, he’s laughing with us.”

He cheerfully greets the breakfast buffet?

“Yep,” Simpson said, smiling. “Things he hasn’t done in the past. He’s changed.”

Change without changing, the trickiest thing to do in sports, and in life. Appreciating all the moments – small and large – is just as tough.

Talk to those around Beilein and they say it began slightly more than a year ago, when Michigan’s team plane slid off the runway while attempting to take off for the Big Ten tournament, and he led a harrowing evacuation. The Wolverines went on to win four straight and capture the title. They did it again this season, and counting the NCAA runs, they’re 14-1 in tournament play the past two seasons, and haven’t done it with an array of future NBA players.

But it’s more than some metaphysical shift. Even before the accident, Beilein had committed to change, hiring a defensive specialist to shore up the Wolverines’ weakness. Billy Donlon left after one season, but improvement ratcheted this season when Beilein added another defensive whiz in unknown assistant Luke Yaklich, as well as DeAndre Haynes, both from Illinois State.

Beilein is 65, and while he doesn’t lack energy and has no intentions of retiring (his current contract runs through 2021), his top three assistants – Saddi Washington, 42, Yaklich, 41, and Haynes, 34 – keep him even younger. It’s a balance Beilein needs, because left to his own idiosyncracies, he’d probably stay holed in his office, clicking away at film work, hunting for the next small edge.

After Michigan reached the Sweet 16 by beating Houston on Jordan Poole’s miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer, Beilein tried to express what he felt.

“I’m just relieved, I’m never happy,” he said. “And that’s a sad part of my personality, very sad, that I’ll admit to you all.”

More: Role reversal: Wolverines turn heel for Final Four

He said it lightheartedly, but there was truth to it, a truth he’s trying to alter. He said he swore (not literally, of course) if he reached the Final Four again he’d take a longer moment to soak it in, to look up at the rafters before the game. But even then, it’s fleeting.

“There’s relief for a moment, and then it’s obsessed with what’s next?” Beilein said Thursday. “I’ve got to plan. We have to get better. What’s the schedule? How can we maximize this time? There’s no time to sit back and smile and laugh with everybody.”

His wife of 39 years, Kathleen, says he’s getting better at it. So do others inside the program. Keeping things in perspective is the struggle, and Beilein says winning the national title, or even reaching the Final Four, was never a personal goal.

“I don’t care about that at all,” he said in a radio interview with 97.1 the Ticket this week. “I want our team to experience it, but personally for me, I didn’t get into this to do this. All I wanted to be was a high school teacher and coach, have a purposeful life. … If it leads to a national championship, fine. The awards and the trophies are all, like, meaningless to me. And I’m sincere about that.”

Michigan head coach John Beilein answers questions after a practice session for the Final Four on Thursday.

He’s sincere that other things – his family, his faith, his team – mean more than a trophy, which prevents him from getting consumed by the quest. But make no mistake, the man is driven – obsessed, his word – to make his team better. And as the seasons unfold, the Wolverines almost always improve, often with a collection of undervalued players.

Their defense is smothering partly because Beilein hired coaches who teach smothering defense. He’s meticulous in the details, preaching proper ways to pivot and pass. He values the assist as much as the shot, and he recruits players who understand the balance between unselfishness and lethal shooting.

Beilein harps on Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to keep his heels on the floor, not bounce on his toes, to maintain balance. Both feet on the ground, always.

More: Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago: Who has the edge?

“He just wants to push us until we can’t be pushed anymore,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “He’s a head coach, so he’s gotta kind of have that stubborn personality. Maybe it takes him a while sometimes, but he’s accepting of new ideas. I think you play your best when having fun, and he’s listened to that, and livened up a little bit. It feels like you have more freedom when you don’t feel like somebody’s hovering over you, waiting for you to make mistakes.”

That’s where Beilein has learned to loosen up, without letting up, and pick the right battles. Moe Wagner joked that players weren’t allowed to wear earrings a couple years ago, a rule that’s been relaxed, although Wagner doesn’t partake. (Imagine that conversation between Beilein and his players and try not to chuckle.)

It’s well-documented that in 40 years as a college coach, Beilein never has served as an assistant. He’s always been the boss, always run the offense exactly the way he wanted. He’s smart and respected and viewed as perhaps the cleanest big-time college coach, so it’s not necessarily easy to change. And yet, lately, he has.

Haynes, one of the new assistants, wasn’t sure what to expect when Beilein hired him. A stickler? A stuck-in-his-ways old-school guy? In some ways, maybe. In unseen ways, not at all. Last week, as the Wolverines prepped for the Final Four in their practice gym, players worked on one end, while coaches’ wives and kids frolicked on the other end, at Beilein’s invite.

“When practice was over, it was like daycare, kids running around, and he’s giving them all hugs,” Haynes said. “You never go home with a negative attitude. He’s not a know-it-all, at all. He lets our seniors have responsibility, delegates to the assistants. Other coaches would take over those drills, but he wants to learn from you.”

Washington, in his second season here, sees the same things, and hears the same perceptions.

“I don’t know that he’s necessarily under the radar, but he’s not a flamboyant type,” Washington said. “As far as the media perspective, you guys are always flashing to the shiny things. He’s just going to be who he is, and whether he gets the attention or not, his teams win at a high level.”

The TV cameras may flock to the whimsy and wisdom of Sister Jean, the Loyola-Chicago team chaplain. They may focus on Villanova’s impeccable Wright, who won the national title two years ago, or Kansas’ Self, who’s always in the national swirl.

But at the Final Four, Beilein is not an accidental tourist, nor an accidental purist. Rather than focus on a national championship, he talks about just doing the “next right thing,” and all those next right things have brought him and his team to a place he’s beginning to know well, whether it completes him or not.


Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago

Tip-off: 6:09 p.m. Saturday, Alamodome, San Antonio

TV/radio: TBS/WWJ 950

Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 32-7; No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago 32-5

Up next: Winner advances to Monday’s national championship game against Villanova-Kansas winner.