Wojo: Plenty of clues foretold John Beilein's exit at Michigan

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

John Beilein long has wondered what else was out there, what it was like at the highest level of basketball, the only level he’d never coached. So he did what a smart, inquisitive, driven man often does late in a storied career — he chased his final goal.

Not many saw it coming at this time, but the clues were abundant for a while. Beilein’s departure from Michigan to become coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers was stunning in its suddenness Monday, but not in its motive.

John Beilein served as Michigan coach for 12 years.

Mutual motives and mutual risks were at play, and the more you unravel it, the better you understand it. But let’s be clear: This is crushing for Michigan, even if athletic director Warde Manuel has quietly prepared for the possibility.

Beilein interviewed for the Pistons job last summer and didn’t get an offer, but was further intrigued. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert — based in Detroit and a Michigan State grad — tried to hire Tom Izzo back in 2010. Gilbert finally got his college man, signing Beilein to a five-year deal, turning over a young team with the second-worst record in the league to a 66-year-old coach with no NBA experience, but an insatiable appetite for putting pieces together.

This might be good for Beilein and Gilbert, but it’s a major blow for Michigan, which must move swiftly to replace its all-time winningest coach. And frankly, it’s not good for college basketball, which needs more high-integrity coaches like Beilein, and fewer scandals involving FBI wiretaps and illicit payments, with weak enforcement from the NCAA.

Not the same game

As Beilein leaves behind a Michigan program he built back into a power, you can’t help but wonder — is he chasing an elusive ideal, or is he being chased out of a college game that has become uglier and more difficult to navigate?

Even as the Wolverines became perennial contenders, reaching the NCAA Tournament in nine of Beilein’s 12 seasons, playing in two national championship games, the task grew more taxing. His greatest strength — identifying and developing young players — became his biggest obstacle. If you want to know why Beilein made the move, you only needed to see him a few weeks ago, shortly after three more rising stars — Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews — announced their intentions to turn pro.

Beilein wearily explained he’d adapt again, as he has for 41 years as a head coach, from community college to mid-levels to big-time college basketball. New rules designed to give players more freedom naturally made it more difficult for coaches. Players now can hire an agent and not lose eligibility, so more tested the NBA waters and still have until May 29 to return to school.

That leaves rosters in flux, scholarships held open, transfers waiting. Michigan recently missed out on a transfer guard, William & Mary’s Justin Pierce, who chose North Carolina. Matthews had graduated, so his jump was expected. Poole is a skilled sophomore with a promising shot but an incomplete game. Brazdeikis was the Big Ten freshman of the year, and if he returned (he hasn’t officially ruled it out), the Wolverines would be contenders again.

“It’s a sad state of things when you say, oh, I hope he’s not too good as a freshman,” Beilein said last month, on the night of the team banquet. “Just think about that. You think Jim Harbaugh is ever gonna say that? Hockey’s got the same issue. Baseball (and football), they have to stay at least three years. There are some things we gotta try to fix. But then again, it’s a free world, and I think the sentiment is, kids should be able to go out and have these opportunities.”

Beilein’s frustration was clear, as he talked about the brutal offseason schedule, traveling to find new recruits, or re-recruit ones already landed. Asked if there was a solution for the endless churning — he lost 11 players early to the NBA in 12 years — Beilein sounded resigned.

“The three-year rule is the ticket, but it’s not gonna happen,” he said of the rule that keeps football and baseball players in college for three seasons. “It’s the greatest thing in the world for everybody, because it gets them to mature and be more prepared for the NBA. I don’t know how you get away with it in football and baseball, and basketball can’t.”

The lure

That’s what makes the NBA enticing for college coaches, even if many have failed. It’s what long has fascinated Izzo. As the pro game has adopted more elements of the college game — 3-point shooting from big guys — the leap has become less risky.

Billy Donovan won two national titles at Florida and has coached Oklahoma City for four seasons. After three straight first-round playoff exits, he’s been rumored for a possible return to college. If so, he’d be a terrific choice for Michigan.

Another big-name college coach to leap to the NBA is Brad Stevens, who’s led the Celtics for six seasons after six ultra-successful years at Butler. Stevens also is coming off a rough playoff and would be ideal for Michigan, but he’s likely a long shot.

Manuel is advised to shoot high, though. Money shouldn’t be a factor, and it wasn’t for Beilein, who was making nearly $4 million per year. Manuel said Monday he knew about the Cavs talks but still was surprised by the outcome, while declining to get into specific reasons Beilein made his decision.

 “John has done a great job of rolling with the punches for 40 years with a lot of great success,” Manuel said. “So I’m gonna miss him and will now work to see if we can find somebody that will continue that success.”

It’s not the money, it’s the lifestyle. Beilein would painstakingly break down practice times to fit NCAA limits. He had stringent recruiting requirements and didn’t play the cajoling game with big-time prospects. He’d also grown more introspective the past two years, more determined to enjoy himself, after the Michigan team plane careened off a runway in 2017, and after he underwent double-bypass heart surgery last summer.

Of course, there are unpleasant stresses in the NBA, too, and you hope Beilein isn’t dismissing them. It can be an odd fit for a coach as meticulous as he is. Players often run the show, although not with this barren Cavs team, which has a bright young point guard in Collin Sexton and a shot in the draft lottery to land Duke’s Zion Williamson. Egos and individual agendas are rampant in the NBA, but the point is, those have become issues in college, too.

“I love coaching basketball, and you’re watching the NBA playoffs and you’re seeing what guys are doing, and they’re running stuff we run,” Beilein said last summer, after his flirtation with the Pistons. “Brad Stevens kept telling me, ‘I’m having a blast,’ and when you heard those words, that’s appealing.”

Knowing Beilein, the challenge is enormously appealing, and at times in his career, when he wonders, he wanders. He talks about basketball as if it’s a Rubik’s Cube always in need of solving. When he came to Ann Arbor in 2007 — a shrewd, unorthodox hire by former AD Bill Martin — Michigan basketball wasn’t even a Rubik’s Cube, more like an empty box. The Wolverines hadn’t made the Tournament in a decade, and the turnaround authored by Beilein is remarkable.

When asked last summer why he was interested in the Pistons, disjointed for years, his answer was a prelude to the latest news.

“When people said — why are you going to Canisius? Why are you going to Richmond? Why are you going to West Virginia? — those are all like train wrecks,” Beilein said. “And I said, that’s why I’m going. Tell me I can’t do something and I’m about to do it.

He’s doing it again, taking the biggest step yet. It stings fans deeply when a legendary coach, the perfect fit for a program, leaves. You don’t have to like it but you should respect it, especially if you understand it.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski