'Too difficult to pass up': John Beilein says Cavaliers’ potential pulled him from Michigan

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Chicago — John Beilein was soaking it all in on Tuesday night.

Roughly a day-and-a-half into life as the Cleveland Cavaliers coach, things were changing quickly for Beilein. Just two days before he was still the coach at Michigan, the only thought of this week’s NBA events that includes the combine later this week were of where a trio of former Wolverines might land in this June’s draft.

Former Michigan coach John Beilein will have the Nos. 5 and 26 picks in the NBA Draft as new coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

However, by Tuesday evening in a ballroom in downtown Chicago, Beilein sat a few feet away from the likes of Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett. All are potential franchise changers, and Beilein was waiting to hear if the Cavs were going to be in position to land a player of that caliber.

It didn’t work out perfectly for the Cavs, who ended up with the No. 5 pick. But coupled with pick No. 26, Beilein still felt confident his new team would end up with a pair of good players.

“I think this is a pretty good draft, the whole first round,” Beilein said. “We’re gonna get two good players. I’ve gone down the list and I’ve played against many of those guys, or watched them on TV or saw them in AAU. So it’s really exciting to be in that opportunity, to have the fifth pick in the draft and hopefully the only way we’re there again is because we traded and got that pick from somebody else, but we’re gonna take advantage of it now.”

But that was the future. And try as he might, Beilein couldn’t avoid the immediate past.

As the reporters crowded around following the conclusion of the lottery won by New Orleans, he couldn’t avoid the questions about his choice to leave Michigan, a place he had won more games (278) than any coach in program history and taken the Wolverines from afterthought to perennial Big Ten and national title contender.

“It didn’t take me that long but it was a lot of consideration in that,” Beilein said of his decision that was announced on Monday morning. “I’m just … where we are today is the best thing to talk about right now. This is really great to be a part of this. We’ve got the fifth pick in the draft. We’ve got the 26th pick in the draft. We’re in great shape. Good returning players. We’re in good shape.”

Still, the shock of his decision to bolt Ann Arbor after 12 seasons lingers as the Wolverines now look for a replacement.

Beilein acknowledged the timing was tough but the chance to move to the NBA was too much to ignore.

“There’s never a good time to leave,” Beilein said. “You can make a couple choices. You can leave too early, maybe, or you can leave too late. You never know when to leave and it was, I think this was an opportunity that has so much potential it was too difficult to pass up. It was the right thing to do.”

Beilein didn’t want to delve into reasons why he decided to leave now. There has been some speculation that he had grown wary of the issues surrounding the college game, from the number of players leaving early to the difficulties of recruiting and the fact so many other programs have fallen under a cloud of bending the rules.

“I think that’s a discussion for another time and I’m just really happy to be here right now,” he said. “Trying to get my feet on the floor and there’s a lot of things. We probably can talk about that later on.”

For now, Beilein is putting all his energy into his new job.

He said he’s talked with every player on the Cavs roster and is impressed with their enthusiasm and eagerness to get started with their new coach. He also admitted it will be an adjustment, getting to learn how things are done in the NBA after spending the bulk of his 40 years in the game as a college head coach.

Beilein said he’s already heard from friends in the league, including Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who has made the transition from the college game to the NBA after leading Butler to back-to-back national title games in 2010 and 2011.

“Brad Stevens told me, ‘The NBA just got better today,’” Beilein said. “Just really complimentary things from guys that have been in college and the pros. They said I’m gonna love it; love just coaching basketball.”

Beilein, 66, takes over a franchise that struggled to a 19-63 record, tied for the second-worst record in the league this season.

But like he did with the Wolverines, he expects to get things headed back in a winning direction.

“We’re in position to be in position,” he said. “In other words, we’ve got good young talent, got a great front office and now you just combine everything with what I sense is really good teammates on this team and now we all go together. And I’m gonna lean on a lot of people for experience and we’re gonna make it happen.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau