ANN ARBOR, Mich. — John Beilein has been a college basketball coach for four decades, so his peers have a good idea what to expect.
His strategy may change and evolve — this year, Beilein’s Michigan team is noticeably better on defense — but the values and culture of his program remain consistent.
“When you’re a head coach all those years, you watch every program he builds,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said, “and are just impressed with the same character, class, dignity at each school.”
After a season clouded by an FBI probe — when college basketball’s problems seemed to be approaching a tipping point — get ready for a feel-good Final Four of sorts. Especially in Saturday night’s first semifinal, when the captivating underdogs from Loyola-Chicago take on Michigan and Beilein, a man so respected by his fellow coaches that he topped a preseason poll on the topic of following the rules.
That vote — conducted by CBS Sports — gave Beilein some good publicity before the season. CBS asked over 100 coaches which high-major coach they believed “does everything by the book and operates completely within the NCAA’s rulebook.” Beilein finished first in the poll, and when asked in early October about being such a clean coach, he joked that he does it by showering regularly.
On Monday, after leading Michigan to its second Final Four in six seasons, he remained humble about his good-guy reputation.
“I think I represent hundreds of Division I coaches that are doing things the right way,” the 65-year-old Beilein said. “That was not an exact poll, that was a very random poll, but we do do everything we can to make sure we follow the very spirit — not just the NCAA rules, the spirit of the rules of the NCAA.”
Beilein coached at Canisius and Richmond before reaching the big time with West Virginia and Michigan. His gradual rise stands out in a sport where quick climbs — and quick falls — are fairly common.
He’s also been a head coach his whole career, meaning his teams reflect directly on him.
“When someone is a head coach you kind of know who they are and you watch what they do,” said Wright, who recalls when he was an assistant at Rochester and Beilein was the head coach at Le Moyne.
“You watch them at Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia, Michigan — I hope I didn’t forget one of them,” added Wright, whose Villanova team faces Kansas in Saturday’s other semifinal. “But that’s where I started watching him, and you saw the same consistency, quality of character, quality of players he recruits, class of his team on the court, off the court.”
Beilein is an intense coach with an eye for detail. His teams play disciplined, unselfish basketball, and he’ll pull players early at the slightest sign of foul trouble. But sideline histrionics are a rarity for him, and his modesty is on constant display.
“Actually it never has been the goal to be in the Final Four,” he said Monday. “If the goal was to do your best every day and try to mentor and teach every kid and it led to the Final Four, that’s great. But it’s never been the goal.”
The closest Beilein has come to any real controversy at Michigan involved transfer restrictions on outgoing players, and even then, the school eventually relented. Guard Spike Albrecht was able to go play for conference rival Purdue.
(About a month ago, Albrecht contributed a funny story on Twitter about what a stickler Beilein is for rules: “Coach Beilein wouldn’t let me order Tiramisu for dessert on my official visit because it was beer battered and I was only 19.”)
The last time Beilein took Michigan to the Final Four, the Wolverines lost in the title game to Louisville. The NCAA has since ordered Louisville to vacate that 2013 championship in the wake of a sex scandal.
The teams at this year’s Final Four will try to avoid that kind of messy legacy, starting with Loyola and Michigan on Saturday.
“Coach Beilein, I’ve gotten to know him over the years on the road,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “I remember visiting with him at the Final Four and on the road, and just what a high-class guy in terms of what he does with his program, how he runs his program. Just got a ton of respect for him.”
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