John Beilein: The ultimate journeyman of coaches

Ignore the fact that he coached one of the bluest of bloods in college basketball for over a decade. Ignore the fact that he is now in charge of the King-less Cleveland Cavaliers. What John Beilein has accomplished in his coaching career is no short of an absolute triumph on the ladder of success.

Taking a look at some of the most recent coaches to take the leap from college to the pros, their paths have been a lot quicker and undoubtedly more straightforward.

Fred Hoiberg, who served as head coach of the Chicago Bulls from 2015-18 before transitioning back to the college scene, got a gig in the National Basketball Association after becoming the fastest coach in Iowa State’s basketball history to 100 wins. Hoiberg coached his alma mater after playing five years in the NBA and a brief stint in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Brad Stevens, who took a virtually unknown Butler basketball team to back-to-back NCAA title games, was one of the youngest head coaches in the league during his first season. Stevens played DIII ball and worked his way up the hierarchy at Butler after joining the staff in 2000 – ultimately earning the head coaching nod in 2007. In the summer of 2013, the genius basketball mind inherited a Boston Celtics team that had a lot of draft picks but would need good coaching to have a sustainable future, thus Stevens has done successfully to this point. Stevens was literally inches away from a college national title to his name.

Conversely, John Beilein, who did not have the strong athletic background to lean on at Wheeling Jesuit, started as the head of Newfane High School’s junior varsity basketball team in upstate New York. After a couple of seasons, then 24 years old, Beilein coached the school’s varsity team and finished with best record the team had in eight years.

Beilein’s next stop, at Erie Community College, was pivotal to his success. He almost doubled his loss total in four seasons by going 75-43 and won at least twenty games in a season twice. From the early ‘80s to early ‘90s, Beilein would go from community college to Division III to Division II to Division I.

Recently named the head coach at Niagara University, Patrick Beilein, dominated at one of the Division II schools his dad coached before going to Division I.

“I think he’s just ready for a new challenge and a new rebuild,” said Patrick Beilein to a local NBC affiliate network. “He feels great, he’s 66 years old and Cleveland is right down the road. I knew it was coming for a little bit, for the week that the Cavs’ thing happened. The relationships he’ll create with that, with the young roster, won’t be any different than he did at Michigan. I know it’s a long season, but I will be rooting for him and my mom.”

After nine long seasons at the Division II level, Beilein got his first Division I job at mid-major Canisius in upstate New York. Canisius made the Big Dance, the first time and only time in their 62 years at the top level, under Beilein in 1996. The Griffsn also made it to the 1995 NIT Final Four.

“You never know,” Beilein said in a 2016 interview commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Golden Griffin’s sole tourney team. “Any good Jesuit-educated guy knows you better follow God’s will. This would have to be a two hour document all of the memories walking back in here. I think there has been only one time since I left and came to the campus; it is emotional to me right now because of you’ve got a young family and you want to be just as successful as the young guys on the team. Last night I was apologizing for being so hard on them and somehow they were thanking me for it, I can’t figure that one out.”

At Beilein’s mid-majors, he sparked magic. The Richmond Spiders were a No. 14 seed in their first year under Beilein and won 23 games. In the previous three years combined, had a win total of 29. The Colonial Athletic Conference champs were on fire that year and ended the season on nine-game winning streak before losing in the Round of 32. Beilein would move on to a major conference school after winning 100 games in five seasons for the program.

West Virginia was the first big-time job for Beilein, having to play the likes of the Kansas Jayhawks and Texas Longhorns every year now. The first season was under .500, but they bounced back to have four straight winning seasons and peaked with a trip to the Elite 8. Surprisingly, the Mountaineers were left out of the big dance after going 27-9 but bounced back to win that year’s National Invitational Tournament.

The Michigan hire was intriguing considering that the school would make him the highest paid coach in their history at $1.3 million per year, on a six year deal.

Beilein also had to pay WVU to leave the program, due to his $550 thousand buyout in his contract annually. He had never stepped foot on the campus in Ann Arbor before taking the job, but was sold in every which way.

“The buyout issue is sensitive, but I wanted to be the coach of Michigan,” Beilein said after being introduced to the fan base at a news conference in 2007. “Obviously, the buyout was something I had to consider. If you look at my paycheck, there ought to be pressure. I grew up on the shores of Lake Ontario, we’ve made almost a complete circle back to the Great Lakes.”

After three not-so-successful years at Michigan, the Burt N.Y. native thought to rebuild the mindset of his players. In an interview with the Atlantic’s B.R.J. O’Donnell, Beilein talked about his six core values that transformed the program in his tenure there.

“I had to make an intentional effort to shape the culture of the team,” said Beilein, struggling to bring back the team to the Fab Five glory days. “So I sat down and I asked, “What are the five things you value the most?” And that’s when we came up with unity, passion, appreciation, integrity, and diligence—in the form of a lot of hard work. So those are our core values, and then we added accountability, because we felt that our team held themselves accountable as individuals, but that didn’t extend to others around them. We were not good at that, so we added it.”

After going the gauntlet of being the head coach at a couple mid-majors, Beilein finally got his chance at the University of Michigan – and oh, did he capitalize.

A large contributor to success in March is the ability of team to get hot, not in terms of field goal percentage, but wins. The teams that get to the national championship game has likely won their conference in the regular season or won the conference tournament of that year. Beilein’s has won the Big 10 Tournament in two out of the last three years.

The list of players to don the blue and gold under Beilein is numerous with a splash of quality NBA players along the line. One thing remained constant – all his guys have nothing but love for the time spent and the opportunity to be coached by a college great.

Trey Burke, one of the most successful NCAA tournament players this decade, shone brilliantly at Michigan and worked his way up to ninth overall pick after his sophomore season under Beilein. Burke, now entering this offseason as an unrestricted free agent, notes the impact being coached by Beilein had on him.

“Held me accountable, more off the court than on and I think that’s how he made me better,” said Burke on ABC6, who had controversy with the school academically but was backed by Beilein. “Every player regardless of league wants to have the trust of his coach. I could possibly see myself there, Coach and I are definitely familiar with each other and if it happens, I think it will be a great opportunity for me.”

No Michigan fan will ever forget Burke’s jumpshot that helped Michigan beat Kansas and reach Beilein’s first Final Four in 2013.

Fast-fowarding to 2018, Beilein’s second trip that ended at the title game, Jordan Poole hit an equally memorable shot and showed just as much love for coach as Burke.

Poole, entering the 2019 NBA Draft, has the intriguing opportunity to play for his college coach should Cleveland spend a draft pick on the sophomore shooting guard.

“Being able to play with him at for two years and being able to play with him at the next level would definitely be unique and would be something different,” said Poole at the NBA Draft Combine. “I think he’s an amazing coach and really solidified himself at the college level. I think everybody was surprised when they heard the news.”

Beilein dealt with many highs but very unusual lows during his time at Michigan.

Just two seasons after taking a team with five rotation freshmen to the national championship, his preseason top-25 ranked team was struggling and lost to the NJIT Highlanders. Caris LeVert and D.J. Wilson, eventual first round picks, were on the remaining roster that lost to Rutgers, who projected to finish dead last in the expanded Big Ten Conference in 2015.

Derrick Walton Jr., the starting point guard and one of six players battling ailments during the turbulence spoke on the up-and-down time.

“Things happen,” Walton said. “We had a little more bumps in the road than the average team, but we’re not harping on it at all. Things happen all throughout the year. This just happened to us. We’re just taking it in stride and you learn from it, you stay positive. You can’t cry about it. You’ve just got to get through it.”

The Wolverines would lose in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament and finish 8-10 in regular season conference play with an underachieving 16-16 record, consequently missing the NCAA Tournament.

“What I’ve learned in all these 40 years is that you don’t know what to expect,” Beilein said during the wild December of that season. “Anything can happen. Just as crazy. You’ve just got to adjust.”

In fairness, that year’s team lost Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, all to the 2014 NBA Draft. When all three players were drafted, it became the first time Michigan had at least three draft picks since the 1990 NBA draft.

“In terms of X’s and O’s, he’s a basketball genius,” Stauskas said on ESPN Radio last week. “In the NBA, it’s a little bit different. You’re dealing with guys who are sometimes 30, 35-years-old and who have all the money in the world and players sometimes feel like coaches can’t tell them anything. So that’s why the communication part is so key and that’s what I think is going to be the biggest adjustment for him.”

The Free agent guard’s chances of securing a roster spot next season may have gone up, since Beilein will coach the team he played for last season.

Erie Community College Nazareth, LeMoyne, Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and finally Michigan’s head coach in April of 2007. Over 40 years of experience. Beilein is 829-468 (.639) as a college coach. Statistically speaking, it is as solid as solid gets.

An incentive to make the jump was being able work with the Cavs’ assistant general manager Mike Gansey, whom Beilein coached in Morgantown, West Virginia. Location also mattered most, as he referenced the Detroit area.

While the ex-Wolverine has an uphill battle in the resurgence of his current team, John Beilein’s unconventional path will guide him through unfamiliar territory in the NBA – sans LeBron James.

“I love Michigan, I love the area, I want to stay close by,” Beilein said to the Detroit Free Press. “This is the next best thing to (what) the Pistons were. I plan on staying in Ann Arbor. Kathleen, with the grandkids there, we’ll stay for at least a year while I just get a nice place to rent in Cleveland. See how it goes.”

Evando Thompson can be reached at or on Twitter @ethmps.