Michigan coach keeps the faith

KEVIN C. COX / GETTY IMAGES John Beilein is in his first Final Four after 35 years as a head coach.
KEVIN C. COX / GETTY IMAGES John Beilein is in his first Final Four after 35 years as a head coach.
Posted: April 05, 2013

ATLANTA - Joe Mihalich was surprised by a phone call Monday morning from a good friend who "is not a phone guy."

Once the basketball season begins, John Beilein is hard to get on the line. He gets locked in and stays locked in.

But it was Beilein, the Michigan coach, on the phone to the Niagara coach not 18 hours after his team smacked Florida to get Beilein to his first Final Four after 35 years as a head coach.

Beilein did not want to talk about how brilliantly his team had played against the Gators. He did not want to talk about the Syracuse zone his team would be facing Saturday in Atlanta. He did not want to talk basketball at all.

Every Final Four, Beilein and his wife Kathleen go to Mass and then breakfast with Mihalich and his wife Mary.

"We were on the phone for 15 or 20 minutes and we were talking Mass on Sunday at the Final Four," Mihalich said. "We weren't talking about zone offense. We weren't talking about C.J. Fair blocking shots in the corner. We were talking about Mass. He had already contacted a priest, but he was basically contacting me to see if I could take over [the planning])."

Beilein told his friend, "I am going to be a little busy."

That is John Beilein, one of the best and most down to earth coaches in college basketball. It was Beilein when he was at Erie Community College, Nazareth, Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan, a winner of 20 games or more at all stops and a friend at every stop.

He is what coaches call an NBA, Never Been an Assistant - Juco, NAIA, Division II, Metro Atlantic, Colonial, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Final Four.

Beilein is also a teacher. And when Beilein got the Richmond job, Mihalich made a phone call on behalf of former La Salle captain Jeff Neubauer, an assistant under the previous Richmond coach.

Beilein got the job while at the Final Four and arranged a breakfast meeting with Neubauer. Beilein explained that it was going to be a long interview process stretching over weeks.

"He ended up promoting me," Neubauer said. "I was in that restricted-earnings spot. He promoted me to one of his full-time recruiting assistants. That was my greatest break in this profession."

He moved with Beilein when he went to West Virginia and was seated next to him on the bench in 2005 when WVU had a 20-point lead on Louisville in the first half, the Final Four just 20 minutes away. Louisville came back to win in overtime.

After 8 years with Beilein, that was Neubauer's last game at West Virginia. He had learned his lessons so well that he was named head coach at Eastern Kentucky. This season, EKU won a school-record 25 games.

"This is a win for the good guys," Neubauer said. "For him to build the Michigan program up as quickly as he has and for him to achieve a goal of going to the Final Four, it's a great story not only for people like me who worked for him, but anyone who follows college basketball."

Beilein is doing this with one of the youngest starting lineups in college hoops - three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. Sophomore point guard Trey Burke was good last season, one of the country's best this season. Freshman big man Mitch McGary has completely blown up down the stretch.

"John Beilein really does help guys improve as players," Neubauer said.

Neubauer was so good an assistant that Mihalich gained serious credibility and his friendship with Beilein blossomed from there. When the Niagara job opened up in 1998, Beilein, who got his master's there, made a call on Mihalich's behalf.

Beilein grew up in a small town just outside Niagara Falls. He had no entrée to big-time basketball. He is a basketball lifer who earned every bit of what he has gotten. None of his 671 wins were given. And that is why so many of his brethren will be thrilled to see him on the court Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in the Final Four.

"I didn't think much about [the Final Four]," Beilein said. "I didn't think it was possible because I didn't think about it. I'm sort of always thinking about what can we do right now to be a better team, what can I do to be a better coach, a better father, a better teacher. Always, with the idea that if you do those things, anything is possible in your life."

Even this. Even the Final Four. But Beilein could not think about that. He was just thinking about the next practice, the next game, the next opportunity.

"You cannot get stale when you're fighting for your life in all those situations I was in," Beilein said. "Each opportunity that we embraced, the program was at a low or one of the lower points."

And when he left, the program was up, often way up. Michigan is no different, but this, a great school with a great basketball tradition, may be the final stop. He can not only win at Michigan, he can get a team to the Final Four, perhaps even a national championship.

"To watch him every day and seeing the standard of how things can be done," Neubauer replied when asked what he has learned. "His offensive philosophy was really attractive to me. People have compared it to the Princeton or the Triangle offense. It really opened my mind to 'hey, this is a great way to play basketball.' And it continually changes."

When somebody asked Beilein about the bus trips at Le Moyne, he said: "You upgraded us to bus trips. There weren't a lot of bus trips. It was more van trips with coach Beilein in van number one, Mike Rizzi, or Tony, my assistant, in van number two.

"No, I thought about that often. I often refer to the times we'd be up playing St. Lawrence or Potsdam or something, playing St. Rose or St. Michael's, being whiteouts, snowstorms, listening to the Syracuse-Georgetown game. Here we're trying to make it home alive sometimes.

"I thought about it often, what it would be like, having confidence maybe I could get here, but knowing it was going to be a long struggle to get to this point."

Now, his Michigan team, certainly the most talented team he has ever coached, will be playing Syracuse. Beilein won't be listening this time.

It was Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim who helped Beilein get the his first Division I job at Canisius. And he helped again when Beilein was in the mix for West Virginia.

"When the West Virginia athletic director called me, I told him to hang up the phone and call John Beilein back and hire him without waiting another minute," Boeheim said.

Michigan needed a miracle to beat Kansas in OT Friday night. Mihalich was flying home from a recruiting trip so he got the WiFi to follow the score. Beilein's team was down double-digits all game and looked hopeless. Mihalich had to turn his laptop off for landing. When he turned his phone on, Michigan had closed to within five points. As he passed the airport bar, Trey Burke hit that 30-foot three to tie it up in the final seconds.

There were two people in the bar for the overtime, Mihalich and a lady from Michigan.

"I got Mary on the phone while we were watching the game," Mihalich said.

Win or lose Saturday night, Mary, Joe, Kathleen and John will be getting together for Mass Sunday in Atlanta. The Final Four may only come once. The Mass comes every Final Four.

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