SAN ANTONIO – On John Beilein’s first date with his wife way back in 1977, he proclaimed that he wanted to someday coach against Bob Knight. Considering he worked as the coach of Newfane High School at the time of his prediction, it ranged somewhere between brash and outlandish.
But over the proceeding four decades, Beilein has inched his way up the ladder in an incremental way few ever have. He climbed from Division III (Nazareth) to Division II (Le Moyne) to low-major Division I (Canisius) to mid-major (Richmond) to high major (West Virginia).
Now in his 11th season with Michigan, he’s twice taken the Wolverines to the national championship game and lost.
On Monday night, No. 1 Villanova thumped Beilein’s No. 3 Wolverines, 79-62, leaving him stuck on 799 career wins and with the sport’s ultimate back-handed compliment. Beilein, 65, is the best coach in college basketball to not win a national title. (He’s just ahead of West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, who has never reached the title game.)
Beilein is a virtual lock to someday reach the Basketball Hall of Fame, has reached a pair of Final Fours and may be the most respected offensive mind in the modern game. His long journey again came up just short, much like against Louisville in 2013.
“I think John has some really good years left,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who watched his old friend courtside on Monday night. “It’s always tough when you get there – he was the underdog to Louisville and the underdog here. When you’re the underdog and you don’t win, it’s not like you did something wrong.”
There’s part of the essence of Beilein that’s still that high school coach back in the late 1970s. By the opening minutes on Monday night he’d already ditched his suit jacket and the sleeves of his plain white dress shirt were unbuttoned at the cuff and rolled halfway up his forearms. He looked more like your junior year history teacher prepping for a D-Block history lecture on the Battle of Bunker Hill than a millionaire coach on the precipice of a career crescendo.
Beilein had the best line of the off-day press conferences when he said that Jay Wright would still look like George Clooney after the game and he’d still resemble the perpetually disheveled detective from Columbo.
A wrinkle in Michigan’s preparation added to the high school motif, as Beilein held up multiple play calls on white pieces of paper on the sideline – jumbled phrases like “Circle X Oh-No” and “Weave 2 Toppy.” It was yet another nuanced adjustment in a career filled with them, as Michigan apparently had communication issues against Loyola Chicago and needed help communicating its plays.
There wasn’t much to second-guess in Michigan’s effort or gameplan on Monday night. The Wolverines played the same dogged defense that became their hallmark this season in the first half, clogging the passing lanes. They led by as many as seven points nine minutes into the game, as versatile 6-foot-11 dynamo Moe Wagner gave Villanova fits with his inside-outside game.
“It’s amazing,” Boeheim said of Beilein’s overall journey here. “He’s won consistently, the same way, at every level. He’s a great X-and-O coach, he takes relatively good players, but not too many highly recruited ones, and molds them into a team. He can win with anyone, it doesn’t matter what players you give him, he can win. Not everyone can do that.”
When Boeheim finally won the title in 2003 after years of heartbreak and two prior trips to the Final Four, some of his most poignant comments revolved around how much it meant to win that final game. Perceptions change, opportunities arise and a wave of warmth and goodwill overwhelms a championship coach. “You try and say it doesn’t matter,” Boeheim said on Monday night. “It matters.”
He added: “It’s hard to win. It’s really hard to win. It’s pretty hard to get to the Final Four and really, really hard to win. Even though it’s a great feeling. If you don’t win, it doesn’t mean you’re not a great coach.”
On their first date in 1977, John and Kathleen Beilein saw the movie, “The Other Side of Midnight.” It’s an obvious parallel since he saw the basketball version of it late Monday. Beilein’s team had won 14 consecutive games, including blowing through the Big Ten tournament, stunning Houston on the signature shot of this NCAA tournament (thanks, Jordan Poole) and evolving from preseason unranked into a smoldering juggernaut.
“That is a very sad locker room right now, not because we lost the game, but because they know something special just ended,” Beilein said after the game.
But an unflinching and marauding Villanova team brought midnight to this remarkable Michigan run, one of the best coaching jobs in Beilein’s decorated career. As Beilein’s career enters its twilight, he’s a long way from Newfane High School and achingly short of the lone accomplishment that’s eluded his sublime career.
“John Beilein is one of the greatest coaches,” Wright said, “of all time.”
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