Michigan’s John Beilein has won more games than most, but it’s the game he hasn’t won that’s missing on a sparkling resume’.
It’s not entirely fair, but beating Villanova in Monday’s championship game will transform him from a really good coach to a great one in the eyes of many.
“I think that is something that people underestimate,” said Michigan forward Moe Wagner. “I mean, he’s a really good coach. He’s coached for 40 years. We do so much together and we really want to win this because he’s been so close, and that’s something he hasn’t accomplished yet. You really want to leave it all out there for him.”
History remembers the winners. Those guys from Houston’s Phi Slama Jama were great but they played second fiddle to Jim Valvano’s 1983 North Carolina State team. Michigan’s Fab Five? They had the cool long shorts and black socks but they were reduced to bridesmaid status in the 1992 and 1993 title games.
Shoot, the late Rollie Massimino was a coaching legend at Nova but most casual fans outside of Philly only remember him most for coaching “Easy Ed” Pinckney and the crew to an upset title win over the powerful Georgetown Hoyas in 1985.
Life changed for Rollie’s former assistant Jay Wright two years ago when Kris Jenkins’ jumper found the bottom of the net as time expired against North Carolina in the championship game. Wright was a great coach before that jumper and would have been fine had his Wildcats not captured a championship but he knows he and his program are viewed differently because of that one magical moment.
“I think what changes is just people look at you differently after you’ve won it, mostly positively,” he said at Sunday’s media availability. “But sometimes if you don’t handle it well they look at you negatively. They just look at you a lot more. You just get a lot more attention.”
Wright remembers meeting Beilein while he was an assistant coach in his first year at Rochester in 1984. Beilein was the head coach at Division II LeMoyne College in Syracuse so the two would run into one another on the recruiting trail.
“You’d be on a (recruit) and you’d just hope you wouldn’t see John in the gym,” Wright said.
The two took separate paths to success. While Wright was cutting his teeth as an assistant under Massimino in the late 1980s at Nova through the early 1990s at UNLV before his first head coaching gig at Hofstra, Beilein never served as a college assistant, taking head coaching jobs at Erie CC, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia before landing in Ann Arbor in 2007.
While Wright has long been regarded as college basketball’s version of Pat Riley — with the designer suits, finely coiffed hair, and the rugged good looks — Beilein has more of the blue-collar, bootstraps perception which is typified by the intensity you see from his players, particularly on defense. At 65 — nine years older than Wright — Beilein cuts a good figure but doesn’t consider himself a head turner in comparison.
When asked which actors would play him and Wright if this tournament was a movie, he tabbed George Clooney to play Wright and the late Peter Falk of Columbo fame to play him.
“I’d like to say Kevin Costner, but I can’t go there,” he said to big laughs.
In Hollywood, Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington can be made to look like a great coaches but Beilein got here with real-life work ethic and coaching smarts. He came close to glory in the 2013 title game but Louisville’s Ryan Hancock couldn’t miss in the second half.
This is another great opportunity. Either perceptions will change with a win or Beilein will remain on a list of great coaches without a title, including DePaul’s Ray Meyer who had 724 wins — the same amount as Beilein — but made only two Final Fours; Eddie Sutton, who won 803 games and coached in three Final Fours; and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, who has 845 wins and two Final Four appearances, to name a few.
And if it happens?
“I honestly say I wouldn’t look at it any differently,” Beilein said. “I really would not. Others may. But I don’t think Kathleen and I would look at it any different. This is what, like 1200 games as a head coach. And it’s just like you hang in there and you just do your absolute best every single day. And some day you’re going to say, I gave it everything I had, and if I’m falling into my grave, that’s okay too.”
After a career that has spanned over five decades, Beilein still lives for this game and his players would would die to deliver him that elusive title title.
“I feel like that’s the only thing he’s missing in his career,” said guard Charles Matthews.