Michigan coach John Beilein’s goals never changed through 36 seasons and four different levels of coaching at the college level.
Now, the long-time coach has a chance to move one step closer to a national championship in the NCAA men’s basketball national championship at the Final Four. The Wolverines head into Saturday’s game against Loyola with a chance to face either Villanova or Kansas on Monday. For Beilein, however, it’s not about that.
“It never has been the goal to be in the Final Four,” Beilein said when talking about his coaching philosophy March 26. “It would be nice to get there. 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.”
There you’ll find the secret of Beilein’s uncanny ability to exceed expectations. He’s done that more often than not while turning the Michigan men’s basketball program into something that’s expecting the same success now as football and men’s hockey. That’s the same men’s basketball program that bottomed out in the post-Fab Five years.
Now, the Wolverines are a clean, consistent and championship-level program looking to finish the run they almost completed in Beilein’s first Final Four appearance in 2012-13. He cited the magical moment of the last run – a long-range, game-tying 3-pointer by Trey Burke against Kansas that’s a go-to screen-saver or header photo for Wolverines’ fans.
Beilein went largely underappreciated until that first Final Four run in 2012-13. Since that, it’s been about exceeding expectations with the style and class that caught the eye of a 6-foot-11 power forward from Germany in 2014.
“I remember watching the Elite Eight, Michigan vs. Kentucky, with my dad,” Moe Wagner said during the West Regional last weekend. “Nobody had mentioned Michigan at all at this point, and my dad was like, ‘This is crazy with the music, the band, you’ve gotta go there. You’ve gotta go to college.'”
When Beilein made the trip to Germany, it became that much more real for Wagner. He looked over at the coach and couldn’t believe what was happening.
“This dude was on the TV and is now in the elevator and in my living room. It’s kind of weird because America is a whole other world when you’re a kid because you have to wake up to watch the games. … He made the trip over to see me.”
That’s what it’s about. It’s not about the two Final Four appearances, two Big Ten regular-season championships, two Big Ten tournament championships or eight tournament appearances that have led some to question whether Michigan is a “basketball school” now.
“There are great teams that don’t get there, and it’s not as much about coaching and players as somebody like Jordan Poole throwing in a 35-foot shot with his legs spread,” Beilein said.
Michigan doesn’t have to be a basketball school to enjoy those moments. It’s still a campus that revolves around the football program, which has had three coaching changes since Beilein arrived in 2007-08. Jim Harbaugh faces the same demands that date back to Fielding Yost. Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke faced those in the last 50 years, and expectations never change. It’s almost impossible to meet the expectations of college football’s winningest program.
Same goes in hockey, where Mel Pearson has the program back in the Frozen Four but faces the same expectations as legendary coach Red Berenson. If anything, the basketball team has overshadowed that success in some ways.
There’s no reason Michigan can’t be successful in all three. The Wolverines pulled that off on all fronts in the 1990s. The football program won a national championship in 1997 and produced Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson. The basketball team made back-to-back Final Four runs with the Fab Five in 1992-93. The Wolverines won the Frozen Four in 1996 and 1998; the last national championship among the three sports.
Michigan wasn’t a football, basketball or hockey school. It was successful on all fronts because of those championships.
Now, Beilein has the basketball program in position to wins its first national title since 1989 with a style that gets to the roots of who Michigan claims to be – “Leaders and Best.” If not for a matchup against Loyola, then the Wolverines would be the team most casual fans not residing in East Lansing or Columbus would be pulling for. It’s a chance to bring that championship back to Ann Arbor.
For Beilein, however, a national championship won’t affirm anything other than that he’s no longer the best coach in Division I without a national championship . He’s already been doing that for 36 years through four different levels.
It’s never been the goal, always about the moments. Now, Beilein is being rewarded – and appreciated – for it like never before.
Isn’t that what it’s supposed to about it?