John Beilein's road to Michigan, Final Four far from a beeline
ATLANTA -- It was 1989, and John Beilein was a Division II coach at Le Moyne when he took his wife with him to the annual coaches convention at the Final Four in Seattle. As he recalls now, Beilein and his wife had to leave after the semifinals, and he missed Michigan's last-second win over Seton Hall in the final.
"I do remember this very vividly," Beilein said on the eve of Monday night's title game. "I heard 'Hail to the Victors,' the best fight song in the world. Kathleen and I looked at each other and said, 'That is the best fight song I have ever heard.'
"It's so eerie when I hear it today that it ended up being my destination."
Life is funny that way. Beilein, who was hired away from West Virginia in 2007, put the Wolverines in their first championship game since winning the title 24 years ago. The opponent was top-seeded Louisville, which is coached by Rick Pitino, who accepted the Michigan job in 2001 but then changed his mind before it ever was announced and followed his wife's wishes for him to take the Cardinals' job instead.
Pitino at first resisted because he had won the NCAA title at Kentucky in 1996 and didn't believe he could return to coach the Wildcats' bitter intrastate rival. "She wanted to go back to Kentucky where she saw the family so happy for eight years," Pitino said of his wife, Joanne. "I said to her, 'The Kentucky coach can't coach at Louisville. You're just not getting it.' "
Luckily for Beilein, Joanne Pitino won that argument.
Michigan obviously wanted high-profile back in 2001, but what it wound up with in Beilein was a coach from the opposite end of the spectrum than Pitino. It took Beilein 17 years working at the high school, junior college and Division II levels before he landed his first D-I job in 1992 at Canisius. He moved from there to Richmond and then West Virginia, picking up admirers along the way.
The difference between himself and Pitino is not lost on Beilein. "I've watched his teams for a long time," Beilein said of Pitino, who was named Monday to the Hall of Fame. "I bought his tapes back in the day when he was putting out all those great [instructional] tapes."
Asked if it's getting harder for coaches to follow the back roads of college basketball to reach the top, Beilein said he and his wife discussed that recently because his son, Patrick, is a Division II coach. "I don't know whether people would trust a Division II coach to go to Division I," Beilein said. "They should, but they probably don't.
"I believe that, if you can coach, you can coach. But there's a perception that you've got to have a pedigree . . . I hope I'm holding some type of flag right now for all those Division II, Division III, NAIA, junior college coaches that really were some of the best coaches I ever coached against, knowing they could be here, too, right now if they had the same breaks I had."
Beilein insisted the possibility of coaching for the national title never was something he dreamed about. His goal simply was to build teams that could get into the NCAA Tournament.
"I always thought if we did our job, we would need breaks to go our way to get to this point," Beilein said. "Breaks have gone our way, but I have some of the greatest young talent and players I've ever been associated with. That's helped more than all the breaks and all the coaching."