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March Madness: Michigan coach John Beilein doesn’t seek limelight

Michigan head coach John Beilein questions a call

Michigan head coach John Beilein questions a call during the first half of a second-round game against Louisville in the men's NCAA college basketball tournament in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 19, 2017. Credit: AP / Michael Conroy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In a world dominated mostly by brand name stars with oversized egos, unnatural hair colors and expensive suits, John Beilein stands out by not standing out.

The Michigan basketball coach is a grinder appreciated primarily by competing coaches, by his players and (some of the time) by Wolverines fans, a segment of whom wanted him run out of town after a loss to Ohio State in early February.

He is 12-2 since then, including seven victories in a row, and is here for a Midwest Regional semifinal against No. 3 seed Oregon (31-5) Thursday night, a game in which No. 7 Michigan (26-11) is a slight betting favorite.

Beilein — pronounced “BEE-line,” for casual fans who wouldn’t know him if he spilled coffee on them — said he is content not to have the cachet of fellow baby boomers such as Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino and John Calipari.

“I don’t care,” he said on Wednesday, smiling. “Our program is about Michigan, and it’s about those kids. I came up a lot different than everybody else, and I am blessed to be in these situations . . . I just wanted to teach social studies and be a high school coach, and somehow it morphed into this.”

“This” has not yet translated into an NCAA Division I title, as it has for active contemporaries including Krzyzewski, Williams, Pitino, Calipari, Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo and Jay Wright. (Beilein lost the 2013 national final to Pitino and Louisville.)

But Beilein, 64, has a track record that does not lack much else. He has 766 career victories, 508 of them in Division I, has taken Michigan to three Sweet 16s in the past five years and is the school’s winningest coach.

His most remarkable resume quirk: In 42 seasons of coaching, starting at Newfane High in his native Western New York, he never has been an assistant — not at Newfane, Erie Community College, Nazareth, Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia or since 2007 at Michigan.

Along the way he has proved why he is a coach’s coach. Take this year’s team, for statistical supporting evidence:

Michigan leads Division I in fewest turnovers per game (9.19), its fifth season in a row in the top 10. It ranks sixth in fewest fouls per game (15.1), its fifth season in a row in the top 10. And it ranks 10th in free-throw percentage, on pace for a school-record 77.6.

So, the fundamentals are there. But Beilein had to go beyond that to the human part of the job on March 8 when Michigan’s program was rattled by a plane mishap en route to the Big Ten Tournament that, with the coach’s help, brought the team closer.

The Wolverines won the Big Ten title for the first time since 1998 and at No. 8 became the lowest seed to win it.

Before Michigan faced Louisville in the second round of the NCAAs, Pitino called it the most difficult coaching task he ever had faced, given Beilein’s versatile style, and the short turnaround time.

The Wolverines won, 73-69, with much of unaffiliated America pulling for them. On Wednesday, even Oregon forward Jordan Bell said, “We have all been rooting for them to win, until now.”

Beilein said he normally tries to keep up with his emails and texts, but that over the past two weeks they have come in by the dozens.

“It’s great, and at some point I’ll answer them all,” he said, “but it’s not going to be until somebody tells me, ‘You can’t play anymore,’ and I hope it’s after a championship.”

TODAY’S

TV SCHEDULE

MIDWEST REGIONAL

n Oregon vs. Michigan, Ch. 2, 7:09 p.m.

n Kansas vs. Purdue, Ch. 2, 9:39 p.m.

WEST REGIONAL

n Gonzaga vs. West Virginia, TBS, 7:39 p.m.

n Arizona vs. Xavier, TBS, 10:09 p.m.

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