Until John Beilein had watched the success the Sacramento Kings and New Jersey Nets had with the Princeton offense, college basketball's best offensive mind confesses that he considered the possibility that his own system could work in the NBA. So, here was West Virginia's coach on his cell phone Thursday night, indulging a caller's premise that the pros ought to be dying to recruit him out of the Big East.
Maybe it would work, the coach was saying, but he was sure of this: Our conversation was destined to curse his Mountaineers with 10 straight losses.
Still, Beilein wasn't campaigning for an NBA offer, just answering a question.
"Well, the better the athlete, the higher the basketball IQ, the easier it would be to run our stuff," Beilein said. "The better the players, the better the system works."
Truth be told, if Beilein ever wanted to leave West Virginia, the NBA could be his most realistic route. His $3 million buyout clause only gets triggered for moves within the NCAA. As much as anything, that's the reason he turned down North Carolina State last spring, sources say, and why things never progressed with Indiana.
Before NBA executives consider the next generation of candidates in college – grow intoxicated by the pedigree of Florida's Billy Donovan, or the polish of Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt – they should consider the substance of the ultimate self-made coach: John Beilein. Every step of his arduous professional climb, his system has responded with spectacular success. And across the nation these days, there isn't a coach whose style has created more intrigue among his peers than that of Beilein's.
Nobody gets more out of less, and nobody has coached better in college basketball over the past five years than WVU's coach.
In the end, the two NBA executives with the deepest admiration for Beilein will never be the ones responsible for hiring him away to the pros. Rod Thorn and Jerry West are Mountaineers, born and bred, so the Nets and Memphis Grizzlies presidents are far too invested in the fortunes of West Virginia University to ever disrupt Beilein's brilliant professorship in Morgantown.
For starters, West has a son, Johnnie, on a basketball scholarship at WVU. Thorn simply holds Beilein in a regard that borders on reverence.
"He could coach anywhere and do really, really well," Thorn said. "He's one of the best coaches in all of basketball."
For NBA franchises willing to exploit the evolving rules slanted toward the offensive end and for those that embrace the surge of European marksmen into the league, honor passers and shooters and spacing on the floor, Beilein brings with him a system fit for the best players in the world.
The more everyone watches West Virginia, the more they ask themselves: What would ever happen if his talent was even comparable to those teams he's beating over, and over and over?
"Then I think he'd win even bigger," Thorn said with a laugh.
Beilein has made West Virginia a Big East power without Big East recruits, gone to the Final Eight and Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons without a current pro on his roster. He lost his top four scorers to graduation last year, signed a relatively unknown class of prospects and West Virginia is still somehow ranked 21st in the polls with a 13-2 record and a 3-1 start in conference.
Beilein beats Connecticut and Villanova with players those powers wouldn't have ever bothered recruiting. He is the most resourceful coach in the sport, born out of 14 years as a head coach at places like Eric Community College, Nazareth and LeMoyne before he got his break in Division I in 1993 at Canisius. His first day on the job there, Beilein arrived and met his three new full-time assistant coaches with an earnest question:
"What do you guys do all day?"
They laughed, but he was serious. He had never had a coaching staff. So he did everything. He tried it all. He kept notes on this offense he was creating, and he kept tuning it and kept perfecting it. Along the way, Beilein developed an offense described by one ex-assistant as a cross between Pete Carril's Princeton and Tex Winter's Triangle, a two-point guard set that is forever freeing shooters on drive-and-kicks, forever beating defenders backdoor for layups. What's more, they say his practices are the most brilliant tutorials on shooting and catching and passing anywhere. That's how the system works because the parts are freakish fundamental fits.
"I haven't studied the Triangle, but I know the concepts are the same," Beilein said. "If the Princeton is Japanese, we're Chinese and the Triangle might be Korean. They may not be the same languages, but there's a similar phonics there."
His system, forever evolving, creates the kind of spacing and passing that worked wonders with Carril's influence in Sacramento and New Jersey. Still, Beilein's offense allows for the spontaneity the Triangle gives that superb talent, like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. With the right team and the right personnel, Beilein has the blend of temperament and toughness to be a bold hire in the NBA.
He's egoless enough to understand that the players are the stars in the pros and that he'd need to surround himself with league assistants who can educate him on the pro lifestyle and mindset. The younger the NBA gets, the greater advantage there is to hiring teachers of the game. Only in rare pro jobs is this a caretaker's coaching profession anymore.
Too often, the NBA has made mistakes on college coaches whom they thought would win the press conference, whose success in out-recruiting opponents had been mistaken for out-coaching them. The pros have exposed empty suits, the way college jobs sometimes never do. Anyone who's ever coached on both levels will tell you that there's more coaching, more adjustments and more matchups to be manipulated in a pro night than most college basketball months.
"A lot of guys can sit down at a table and X and O, talk all about it, but most can't touch John in his ability to teach it on the floor and get guys to do it," Thorn said. "What he's done with this year's team is especially remarkable. They lost all their players, and he's got guys who didn't play last year, or weren’t big recruits – and it's just amazing how they still carve people up.
"He's an amazing teacher of the game."
Here's the job for Beilein, too: the Toronto Raptors. Bryan Colangelo is constructing a roster with something of a European model, building around franchise forward Chris Bosh and the No. 1 overall draft pick, Andrea Bargnani, both of whom operate with deftness on the perimeter. The architect of the Phoenix Suns, Colangelo went beyond the borders of conventional thinking by hiring an Italian professional league coach, Mike D'Antoni. What's more, Toronto is near Beilein's upstate New York roots and family.
Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni is expected to be Colangelo's choice to replace Sam Mitchell after this season, but the Raptors executive would be wise to consider the candidacy of Beilein. A lot of executives in the NBA would be, too.
Beilein wouldn't go so far to say that he would welcome pro interest, but he did concede that, "The bigger the challenge, the more that it fits into my way of life."
On his relentless career climb out of the basketball shadows and into the light, Beilein always believed his genius would work on the next level. And it always did. Rod Thorn is right: John Beilein is one of the best basketball coaches anywhere, and someone else ought to do what that old Mountaineer in Jersey would never have the heart to try himself – bring basketball's most inspired offensive mind to where it belongs: coaching the best players in the world.
- John Beilein
- West Virginia
- college basketball