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In 1975, John Beilein became the head coach of the junior varsity boys basketball team at Newfane (New York) High School, a small team in a small town about 30 miles east of Niagara Falls, which is to say … the middle of nowhere.
He was 22 years old. He was the eighth child of nine to a Western New York millworker and apple farmer. He was a graduate of Wheeling (West Virginia) Jesuit. Not a ton was expected. Why would it be? Yet over the ensuing 44 years, Beilein would prove better at developing talent, meshing a team and drawing up game plans than nearly anyone in the game of basketball.
He’d go on to be the head coach at Erie Community College, then NCAA Division-III Nazareth College, then D-II Le Moyne, then D-I Canisius — all in New York — followed by Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan, where he’d lead the Wolverines to two national title games.
On Monday, at 66 years old, he became a first-time head coach in the NBA, hired with a five-year contract by the Cleveland Cavaliers, ending a résumé ascent that boggles the mind — never once an assistant, never once fired, a picture of meritocracy at work.
The move is fascinating on numerous levels and from both sides.
First, the timing. The Cavs have spent a month trying to find a new coach for their rebuild. A slew of coaches have been mentioned, namely young, up-and-coming NBA assistants. Now, out of nowhere, a Detroit-based owner — and Michigan State alum — hires the Michigan coach in a complete shift of gears.
And it went down about 36 hours before Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery, where the Cavaliers have a 14 percent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick — in other words, Zion Williamson. If that happens, then suddenly the post-LeBron James Cavs job becomes a lot more coveted in NBA circles, and Cleveland might have attracted a more experienced coach. There’s an additional 26 percent chance Cleveland gets in the top three, where Duke’s RJ Barrett and Murray State’s Ja Morant are waiting.
Get any of them, but especially Zion, and then the 19-win Cavs become an intriguing team. For Beilein, that’s a very nice situation to walk into.
Of course, there is also a nearly 60 percent chance they wind up in spots 4-6, where the draft is considered a complete crapshoot.
Did the Cavs jump too soon? Or did they hedge their bets. Or was it Beilein reaching/hedging?
Tuesday night will tell.
Then there is Cleveland going the college route, which for the most part through the years has proven to be a bad idea. College coaches have often proven to be overwhelmed and underprepared.
Beilein, however, should be an exception. It’s not that he’ll immediately turn the Cavs into a winner. That’s not how coaching works in the NBA. You have to have players. In 1996-97, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, mostly minus an injured David Robinson, won 17 games. The Spurs drafted Tim Duncan (now retired) and haven’t missed the playoffs since.
Yes, Beilein is an NCAA coach with no NBA experience, but he’s a coach’s coach. He’s not a recruiter’s coach. He didn’t keep ascending through the college ranks because he brought in an annual parade of McDonald’s All-Americans.
He’s rarely had truly great recruits, even at Michigan. He built every program by developing players and out-game-planning opponents. He’s a basketball junkie who still cuts his own game film because he finds it valuable to his understanding of what needs to be done.
The NBA game is different than the college one, and there will be myriad adjustments, particularly in-game. However, in terms of bringing in a coach capable of improving a young roster — notably rookie guard Collin Sexton — Beilein seems like a safe bet. His players have almost always gotten better.
Even if the Cavs aren’t contenders in three or so seasons and Beilein, for the first time, gets broomed, its young core likely will be better positioned for the next coach. Cleveland isn’t looking for a coach to get it over the hump for a championship right now. It can live with Beilein learning in-game intricacies for the long-haul plan. It is similar to Boston hiring former Butler coach Brad Stevens — just decades difference in age.
Which brings up a notable number: 66. A first-year NBA coach at that age? Well, if Beilein shows players he knows what he is doing, they will follow him. The idea that coaches (or bosses in any work environment) need to “relate” to their employees is foolish. Competency is always king.
As for Beilein, why now? He had Michigan rolling to the point where it could contend for Big Ten and national titles each year, yet without the pressure of all or nothing. Coaching the Wolverines is an incredible and lucrative job ($3.8 million a season). Football is still most important there, and the fan base tends to just want a basketball program that is befittingly good, but mostly something to take pride in.
Yes, Michigan fans want to win, but they aren’t going to melt down over a second-round loss.
That’s a lot to give up, but Beilein has long wanted to test himself at the highest level. He never won an NCAA title, but coming close twice leaves him with little else to prove. In a one-and-done tournament, the best team doesn’t always win. He also gets to walk away from the stress of recruiting, which no coach who made the jump to the pros has ever missed.
He’s been involved in NBA discussions before, most notably with the Detroit Pistons just a year ago. This time he said yes. At his age, there may not have been a next time.
So now he gets an NBA gig, now he might coach Zion, now he gets to see if he can conquer the final frontier before the window closes forever.
Forty-four seasons ago, he blew the whistle as a JV coach and never stopped climbing.
For him — and the Cavs — why not see if he can take down one last mountain.
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