Michigan coach John Beilein could be forgiven if he approached the Final Four with a sense of finality, a celebration of accomplishment.
The former Division III basketball player climbed a rung at a time with seven previous stops -- tiny off-the-map outposts such as Nazareth, Le Moyne and Erie Community College, his first college job in 1978 -- that included a relatively massive assist from Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse coach he'll oppose in Saturday's national semifinal.
"Jim was talking about the 2 3 zone back in 1975, 1976, 1977 when I began coaching as a high school coach," Beilein said. "Stayed consistent at community college at Nazareth. Crossed path at Le Moyne college in Syracuse. So we became friends during that time and I have had great respect for him. Along the way, he assisted me a great deal in actually getting my first Division I job at Canisius College. I believe he had something to do with me going to the Big East at West Virginia. He was very instrumental."
Beilein was one of nine children and grew up in Syracuse Country in Rochester. His mother's family, the Niland Family, is "the first family of coaching" in the area and has roots so deep that one of his uncles worked for Buffalo's NBA team. Survival wasn't a term any of the coaches in the family takes lightly given the nomadic lifestyle the profession ensures.
"You cannot get stale when you're fighting for your life in all those situations I was in," Beilein said. "Each opportunity that we embraced, the program was at a low, or one of its lower points. So we would say, Okay. That clock is ticking. They'll be with you the first, second year. You don't start turning it around, there's going to be somebody else. So you're in a survival mode. When you're in survival mode, you find ways to improvise, to get better, self examine yourself daily. As a result it keeps you sharp. It wasn't intentional. I'm talking survival. You have four children. You're trying to make it. You got to do what you have to do to make sure that you can do that."
The only active college coach with 20-win seasons at four levels of coaching, Beilein earned notoriety at West Virginia (104-60 in five seasons) on the heels of consecutive 22-win seasons at Richmond from 2000-2002.
He landed at Michigan with a five-year contract in 2007, and did so with a resounding thud. The Wolverines went 10-22 and lost 13 conference games. Now in his sixth season, Beilein said it's easier to find support, even from folks who didn't see the turnaround coming.
"Programs like Michigan were so revered to me, and I knew the opportunity was there to really do something special because they hadn't won," Beilein said. "If they had been winning like crazy, I may not have been driven to it. But the fact that their had been this hiatus of 10 years, that's what drove me."
Michigan won the Big Ten title in March, the first time since 1986 the Wolverines collected the conference trophy. The Wolverines spent several weeks with the No. 1 national ranking in the national polls, but as a No. 4 seed many experts thought the first and second games of the draw -- against South Dakota State and VCU -- would erase Michigan. Instead, the guard tandem of national player of the year Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway steered Beilein to Atlanta.
It could be a defining moment for a program most associate with Final Four failure and Chris Webber's ill-timed timeout against North Carolina.
Beilein isn't one to let moments -- even the Holy Grail weekend of college basketball -- shape him. He confessed Thursday that he never thought of a national championship as a reality. He preferred to keep a macro view of giving his best, and handling the outcome.
"I didn't think it was possible because I didn't think about it," he said. "I'm sort of always thinking about what can we do right now to be a better team, what can I do to be a better coach, a better father, a better teacher. Always with the idea that if you do all those things, anything is possible in your life.
"So for me to be sitting at this podium right now, being in this Final Four, certainly when we went to West Virginia and we came to Michigan, the possibility of getting here one day rose. You just never know. ... It's tremendous, but pretty much the way I have lived my life, try to do your best and anything can happen, good or bad. And you better be able to deal with it either way."