Michigan’s John Beilein not afraid to follow his dream

by | May 14, 2019 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

A dream is a wish your heart makes. That’s how the old Disney song goes. So let’s take the high road and say the dream of coaching an NBA team was just too strong a wish for John Beilein’s heart to turn down.

Better to think that. Better to think Beilein, at age 66, felt this was his last shot at something he truly wanted to try, than to think the alternatives, like this was poorly timed, like it was a slap in the face to the school he loved and the players he recruited, that it undermined everything we had identified with Beilein: integrity, commitment, loyalty and kids.

Because that would be unfair. I know some people are saying it. I know some maize-and-blue faithful are stunned, even hurt, after Beilein agreed to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers. They — heck, many of us — have a romanticized view of Beilein, connected to how he’s run his Michigan program for 12 years, how he handled the near-miss of a plane accident, how he braved a health scare, how he always seemed so humble and deferential — and yet won so much of the time, and took two teams to unlikely Final Fours.

He seemed to be all that is right with the college game.

So how could he leave it?

Why’d he leave? It’s simple

Well, here’s something to consider: Maybe the game left him. Remember, Beilein has been coaching “amateur” basketball since Newfane High School in the ’70s. But the game he loved coming up doesn’t work the same way anymore.

Today’s college game is a maddening enterprise of one-and-dones, kids holding up scholarships while they decide if the NBA is interested, de facto agents advising young talent and often having a bigger say in what the kid does than the coach or the parents.

Consider the success Beilein might have had if Moritz Wagner had stayed a fourth year, if Ignas Brazdeikis had stayed a second year, if Trey Burke or Mitch McGary had stayed a third year. The reload, reload, reload is exhausting.

From what I know, Beilein was tiring of this. It was wearing him out. So when a seemingly ideal situation for him arose — a young Cleveland NBA team, coming off a terrible season, low expectations, a high draft pick, an owner who clearly knows and admires Beilein — he jumped.

That simple.

Maize and through.

‘The perfect fit for me’

“John is a great human being,” Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said in a news release. “He cares deeply about his players … he defines the words class, integrity and character … great cultures attract others who hold the same values.”

In those words, you see why Gilbert is the perfect owner for Beilein — and why Beilein may have said yes. Nowhere did you read Gilbert saying, “He’ll get us to the Finals quickly.”

Owners who want a certain “culture” and coaches who are known for creating such cultures usually get along well in interviews. They often start out in harmony.

But history is not on their side. There’s a reason longtime college coaches don’t often succeed in the NBA. Rick Pitino didn’t. Jerry Tarkanian was a bust. Johnny Bach didn’t work out. Lon Kruger, either.

Beilein will be the oldest non-interim coach to ever join the NBA. He has spent a lifetime dealing with players who did not (officially) get paid. He will now coach players who get paid more than him. The “rah-rah, let’s win for the school” spirit will be gone. So will the control over what players say in the media. The crazed home fans that a big-time college team can count on will be replaced by disinterested, half-empty arenas if the Cavs match their 19-63 record of this year.

But there are other things that Beilein won’t have as well. He won’t have to chase high school kids across the country. He won’t have to feign interest during one home visit after another. He won’t have to worry about grade point averages. He won’t have the NCAA lurking.

Plus — and this is important for a great basketball mind like Beilein’s — it’s quite possible he will get to coach a cohesive group of young talent for longer than he would have at Michigan. Cleveland has a number of young players. They’ll get a high draft pick this year — possibly even Zion Williamson, depending on tonight’s lottery.

This means Beilein will be leading a lot of 20-, 21-, 22- and 23-year-old talent — something he’s already good at — and if they’re doing well, he won’t have to worry about them jumping to the next level after one year. He’ll get a chance to build something.

This is what we’ve come to: You actually have a better shot at developing a “team” in the NBA than in college.

“I felt very strongly about this new and exciting opportunity with the Cavaliers,” Beilein said in a statement released by Cleveland. “…. I love the position the team is in to build and grow and this was something I felt was the perfect fit for me.

“With hard work and dedication by all of us, we will grow this team day by day and reinforce a culture of success that sustains itself with strong core values.”

Maize and through.

‘Plans change sometimes’

By the way, it’s worth noting that Beilein also said, “Cleveland is a great city with amazing fans and I am really looking forward to calling Cleveland home for years to come.”

I’m sure he means that. But Cleveland’s proximity to Michigan will allow Beilein to also maintain his home in Ann Arbor, something he was keen on doing when he interviewed with the Pistons last year. My guess is he will live in Cleveland but travel back and forth, and his family doesn’t have to be uprooted. This is another appealing thing about the job.

And then there’s the money. The figures haven’t been announced, but it’s a five-year deal that seems likely to at least equal the $3.8 million annual salary he was earning at U-M.

And he’ll get his summers off. College coaching is endless, full time, there really is no offseason, whereas the NBA actually takes a break. Don’t think this doesn’t matter to a 66-year-old who may be weary of airplanes.

So when you add it all up, it makes plenty of sense. It’s just a jolt. This was kept pretty well under wraps, considering how fast news flies these days. Michigan fans woke up Monday morning to a news jolt, as if the Games of Thrones dragon just torched Crisler Center.

But the Wolverines will find someone for their program, which is more attractive as a result of Beilein’s 12 years than it was when he first arrived. And nobody stays forever.

The truth is, there is never a good time to leave. Even if Beilein had retired at U-M, his announcement would have had this same effect — players in flux, recruiting taking a hit — unless a successor was announced early. And that rarely happens.

Beilein once told me when recruits asked if he’d coach at Michigan for their entire careers, he would say, “I plan to” but would always add, “Plans sometimes change.”

This one changed big time. And it’s hard to fathom the Wolverines without their leader right now. But no reason to shout John Beilein out of town. Better to wish him luck on his dream, and watch him follow his heart. He did the same for a lot of young men in Ann Arbor, and they, and the team, were the better for it, while it lasted.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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