Beilein gets his keys, and more

ATLANTA – This is what one coach in tonight’s national championship of college basketball was asked about Sunday:

His chance to be the first coach in history to win a title at two schools; his recent election to the Naismith Hall of Fame, which will be made official today; the fact his son was named coach at Minnesota last week; and the fact a racehorse of which he is part owner won the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday and will be among the favorites at next month’s Kentucky Derby.

This is what the other head coach in tonight’s game was asked about:

How life was at places such as Erie Community College and Canisius.

The NCAA for the first time decided to hold the Division II and III national championships in the same city on the same weekend as the Final Four this year, and you might have thought at one time such a setting would be ideal for John Beilein.

Perfect, even.

His is a resume littered with stops at schools not found on any map of distinguished programs, hardly the sort of fast-track journey others have taken to reach the pinnacle of their sport.

True story: There was a time when all the guy wanted was a set of keys to the gym, because that’s what he thought defined a coach.

He undoubtedly will remember that tonight when leading Michigan into the NCAA final against Rick Pitino and Louisville, when he matches Xs and Os with one of history’s best.

He will remember the keys.

“I was coming out of (Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia), and all I wanted were those keys,” Beilein said. “My uncles were coaches and all had keys to the gym. That was my goal. Get the keys. As much as this has been a fortuitous path, it has also been an interesting one. If you can coach, you can coach. But there is a perception out there that you have to have a pedigree. You have to come up a certain tree to know how to coach.

“There are a lot of guys — Division II, Division III, NAIA, junior college — who are some of the best I have coached against who could be right here in this place if they had the same breaks I had.”

Mostly, he made his own.

Pitino has coached at places such as Kentucky and Louisville in college and New York and Boston in the NBA. Beilein has been at places such as Le Moyne College and Canisius. He took West Virginia to an Elite Eight and Sweet 16, but it was always presumed that his coaching skill would never be completely realized until his roster had legitimate pros.

Like the ones he has at Michigan.

He is the offensive answer to Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, a coach who recruits as well as any nationally to a specific system. He was convinced long ago to go old-school with a two-guard front to increase spacing, but always wondered what it would be like to run all his sets and ball screens with great athletes.

Like, well, the ones he has at Michigan.

“John is a great teacher, one of the best offensive minds in basketball,” Pitino said. “He gets guys who can pass, catch, shoot. If you get on them, they can all ball-fake and drive.”

Beilein comes from great stock. His mother’s cousins were the inspiration for the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” and he grew up in the 1950s learning about D-Day and Normandy and the hell it was. One of his uncles was killed in a steel mill the same day another uncle returned home on V-E Day. Tough stock.

He never had a coaching mentor. He went to clinics over the years, read books about basketball, bought tapes about basketball, talked basketball with anyone who was interested.

Before his players took the court here Saturday to meet Syracuse in the semifinals, he gave them a Norman Dale-type speech from “Hoosiers,” the one about the court being 94 feet and the rims being 10 feet high and that they didn’t need to look up into the sea of 75,000-plus faces to know where they were at.

Then the 60-year-old head coach who once drew plays at Erie Community College didn’t take his own advice.

“I gave in and took a little peek,” Beilein said. “I was like, ‘Holy Cow.’ It was amazing to see. I wanted my team to see a poised coach that saw it as just another game. … It’s going to be thrilling playing for a (national championship), putting Michigan back in that environment.

“It was at the (1989) Final Four in Seattle when Michigan won it the last time. I remember vividly hearing, ‘The Victors,’ and looking at my wife (Kathleen) and saying, ‘That’s the best fight song in the world.’ That’s why it’s so eerie to hear it today.

“It ended up being my destination.”

It seems an ideal place for a coach who paid such dues.

Perfect, even.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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