ATLANTA -- John Beilein thought I was going to call him a dinosaur, but that's not where I was headed. Michigan's head coach is in the latter stages of his career, no doubt, but he's not unique in his old-school mentality in which coaching on the floor takes precedent over just about everything else. There are countless "coaches" left in this game.
What makes Beilein different, though, is the path he took to his first ever Final Four.
It started as the junior varsity head coach in the mid-1970s, then as the head coach at Newfane High. There were three seasons at Erie Community College, one at Division III Nazareth College, nine at Division II LeMoyne, five at Canisius, five more at Richmond, a handful at West Virginia and the past six at Michigan.
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Every level, and never as an assistant coach. Except one time when he held a clipboard for Bo Ryan at USA Basketball.
"It felt so odd," Beilein said.
There is no one like Beilein. Can't be. In a day and age in which coaches take the fast-track to head coaching jobs through their recruiting prowess and connections with players, Beilein did it the old-fashioned way. Maybe he is a dinosaur.
He has steadily climbed the ladder, inheriting difficult jobs nearly every step of the way and turning them from middling programs to winners. Beilein has 672 career victories on his résumé, but many came in virtual obscurity.
Beilein was literally digging ditches, shortly after graduating from Wheeling Jesuit, when he was hired as the head JV basketball coach. The requirement of him taking the job, though, was that he also coach football and baseball. Two years later, the varsity coach retired and Beilein took his first step.
Then came the job at Erie, where he was also the golf coach.
Next up was Nazareth and LeMoyne -- where he was in charge of travel for all sports programs and also began to develop a reputation as one of the best non-Division I X's and O's guys in the business. He won 163 games in nine seasons at LeMoyne, and was hired by Canisius after the school missed on its first four candidates.
Five years later, he turned down the Richmond job, but changed his mind three days later and wound up winning 100 games in five seasons with the Spiders. Beilein was once again down the list when he took the West Virginia job in 2002, behind Dan Dakich and Bob Huggins.
"I don't know if I've ever been the first choice," Beilein said with a smile.
But it doesn't matter now. Beilein has never been known for his recruiting prowess, but he has been able to evaluate and coach. There was no shortage of skeptics when he pulled a shocker and left Morgantown for Ann Arbor six years ago. This wasn't going to end well. It was just a matter of time because in order to succeed at Michigan, you have to be able to recruit Detroit.
Beilein hasn't locked down the state, though. It still belongs to Tom Izzo and the rival Michigan State Spartans, but now it's Beilein who's sitting in Atlanta instead of the man down the road who has been known as Mr. March.
Beilein took Trey Burke when few others believed he could even play at this level. He took Nik Stauskas when many felt he was a mid-major player. He got Glenn Robinson III before he became a top-100 player. He even secured a highly touted kid, freshman big man Mitch McGary, defying the stereotype that he couldn't land elite recruits.
Even Beilein has changed through the years.
He started running a combination of man defense and the 2-3 zone back in the day when it was prevalent in upstate New York. Then he went to the 1-3-1 zone in his time at Richmond and West Virginia and now he's playing almost exclusively man-to-man defense.
"If you don't change, you won't be coaching for long," Beilein said.
He's in his 35th season and has learned on the fly. He has picked up principles from watching opposing coaches, from videos, because he hasn't even had that mentor. He has made plenty of mistakes, from his first job as a junior varsity head coach to his days now in front of thousands of fans at Crisler Arena.
Junior varsity. High school. D-III. D-II. Low-major at Canisius, mid-major at Richmond, high-major at West Virginia and now competing for the sport's grand prize at Michigan.
"It's amazing," Beilein said. "My dream was always to be a Division I coach at the highest level, at a top-25 program. That was the original goal from the moment I got into coaching."
Few, though, figured Beilein would get all the way here.