WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Tears welled up in Michigan coach John Beilein’s eyes in the hallway Thursday at Verizon Center as he described seeing his daughter after a Big Ten Tournament win.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Beliein helped Michigan players, band members and cheerleaders safely exit their plane after itat windy Willow Run Airport in Michigan. Everyone could smell the jet fumes as they evacuated. When the engines finally shut down with a loud boom, Beilein said he thought the plane was exploding.
The record books will show Michigan 75, Illinois 55 at the Big Ten Tournament made Beilein the Wolverines’ winningest all-time coach. Any one of the 109 passengers who lived through the crash will remember Thursday as so much more.
“I never feared for my life at any time, but there were a lot of circumstances that could have been very different in those few minutes,” Beilein said. “I think we’ll find out exactly what happened, but there’s a lot of brave people involved in that that allowed us to be here today.”
Inside the Michigan locker room, with thescattered across chairs and the floor, Wolverines players all had stories about the harrowing experience.
“That’s a moment you really can’t relive because it’s so intense,” forward Moe Wagner said. “You’re just trying to leave and just get out of there. I didn’t really realize it was real until it was over. I didn’t sleep much [last night]. After an experience like that, you’re grateful you’re alive. I was a lot more grateful this morning than the morning before about all of us being alive.”
Forward D.J. Wilson was in a window seat by the wing with his headphones on as usual, watching the plane prepare to take off.
“I feel him press the brakes,” Wilson said. “In the back of my mind, I knew we only had so much runway left, and I see ahead of me a fence and a ditch. We ran through the fence and I’m like, ‘Oh no, the ditch is coming.’ We hit the ditch, got stuck. A couple teammates and managers swung open the emergency doors. Everybody ran out both sides.”
Guard Zak Irvin was sleeping a couple rows ahead of the exit door when he was jolted awake by the pilot braking.
“It took me a bit to figure out what was going on,” Irvin said. “I had to put my shoes on.”
Forward Duncan Robinson was in a window seat listening to music and getting close to dozing off as the plane went down the runway.
“I just kind of felt like we should have been off the ground by then and we weren’t,” Robinson said. “It was chaotic.”
Beilein was trying to find his seat belt to fasten since he always waits until the last minute. He held onto his wife Kathleen, who elected not to fly Thursday morning with the team after the experience.
“It seemed like we skidded 100 yards, and then when I looked it was like four football fields,” Beilein said. “We were skidding for a long time. … Mark Donnal is opening the door on one end. A manager is opening it on another. The cheerleaders are getting out. The slides are going. It was remarkable execution. If our team could execute like that all the time, we’d never lose a game.”
Thank goodness for gallows humor. Michigan players and coaches had to rely on it as they recounted the chaotic moments over and over again to new waves of reporters. At one point, Robinson laughed as he recalled how fast teammate Sean Lonergan got out of the plane.
“He was sitting on the window on the other side of me, and he was like one of the first people out,” Robinson said. “I still don’t understand how. He was like crawling over seats, doing whatever he could, which was pretty funny in retrospect.”
Reserve forward Mark Donnal, who opened one of the emergency doors, temporarily lost his phone while jumping off the plane. He had to call his mom from someone else’s phone.
“It’s kind of an awkward call you never want to make to someone that you love,” Donnal said.
Beilein was “one of the first ones out of the plane and had to help a lot of people out,” Donnal said. “It shows a lot about his character. He didn’t run as far away as a lot of people did. He was focused on helping the other families and everybody else.”
There was no way Michigan would try to fly again Wednesday to get to a Big Ten Tournament game at noon Thursday. Counselors greeted the players to talk through their feelings.
Beilein let the players decide if they would board a plane again less than 24 hours later, or forfeit the game. “I’m with you either way,” Beilein said he told the team.
Several Michigan players described very long, difficult and honest conversations multiple times Wednesday. Who was OK to get on a plane again? Who wanted to get on a bus and go back to Ann Arbor? Beilein said Michigan’s ability to secure the Detroit Pistons’ private plane eased some players’ concerns.
Wagner, the 6-foot-11 forward from Germany, was one of those players skeptical to fly again. Like many on the plane, he didn’t get much sleep Wednesday before the 6 a.m. wake-up call in Michigan for a basketball game that tipped off six-and-a-half hours later in Washington D.C.
“I’m usually not scared, but today I was legitimately scared,” Wagner said. “But you’ve got to jump on the horse as soon as possible, and I think we all did that and I’m very proud of everybody.”
Donnal likened flying on Thursday to wanting to avoid driving for a while after a car accident. As the plane took off, “you kind of have [the crash] in the back of your mind,” he said.
Even Beilein, the face of calm Wednesday, admitted to being jumpy on Thursday. “I think the two most difficult parts were the takeoff and the landing,” he said. “I don’t know. I just trust my faith a lot in those situations.”
The Wolverines landed at Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia and fought rush-hour traffic for 90 minutes to reach downtown Washington around 10:30 a.m. The Big Ten delayed tipoff by about 30 minutes.
“To be completely honest, it was just a relief once we got from the airplane to the bus,” Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. said. “For me, after that, I kind of let my shoulders hang back.”
After a life-and-death situation, the Wolverines could just play. They were, as Beilein described his team more than once, “so connected.” They played, he said, as if they had a new season.
Because the plane crash is still under investigation, Michigan couldn’t get access to its luggage with all three sets of uniforms. So the Wolverines wore their practice uniforms with amusing-looking yellow jerseys and blue shorts.
They played loose and free and smiled and laughed. They responded to one of those moments in life when it would have been easy to tuck and run. All the cathartic emotions from the harrowing experience played out on a basketball court as if the Wolverines were in a make-it-take-it pickup game.
Michigan will use the washer and dryer at its Washington, D.C., hotel to clean the practice uniforms before playing No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday. Many players only have a couple boxer shorts and their warmup suits to wear. Beilein has one suit and plans to visit a drug store for toothpaste.
“We’re here, bare bones,” Beilein said.
They’re here. They’re alive.
“I don’t know what to think right now. I really do not,” Beilein said, standing outside his locker room. “I would normally be in there and thinking about Purdue already and not enjoying this win. I’m not even thinking about Purdue. I will tonight. I was not emotional at all in this game ... until the end when I saw my daughter.”
Then the new winningest coach in Michigan basketball history, with tears building in his eyes, took a deep breath. Michigan won.