We are fascinated by John Beilein’s decision to leave Michigan, where he was the quintessential college coach, for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the classic example of why a certain tier of college fans have no interest in the NBA.
At first glance, it makes no sense.
Beilein is 66. He has worked his way up from high school coach to community college coach to a string of small schools to West Virginia to Michigan.
He has thrived by coaching up his talent, which is basically impossible to do in the talent-driven NBA. He has lived and breathed the higher principles of sports; the NBA lives and breathes higher salaries.
John Beilein in the NBA makes as much as sense John Wooden in the NBA.
Let me take a guess. . .
Because John Beilein has coached successfully at every level except the NBA, this is the next logical step. If he wants to see whether his principles apply at the pro level, why not?
And while the Cavaliers, except for a few LeBron James moments, are about as dismal as it gets in the NBA, would seem to be at the lower end of attractive franchises, that’s partly the point.
Can you imagine the satisfaction and legacy if Beilein does the impossible by winning in Cleveland? Oh, and remember that the Cavs are very much in the hunt for Zion Williamson. Players like Kevin Love and Collin Sexton are already there. And in the NBA, you need 2½ men, including your main man. Everybody else tends to be role players.
Meshing the parts is one of the things Beilein does best. Then again, the list of stud college coaches who have flopped in the league that David Stern built is a memorable (or forgettable) one.
Here’s another thing. I’m guessing that John Beilein, who made about $3.5 million at Michigan, is getting a raise in his five-year Cleveland deal. A big raise.
And I say Bravo to that. If a guy like him can give a gift like that to his children and grandchildren, why the hell not?
Some people will tell you John Beilein was fed up with the recruiting chicanery at the college level. Maybe. Although he certainly found ways around it. He always seemed to have a raw project from Europe. A son or two of great basketball players (Glenn Robinson Jr., Aubrey Dawkins etc.). His teams always played smart.
When Michigan hired him from West Virginia, I wondered if he was the right fit. In my mind, it made sense for the Wolverines to have a guy who could recruit the immense talent in Detroit and Beilein didn’t fit that mold.
Didn’t matter. Beilein defies molds. He not only won at Michigan with an interesting roster not filled with stud recruits. Even while he was successful at Ann Arbor, he basically was No. 2 in the state of Michigan, which Tom Izzo has ruled for more than two decades.
Again, I don’t think Beilein cared about that. He’s a pure basketball coach.
I will root for him to succeed in Cleveland. Because he stands for the things that are right about sports and does it with class. And because that would shake up the NBA.
But I am more interested in the fallout of his departure. Michigan has been at or near the top of the Big Ten for years. It’s a competitive league. With Beilein gone, there might be more room at the top.
A lot depends, of course, on the next Wolverines coach. Michigan is a very good job, but there are no guarantees—in Ann Arbor or anywhere else, as my buddy Rankman has lamented in discussing UCLA’s travails.
Names being thrown around include Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens, if these erstwhile college coaching studs decide to throw in the NBA towel. I’m guessing those are merely reaches.
I have also seen names like Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Northwestern’s Chris Collins and Florida’s Mike Davis mentioned—although those don’t seem obvious, either. Why would they want to leave? Why would Michigan be that enamored of them?
If you think about how Beilein ended up in Ann Arbor, you need to look deeper. I’m not sure I know enough about other candidates. Even athletic director Wade Manuel, who played defensive tackle for Bo Schembechler, will be rolling some serious dice here, no matter who he hires.
Some lesser possibilities also are intriguing. People like the two Michigan assistants, Saddi Washington and Luke Yaklich. Among head coaches, Providence’s Ed Cooley and UCF’s Johnny Dawkins stand out.
Here are a couple more that I find interesting. . . Davidson’s Bob McKillop and Loyola (of Chicago!) coach Porter Moser. These guys are cut from the same cloth as Beilein.
Which means I wouldn’t expect them to get the job.
Because of all the success Beilein created, the stakes are higher now than when he took over an under-achieving program. And that tends to mean making a safe hire. Which has its own dangers. That said, do you think all the ADs who reached for Beilein regret their decision?