John Beilein's career path is a fascinating artifact, wholly unusual in college basketball.
Advancement in the modern coaching world requires coaching talent, of course, but it also places a primacy on professional networking unseen in most fields. If you're not a noteworthy former player, you had better come from a visible coaching tree. It's best to have a legend in your résumé's recommendations bullets. Even then, getting ahead means lobbies at the Final Four, attending as many coaches seminars as will have you, and constantly maintaining relationships not only with college coaches but with recruiting gurus, AAU runners and high school coaches. You start as a grad assistant, you slowly work your way up, you get a decent assistant's job, and maybe, maybe you then start thinking about your own program. And oh, by the way: This process never ends.
As your humble author discussed at length at the Final Four, Beilein's rise to a national title bid at Michigan skipped a vast majority of those steps. He has never been an assistant coach. He got his start at age 22, as the head coach at Newfane High School. At each new job along the way -- Erie Community College, Nazareth, Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and then Michigan -- Beilein managed to check off every level of the sport, from high school to juco to NAIA to Division I. He earned the Michigan job by updating classic, antiquated systems on both ends of the floor, two-guard front offense and 1-3-1 defense, not because he preferred them but because they best obscured the talent disparity his teams usually faced.
In April, at age 60, after nearly 40 years of coaching, Beilein finally reached the mountaintop. This weekend, Michigan made that symbolic achievement financially concrete, awarding Beilein with a contract extension through the 2018-19 season. The new deal will pay Beilein $2.45 million annually, a far cry from the $12,000 paycheck Beilein earned in his first college job at Erie CC.
It's been a remarkable journey, and you get the sense that Beilein -- who is never happier than when he's in his office, lost to visions of the perfect basketball in his mind's eye -- wouldn't change a season. There is just one downside I can see: The nagging feeling Beilein could have found his Michigan earlier.
I mean that not as an indictment of the coach himself, but of the culture that surrounds him. For decades, Beilein toiled in relative obscurity, steadily turning mostly inferior assets into winning teams. For the most part, he kept his head down and coached, focusing on little else than each new game and each new season. But that is rarely enough to land a top-flight college job. University administrators and boards of trustees are notoriously cautious, and athletic directors are never keen to stake their own employment on risky unknowns. If you don't come with high-profile approval, or have a "hot name," your chances of breaking into the highest levels of the profession become drastically slim.
In many ways, the college game is better about this than the NBA, which makes a hilarious yearly spectacle of recycling unsuccessful retreads. But as ever more money flows into the sport, programs could become even more cautious with their hires. The same candidates will be floated year in and year out, with only a tangential relationship to actual ability. Things like outreach and fundraising will grown in importance, as impossible as that seems. And it will take the Beileins of the world even longer to rise to the top.
Let's hope that's not the case. There are too many good coaches in the world at all levels -- coaches doing interesting, even revolutionary things on both ends of the floor, people who were born to coach and are willing to quit their cushy corporate marketing gigs and don the flair at Applebee's if it gets them there -- shut off from the insular college circuit already.
In 2007-08, when Beilein took the job at Michigan, he was already age 54. Fortunately, he found his final summit in time, and now he has anywhere between five years and a decade (when he will be 70) to cement a lasting legacy at a proud Big Ten school. But what if he had gotten there five years earlier? Or 10? Would Michigan have risen from the Ed Martin ashes even sooner? How many other John Beileins have been overlooked? How many other would-be national title contenders have stalled out for their oversight?