Just call him Beilein the Builder

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Scott Ungerer hasn't played for John Beilein in a decade.

Yet there are times during practices at Michigan where Beilein forgets. He sees the same characteristics in Zack Novak that Ungerer had and goes into a time warp. Mentally, he leaves Ann Arbor in his head and returns to Richmond.

"I just call him Scott sometimes," Beilein said. "He's never met Scott, but you just forget. You're looking right at him. I'm surprised I don't call him Joe Herber as well. Same thing."

Beilein can't help it. His mind is wired that way. He is, above all, a basketball coach, and his focus on the sport almost causes him to have tunnel vision as he builds program after program into a contender. It'll leave assistant coaches laughing that he might not remember their names or call them by the names of assistant coaches who haven't worked for him in two decades.

They aren't offended, because he cares. A lot. But he is also the guy who at one point misplaced his car keys so often that former assistant coach Matt Brown said another assistant, Phil Seymore, bought him a car key finder one day to help solve the problem.

Those same assistants marvel at how Beilein will pull a play or a scheme from 25 years ago out to run against an opponent off the top of his head. Or how Beilein could remember jersey numbers that players he recruited wore in AAU ... after the player had finished his eligibility playing for the coach in college.

When those moments happen, Beilein gets the same look. He starts scratching his head. He combs his hair a little bit.

"Jeff Neubauer used to say he's like 'The Beautiful Mind,' " said former assistant Mike Maker, now the head coach at Division III Williams. "He's so ingrained in what he's doing and such a deep thinker.

"I don't know anyone who has been around him that hasn't improved as a basketball player or coach."

That beautiful basketball mind has turned the fifth-year Michigan basketball coach into one of the best in the country.

He is a coaching and tape-watching savant, spending hours a day breaking down film, planning practices and figuring out any sort of nuance for an edge. Almost all coaches do this, but Beilein is one of the best. It's why his teams are usually dangerous as the season progresses into February and March.

He's also a rarity in modern major college coaching -- the Division I head coach who has never been an assistant, never studied under someone else to give him knowledge and help him learn without being in the top spot.

It might explain why his teams, once he creates them in his mold, become so dangerous. The blueprint is there -- and he has an ever-expanding coaching tree -- but he is the master of the two-guard offense. It has been those offensive principles, as well as the continuing evolution of tough man-to-man defense sprinkled with 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones, that turned him into a coach who has won 376 games in Division I and 635 games in 34 years as a head coach.

"He can win anywhere and he can [win] with different kinds of players," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "His system fits every player. Sometimes, people think his system doesn't, but it fits great players and OK players.

"He can get offensive production out of anybody and he's a very solid defensive coach as well."

There is no magic, though, with how Beilein builds programs. It has been the same model for three decades, from his time at at Erie (N.Y.) Community College and Division II Le Moyne to his first Division I job at Canisius and then Richmond, West Virginia and now Michigan.

Build the base. Don't panic if an expected good season goes awry. Stay focused and positive, no matter what.

"It's just like building a home, it's really similar to it," Beilein said. "Establish a great culture where there's great team unity and great integrity and you're just moving forward. You may have spikes in both directions, but it's not deterring you. You might have a year where just everything falls apart.

"It does not deter you because [you] have the strength that you're building a foundation."

He learned this through trial and error and from advice gleaned from Boeheim, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun and his two uncles, Joe and Tom Niland. The Nilands were well-known coaches in upstate New York. Tom Niland gave Beilein his first big break when he hired his nephew to become Le Moyne's basketball coach in 1983.

Boeheim His system fits every player. Sometimes, people think his system doesn't, but it fits great players and OK players.

-- Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim

That hire moved Beilein to Syracuse, N.Y., where he met Boeheim. While the two didn't get together often, Boeheim paid attention to the younger coach in the central New York mid-sized city. After nine seasons -- only one of them under .500 -- the job at Beilein's hometown school, Canisius, opened.

Canisius fired Marty Marbach after a 49-94 record in five seasons. In the search, the committee reached out to the well-known coach two hours east of Buffalo, N.Y. -- Boeheim.

He recommended Beilein and set in course the program-building career that followed. Ten years later, Gale Catlett retired at West Virginia. The Mountaineers thought they had a replacement in Dan Dakich, but Dakich left the job after a week.

In the aftermath, West Virginia called a counterpart in the Big East for a suggestion. Again, Boeheim made a recommendation, this time a coach five-plus hours southeast of Morgantown, W.Va., at Richmond.


"It was easy," Boeheim said. "It was an easy choice. I've recommended quite a few coaches, and he was probably the easiest coach to recommend. He was very easy. I really pushed him at West Virginia.

"(West Virginia) called me and I said 'Well, you got lucky.' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Well, you can get a better coach.' So he hired John and he did, he got a better coach. He's one of the best coaches in the country. I think anybody will tell you that."

At West Virginia, Beilein had his biggest success. After coaching a young team early on, playing mostly freshmen and sophomores, that same group -- led by a tall, sharpshooting forward named Kevin Pittsnogle -- turned West Virginia into one of the better teams in the country, reaching the Elite Eight in 2004-05 and the Sweet 16 the following year.

After an NIT title with a young team in 2006-07, Beilein, who coincidentally had spent five seasons at each of his Division I stops, left for Michigan, where he would have to rebuild again.

Now, using the same principles he has at every previous stop, he has.

"He has a really high IQ for the game of basketball, and he looks at the details and is able to correct those details very quickly," said Beilein's nephew Bill Beilein, the head coach at Niagara County Community College. "Then, from that, he is able to get players to readjust really quickly. It all comes down to teaching and communication.

"Running his own system since he got started and never being an assistant coach, he's had to hone that skill the whole time. Now, he's working with higher-caliber athletes than he ever has, so the results are getting better and better."

It all goes back to the same thing -- the foundation he built and a singular focus. Every day, he still is trying to get better.

Beilein is always learning. That mind is always working. Whenever he watches a game on tape or television, he learns something. He describes his team's style of play as a compilation of every coach he has ever heard speak at a clinic or coach in a game. Because there is always something to pull, always a way to improve.

"It continues to evolve," Beilein said. "Some things have gone 360, some have gone 180, some have gone 90 and some have gone 5 degrees. You have to continue to be versatile and flexible in that area.

"You can't be resistant to change. But you can't change so quickly you never have a foundation, either. So there's a balance."

The balance is obvious: Over his coaching career, he went from not using the ball screen at all to it becoming a major part of his offensive philosophy. But there are other things he does that come from being a head coach almost his entire adult life.

And from the mind that never stops going.

"He's probably the smartest person in basketball I've ever met," said Brown, now the head coach at UMKC. "He's always asking questions, whether it is in scouting or adjustments we can make in the offense.

"He has an unbelievable mind."

It's a mind that has, in five years, turned Michigan into a winner again.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.