Sixth year equals new frontier

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- John Beilein gathered his team around him in the visitor's locker room late on Jan. 18, 2011, pulled them in tight after their fifth consecutive loss, and looked into their eyes.

Despite a team on the brink of falling apart, he never doubted himself, never doubted what he had planned to do. So after the Wolverines lost to Northwestern 74-60, he said what seemed blasphemous at the time. He told them they would make the NCAA tournament.

"Everybody looked into his eyes and we believed it," senior captain Josh Bartelstein said. "We knew we were struggling, but we weren't as far away as people on the outside thought."

Nine days later everything changed. The culmination of seasons of preparation started to break through. Michigan beat Michigan State in East Lansing for the first time since 1997. The culture Beilein had tried to instill into his program, the plan he had laid out when he took the Michigan job in 2007, started to take hold.

Less than two seasons later, Michigan is far beyond hanging on for an NCAA tournament berth. The Wolverines shared a Big Ten title last season and are ranked No. 4 in the country less than a month into this season with the same blueprint Beilein has always used.

The difference? He's around to see it play out for the first time.

After decades of being the plucky underdog, being known as the coach who could pull every ounce of talent out of a player as he plugged him into his offensive system, this is different.

For the first time as a Division I coach, Beilein is at a program for a sixth season and with that, the most talented roster in his career. After years of having very few, if any, NBA-caliber players, he now has a handful in whom scouts have expressed interest.

As he runs a program with a state-of-the-art arena, a year-old practice facility and a team coming off a share of the Big Ten title, he understands his situation has changed.

"This is just unique in that it's the sixth year and for the last 20, year six we've been rebuilding and just taking over a new program," Beilein said. "That's what's different. I'm never comfortable.

"Probably I can be more efficient because I know the landscape a little bit more."

He has always strived for efficiency, planning out every moment of his day from his practice plans to meetings to even how he grills steak, chicken and fish on the barbecue over the summer. There's a stability there, too, one he had never really encountered as a Division I coach.

All these years, all the stops he made, from his days at Erie Community College to Nazareth, LeMoyne, Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and now Michigan, Beilein has always been a rebuilder.

He expended all his energy redoing the culture of a program, installing his system, his philosophies, his brand of basketball. Then, right when it was on the cusp of greatness, right when it would be turning a corner into seeing his vision for a basketball program rebuilt, he would leave.

A new project would call. A new school would ask him to help. Off he would go, starting all over again.

Michigan was different. When he took over in 2007, he became sick of moving. His entire family had moved to Ann Arbor with him. He became a grandfather over the past six years. And he wanted to stay and finish something.

"When you've been a bit of a nomadic coach, you don't want to always do that," Beilein said. "You want to build a program and maybe you can do it well enough you can enjoy the fruits of it.

"I've been a head coach since I was 22 years old. That's a lot of time. Rebuilding a program, it takes a lot of you."

He inherited a Michigan program recovering from the Ed Martin booster scandal which wiped away the Fab Five years, a program that even when it had talent could not reach the NCAA tournament, a program with sagging attendance and ancient facilities.

But he also took over a program that was a national champion in 1989 and once had a tradition of sending players to the NBA and teams to the NCAA tournament. This was his goal. Restore Michigan to what it once was.

Much of what has happened from 2007 to now is due to the once-nomadic, now-stable head coach. He revamped his staff after his team finished 15-17 in 2009-10, bringing in assistants Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan and promoting Jeff Meyer, a former head coach at Liberty, to a full-time assistant.

He started to listen to his players more, too. He integrated the ball-screen Jordan and Meyer used at Butler into the Michigan offense. He took the mid-major defensive toughness all three of his assistants brought and assimilated it into his defensive principles.

His new staff re-energized recruiting, going after top players and recognizing potential stars such as sophomore point guard Trey Burke and freshman forward Glenn Robinson III when they were underrated players.

"It was like fishing," former Michigan guard Stu Douglass said. "They were nibbling at the line and no one would really bite. Tim [Hardaway Jr.] jumped on and Trey jumped on and Jordan Morgan committed very early. Guys just bought in.

"You never had those doubts. You just knew it would take a little while to get those players he wanted and build the program he wanted."

The talent arrival led to a different Beilein, one who instead of constantly rebuilding could look at ways to improve instead of initiate. He could focus on the small things which take a program from good to great, from great to elite, instead of merely fighting to return a team to where it once was.

"He will never say it," said his son Patrick, who is in his first season as a head coach at Division II West Virginia Wesleyan. "But he is starting to see a vision of what he has always evolved that plan into."

For the first time in his career, John Beilein has it all. Less than two seasons after it could have fallen apart, he has the talent, the facilities and the big-name program with which to work.

Now instead of having to rebuild, he can grow with something he built all on his own.