WVU coach made mark at lower levels, too
Here was John Beilein reporting for duty in Division I basketball at Canisius College, discovering those three eager young faces beaming back at him, waiting to begin work for the new coach.
All Beilein had ever done as a basketball coach was, well, everything. So, he had a modest question to ask his assistants.
"What do you guys do?" Beilein wondered, and there was Mike MacDonald, Dave Niland and Phil Seymour unsure of how they were supposed to answer that question.
So, they kind of laughed.
"I'm serious," Beilein asked. "What the hell do you guys do?"
Back in the spring of 1992, Beilein had been a college head coach for 14 seasons and never had a full-time assistant coach. Before that, Beilein had been a high school coach and it had always been mostly the same thing.
He swept the court and drove the vans through snowstorms and kept pushing on one of the the most arduous climbs to an NCAA Sweet 16 that the coaching profession has seen in a long, long time.
Good luck finding a coach in the Big East who would've traded his roster for West Virginia's before the season, and now, good luck finding more than one other Big East coach still alive in the NCAAs.
Beilein represents every small-time coach who never had the chance to get out of the bush leagues, who could've done the job in Division I but those monkey-see-monkey-do athletic directors never gave a shot. Ask Beilein about the best coach he's ever faced, and he'll probably still tell you it's Herb Maghee at Philadelphia University.
Since Canisius gave Beilein his shot thirteen years ago, though, there's been no stopping him. The nation watched him turn losers into NCAA Tournament teams at Canisius, Richmond, and now, West Virginia.
Yet, they'll never know that his best work had been done with no one watching, with LeMoyne College of Syracuse, and Nazareth of Rochester and Erie Community College outside Buffalo.
He was always his own boss, and no one in the history of basketball had won 20 games at four different college levels until Beilein had done it. And that doesn't count winning 20 games at the high school level, which he did too.
When Beilein arrives at the Albuquerque Regional for Thursday night's game against Texas Tech, in some ways, he'll be something of the odd-man out among the four coaches. There's Bob Knight, living legend. There's Louisville's Rick Pitino, the movie star. There's Washington's Lorenzo Romar, the next big thing.
And there's John Beilein.
"He's the coach's coach," says MacDonald, who replaced Beilein eight years ago as Canisius' coach. "John doesn't win the press conference. He doesn't win signing day. He just wins what you're supposed to win: the games."
His has been the hardest road to a pedigree-free glory, with thousands of miles of New York State Thruway in his wake, with volleyball and tennis team schedules carved out in his athletic department jobs. He had no mentor to pick up a phone for him, no Five-Star connections to send him on his way. It's been just Beilein, and just his track record.
He had been jobbed endless times on the road at small colleges. Niland, now an incredibly successful Division III coach at Penn State-Behrend in Erie, says, "You never see those refs again on the road at our level, so basically, John was still compiling those winning records going [5-on-8]."
Niland was a guard for Beilein in 1986 at LeMoyne, at a time when the rest of the sport was bowing before Pitino's mad bombers at Providence. Pitino was considered a visionary for his early exploitations of the 3-pointer.
Funny thing, Niland remembers, but Beilein was recruiting shooters --- and teaching shooting --- that season at LeMoyne and beating teams with a spread floor and tons of 3s himself.
"We were able to win a lot of games, because John figured out a way to use that shot when others didn't have a sense of it yet," Niland says. "From positions one through four on the team, everyone could shoot the three, and eventually, you could not play for him unless you could shoot it. And I don't think that's changed much.
"Because he had never been an assistant anywhere, not even in high school, he was forced to develop his own style of how the game should be played. That's a lot of the reason that he is so innovative now, always coming up with unique stuff, and always changing."
In his Division II days at LeMoyne, Beilein couldn't get interviewed for the jobs at St. Bonaventure and Cornell, and lost out late on the Colgate job. Eventually at Canisius, he would get to the NCAA Tournament and the NIT Final Four, beating Big East and Pac-10 teams to get to Madison Square Garden. At Richmond, he took over a 13-win team in 1997 and promptly won 23 games, capped off by capturing the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and upsetting No. 3 seed South Carolina in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.
He turned down St. John's and Rutgers to stay at Richmond, and eventually finished second to Skip Prosser for the Wake Forest job. He stayed clear of jobs where he feared that he would have to compromise himself in the sordid AAU scene of major cities.
Four years ago, West Virginia was the biggest mess of all -- so bad, in fact, that Bowling Green's Dan Dakich took the job, worked less than a week, and called his old boss to get his old position back.
Within his first three years, Beilein's best returning player and his top recruit would transfer out, refusing to buy into his beliefs of sharing the ball. Now, West Virginia has reached the Sweet 16 with transfers from St. Bonaventure (Mike Gansey) and Northwestern State (D'or Fischer), without a true point guard or a back-to-the-basket big man. Nobody could figure out who any of his guys were in the Big East, until of course, they started to lose games to WVU.
"I remember recruiting a kid one time where his coach demanded that you had to offer him a scholarship before we could even talk to him," MacDonald remembered of his Canisius days with Beilein. "John said, 'How can you offer a scholarship when you haven't even talked to a kid?'
"His values were, and are, that the scholarship was very valuable, that it meant something and you would never just throw it around. He has values and ethics and morals, and unfortunately, those aren't things that you always hear with basketball coaches now. And you should.
"He has never changed. John Beilein has stayed grounded to every belief he ever had. That all was true of him in Division II, and that won't change now because he's in the Sweet 16."
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com. His new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty is available in bookstores nationwide and on this link to Amazon.com.
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