John Beilein doesn't want to be considered a savior, even though
he is expected to resurrect one of the nation's most underachieving
programs. He doesn't want to be glorified, either, even though he has
won at every level from high school to high-majors. He doesn't even
relish the media's fascination with his system. Heck, according to
him, his defense isn't even depicted correctly.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes [in describing his teams' style] is the 1-3-1 zone," Beilein said. "We practice it only about 10, 15 minutes a day, and we play it, oh, I don't know, sometimes five, 10 possessions or so for the whole game. We always play man-to-man. We're a man-to-man team."
Fine, coach. We'll let Bill Raftery know.
What's not at issue, though, is that Beilein now is the man in Ann Arbor, and his move to Michigan and all that goes with it -- his funky systems, the seven-figure buyout that came out of his own pocket, the huge expectations of a frustrated fan base -- make him one of this season's most compelling hires.
While former coach Tommy Amaker did a reputable job of helping the Wolverines recover from the Brian Ellerbe era, leading them to at least 22 wins in three of
his final four seasons in charge, the Wolverines never finished better
than 8-8 in Big Ten play during that time and have not qualified for
the NCAA Tournament since 1998.
Beilein, though, was lured by memories of what this program can be. The Wolverines were in the Final Four in 1976, won the national title in 1989 and were the buzz program of the early 1990s -- even if Chris Webber's compensation issues have made the NCAA pretend that never happened. And, despite the current lull, the program still resonates.
"Michigan still has a lot of buzz," said sophomore forward DeShawn Sims, a local product from Detroit. "… People who know what Michigan's program is all about know what an honor it is to attend the school."
That history and reputation made it worthwhile for Beilein to agree to pay a reported $1.5 million to West Virginia to get out of his contract there. Don't expect a quick fix, though. Michigan lost its top four players from last season's 22-13
squad, which lost in the second round of the NIT. Much of this preseason has been spent just teaching his new troops how to catch, pivot and make the passes necessary to run his unique back-cutting offense.
"Sometimes you're really fortunate to get one or two [players] it's really easy for," Beilein said. "We haven't found that yet at Michigan. I see a few guys that are coming closer and closer, but it only takes one to break down to have to restart everything back over again, so there's some things we just can't hurry."
For a system as complex as Beilein's, the youth on this roster might eventually be to his advantage. It gives his staff time to teach, en masse, the type of thinking and playing required in this system. There are fewer old habits to break, and there is the benefit of having those players for several years, which will help jump-start the learning curve for the next wave of newcomers.
"It doesn't take a long time for freshmen if they have nine or 10 veterans around them. It takes a very long time when everyone's new to do what we try and emphasize," Beilein said. "Most players need to learn college habits -- practicing hard, paying attention to scouting reports. There's a lot of that in college basketball that a lot of them don't realize. Then you've got the fundamentals. Many of them probably haven't played a 1-3-1 zone in their life."
Once his teams get it, though, look out. Beilein's teams went to two NITs and an NCAA in five seasons at Canisius. Ditto that at Richmond. Half a decade at West Virginia yielded four postseason berths, including an Elite Eight, a Sweet 16 and last season's NIT championship.
Perhaps more than the actual achievements, though, Michigan fans
should be excited by Beilein's ability to coax the best out of the
talent on a roster.
He's a total, true package, in my opinion, of a coach, an innovator, a positive role model for all of us in the coaching field.
"He sees plays and concepts on the court no other coach could, and every game we played, we were always more prepared than the other team," former Mountaineer Mike Gansey, now plying his trade professionally in Italy, wrote via e-mail. "On and off the court, he is always picking you up, and his presence just makes you feel good about yourself and makes everything easy, and you can just go out and play."
Maybe it made it easy for Gansey and his teammates. It certainly doesn't for Beilein's opponents.
"There's nothing I can compare to trying to prepare for his offense. It was the hardest thing we ever had to defend because they truly took advantage of you," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who faced Beilein annually in the Big East. "As much as you think that you're just going to be able to play, John does something in a very quiet, unassuming way. He creates confidence in his players, and they run their system impeccably. They can adjust in the midst of games, and they play enough different defenses [to keep you honest]."
Part of what drives rival coaches' respect for Beilein is that he has worked his magic with players who weren't heavily recruited by his peers. Calhoun noted that players like Kevin Pittsnogle -- who
actually was recruited by former coach Gale Catlett before turning
into what Beilein called a "prototype" center for his offensive system
-- wouldn't have fit in other programs nearly as well.
It will take some time for Beilein to find more of those players and get that mix right at Michigan. His first team is working hard, but with an extremely rugged nonconference schedule that includes Georgetown, Duke, UCLA and Butler, and the 18-game Big Ten slate, this could be a long season. Wolverines fans will just have to keep faith in Beilein' track record and note progress in terms other than wins and losses.
"He's a total, true package, in my opinion, of a coach, an innovator, a positive role model for all of us in the coaching field," Calhoun said.
What more can you ask for in a new hire, even one who doesn't understand all the fuss?
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at email@example.com.