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John Beilein’s 44-year climb to the NBA is basketball’s version of the American Dream

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Where does Michigan basketball go now without the man who turned their program back into a perennial national title contender?

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In the midst of an offseason dominated by stories and gossip related to the second FBI trial in New York, college basketball saved its most surprising spring headline for something totally absent of scandal.

John Beilein is leaving Michigan at the age of 66 to become the new head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He exits Ann Arbor as the program’s all-time winningest coach, producing 278 victories, four Big Ten titles, and two trips to the national championship game in 12 seasons. His 18 NCAA tournament wins since 2013 are tied with Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari and Roy Williams for the most in college basketball.

It feels like a safe assumption that we won’t see a career coaching arc like Beilein’s ever again. In an era where “getting into coaching” seems to require a connection to an elite player or an established name already in the game, Beilein got everything he received off his own merits.

From high school to the NBA over 44 years

Beilein has never been anything but a head coach, starting at New York’s Newfane High School in 1975. His slow progression from there to the top of the sport is truly remarkable when you lay it out ...

*Four seasons at Erie Community College (1978-82)

*One season at Division III Nazareth College (1982-83)

*Nine seasons at Division II Le Moyne (1983-92)

*Five seasons at Division I Canisius (1992-97)

*Five seasons at Richmond (1997-2002)

*Five seasons at West Virginia (2002-07)

*12 seasons at Michigan (2007-19)

*Five-year deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers

This is the sports form of the American Dream personified. No fast-tracking because of name recognition or anything else behind the scenes. For over four decades, Beilein simply pulled himself from the bottom rung of the coaching ladder all the way to the top with his own precision and skill. We likely won’t ever see a climb like it again.

Why now?

Beilein has been listed as candidate for a number of top-tier jobs throughout his time at Michigan. He was also consistently reported to be one of the top candidates for the Detroit Pistons head coaching job last summer.

So what about this particular situation and this particular time made it right for Beilein to bolt out of Ann Arbor?

The most popular initial response has centered around the possibility Beilein was unhappy with the state of the college game. The last year and a half has provided the public with fairly significant proof that a healthy chunk of the high-profile college hoops world has been operating outside of the NCAA rulebook. Even so, just one of those high-profile head coaches, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, has lost his job as a result.

Perhaps this puzzling lack of cause and effect didn’t sit well with Beilein, who has long been considered arguably the cleanest coach in the sport. In fact, back in August 2017, CBS conducted an anonymous poll of college coaches and asked them who they believed was the high-major coach who genuinely did everything by the book. Beilein was the answer for 26.6 percent of the coaches polled. No other head coach received better than 10.5 percent of the vote.

But it might be more simple than that. Beilein had never been in one place for more than nine years before his current run with the Wolverines. He seemed genuinely interested in jumping to the NBA last summer, but the Pistons’ decision-making process took so long and dragged so far into the summer that Beilein eventually had to pull himself out of consideration.

With his top three scorers from last season all appearing bound for the NBA, Beilein was faced with a decision that would have been tough at any age, but which had to have seemed especially heavy at 66: Start the rebuilding process again at Michigan, go through a couple of down seasons and then make another run at your first national title; or try your hand at the NBA, something which every prominent coach who has never experienced the league has at least thought about. Beilein rolled in the second direction, and in the process set up one of the more intriguing coaching storylines in some time for 2019-20.

Michigan’s next move

For the first time since the 1980s, Michigan is in the midst of a stretch where it has won at least one NCAA tournament game in four straight years. Its 18 March Madness wins since 2013 are the most over any seven-year stretch in the history of the program. The task for the Wolverine brass is now to make a hire who can keep this unprecedented momentum rolling.

Somewhat ironically, the most recent high-profile program to be looking for a new head coach this late in an offseason was Michigan’s arch-rival, Ohio State. The Buckeyes fired longtime head coach Thad Matta in early June 2017 and hired Chris Holtmann away from Butler just days later. Holtmann was Big Ten Coach of the Year in his first season at OSU and is widely considered to be one of the brightest young stars in the sport.

Recent history could repeat itself, as current Butler head coach LaVall Jordan figures to be a top candidate for the vacancy in Ann Arbor. Jordan is a Michigan native who was a star Wolverines assistant under Beilein from 2010-16. The only wrench in this setup is Jordan is a Butler alum, a fact which might make him more hesitant to take the same step up that Holtmann did two years ago.

Given everyone’s satisfaction with the current culture surrounding the program, Michigan could also choose to keep things in house and hire one of two present assistants: Luke Yaklich or Saddi Washington. Washington has been Beilein’s top assistant in recent years, but Yaklich has long been considered a future coaching star. He’s also the man who gets the credit for being the architect of Michigan’s recent rise to defensive prominence.

As always, there are also going to be suggestions that Michigan should swing big and contact names like Brad Stevens, Billy Donovan and Jay Wright to at least “make them say no.” Assuming they all do (or that no such attempt is made), the fallback options for the Wolverines in this case seem solid enough that the search won’t fall victim to the same comedy of errors that enveloped the searches of both St. John’s and UCLA earlier this year.

That’s at least one comforting thought for a fan base that is suddenly being forced to adjust to life without the man who had become Michigan basketball in recent years.