As the Wolverines sit just days away from their first Final Four appearance in two decades, it’s easy to forget how recently the storied program once sat amongst the disgraced.
Tarnished by scandal, records vacated, banners removed, Michigan’s basketball program was stained.
A once-celebrated sport–on par with the Wolverines’ football program, had been marred by major NCAA violations stemming from significant booster improprieties.
The accomplishments of the Fab Five era, namely the back-to-back title game appearances in 1992 and 1993, had been wiped from the Michigan record books. Michigan was forced to disassociate itself with one of its most recognized athletes of all-time—former NBA-star Chris Webber.
A couple first-round NCAA tournament exits followed. Two NIT championships, an achievement entirely un-Michigan-like, sufficed as some of the few highlights from 1997 until 2004. Under Tommy Amaker, who coached the program from 2001 until 2006, the Wolverines finished higher than fifth in the Big Ten just once and were NIT regulars.
The Wolverines had missed the NCAA tournament for nine straight seasons before the athletic department recognized a need for a change.
A program once known for its flare and sizzle, a trait impressed upon the program’s identity by the Fab Five, turned to the most unflashy coach it could find, John Beilein, in 2007.
A New Coach
Beilein came to Ann Arbor by way of West Virginia, where he had guided the Mountaineers to two Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight berth in 2005.
Known as a nomad who rarely settled in the same coaching position for long (he also had stints at Richmond and various small-time schools), Beilein developed a reputation for rebuilding programs. His success at each stop is almost astonishing. He’s the only current coach to oversee 20-win seasons at four different levels—junior college, NAIA, D-II and D-1, according to the school's website.
There couldn’t have been a better match for a program in desperate need of direction and stability.
The question wasn’t whether he would be able to instill his blue-collar virtues and famous two-guard set into Michigan’s DNA, but rather how quickly he’d be able to transform the program.
Changing Culture, Collecting Talent
It all began with Manny Harris, the raw but skilled 6’5’’ Detroit native who wanted to restore the luster of Michigan basketball as badly as Beilein did. Harris, an Amaker recruit, decided on playing for Beilein, and in turn, flourished as an all-around player.
In Harris’ first year he averaged 16.1 points per game, garnered second-team All-Big Ten accolades and became just the fourth freshman in program history to score at least 500 points. He also started all 32 games. By his junior season, Harris’ points, rebounds, assists and steals had all significantly increased while his turnovers went down.
More importantly, Harris, along with forward DeShawn Sims, whom Beilein crafted into a viable offensive forward, had brought energy back to the Wolverine faithful.
By their second year together in 2008, the Wolverines had finished 21-14 and made it to the NCAA tournament’s second round for the first time since 1998. That season Harris and Sims combined for more than 30 points per game and each averaged near seven rebounds a night.
The 11-win turnaround tied a school record after the team notched just 10 wins in 2007.
That year, two other eventual pillars had been introduced to Beilein’s culture as freshmen: guards Zack Novak and Stu Douglass.
Neither had star-quality talent and neither was especially athletic, but both had the attitude that Beilein was looking for in building his program.
“We wanted two solid kids we could count on,” Beilein told AnnArbor.com. “Kids that ran through the door at Michigan because they wanted to play in the Big Ten.”
Neither would go on to average more than 10 points per game in any season, but each played more than 30 minutes per contest throughout their sophomore to senior years. Beilein’s trust in them was a testament to their collective effort, not necessarily their talent level.
That overhaul in attitude has arguably been Beilein’s biggest contribution to the program. But were it not for recent upgrades in Michigan’s basketball facilities, it’s doubtful he could’ve ever attracted a team talented enough to reach the Final Four.
For years, Michigan’s basketball program remained in the shadows of its more publicized football program—more specifically, the Big House, whose attendance seems to grow by the thousands each fall.
But thanks to a $23.2 million practice facility completed in 2011, the basketball program no longer appears second-tier. The William Davidson Player Development Center, named after late Michigan alum and former Detroit Pistons owner, houses two courts, weight rooms, offices and film rooms.
If that wasn’t enticing enough for a starving fan base and recruits alike, the university also approved a $50 million-plus renovation to the Crisler Center, which enhanced the tired, worn-out-looking building by revamping its entire appearance. New atriums, retail areas and concessions stands, not to mention a new, giant HD scoreboard, highlighted the changes.
It wasn’t that long ago that Beilein not-so-jokingly toyed with the idea of “blowing up” the facility, as reported by Mlive.com.
New coach, new identity, new facilities. And it should be obvious that, given the resources, Beilein would eventually hit the lottery with recruiting.
Beilein has an eye for spotting talent.
Harken back to his first year in Ann Arbor when he inherited 6’8’’ forward DeShawn Sims, then a sophomore, who had scored just 3.4 points per game and played just nine minutes a night as a freshman under Tommy Amaker.
Beilein quadrupled his production as a sophomore as he became the team’s leading rebounder (5.4) and was second on the team in scoring (12.3) behind Harris.
Fast-forward to this year’s current roster. Any number of factors can lead a player to choose a particular school, and in Trey Burke’s case, part of his decision to play in Ann Arbor was due to a recruiting snub from a particular school in Ohio.
Growing up in Columbus, Burke was childhood friends with former Ohio State star Jared Sullinger and the two starred on the same high school team together. But when Sullinger got an offer from the Buckeyes, nothing came Burke’s way. He committed early to Penn State, then de-committed and nearly wound up at Cincinnati. But thanks to a last-minute call from his dad, Burke ended up under Beilein’s tutelage.
As ESPN’s recruiting expert Dave Telep wrote: “According to recruiting lore, Burke’s father called a final time asking Michigan if it was interested in Burke. If the answer was no, then Burke was going to Cincinnati.”
Burke was 84th in ESPN's top-100 rankings, rated at No. 15 at his position. Certainly no one envisioned the unrefined 6'0'' guard becoming the top point guard in the country. In that sense, Beilein hit the jackpot.
But his luck hadn’t run out. Entering this season, Beilein and his staff assembled a top-10 recruiting class, led by sparkling prospects Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.
Robinson, thanks to his dad, had notoriety, but the real coup was McGary, a mobile big man whose attributes hadn’t been seen in Ann Arbor for years. It was arguably the biggest commitment Beilein had ever landed, and with so many perimeter players, McGary would surely help balance the offense from the post. Not to mention, he had the motor to keep up with Michigan’s better athletes.
McGary had landed at Michigan, in part, because he was once a high school teammate of Zack Novak at Chesterton High, according to AnnArbor.com. For Beilein, persistence had paid off and he had one of the nation’s top big men to build around.
The Perfect Storm
This season has seen the Wolverines temporarily re-claim the No. 1 spot atop the AP Poll, defend Crisler Center (17-1 at home this year), reach the Final Four for the first time since 1993 and harbor the potential national player of the year.
Beilein’s sterling recruiting class has gelled perfectly with returning starters Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., and even though the Wolverines make up one of the youngest teams in the country, their chemistry partially nullifies their lack of experience.
In Burke, the Wolverines have a clutch shooter who demands the ball late in games, while also a brilliant point guard adamant about finding easy buckets for struggling teammates. In Stauskas, Michigan has one of the most dangerous perimeter shooters in the entire country (45 percent), let alone remaining in the Final Four. In McGary it has size, and in Hardaway Jr. and Robinson, it has athleticism.
Finally, it has Beilein, a detail-obsessed coach who’s never been to a Final Four in his remarkable career. That’s why he relished the moment when his Wolverines destroyed a bigger Florida team in last weekend’s Elite Eight.
As reported by AnnArbor.com, Beilein stepped back and admired as his players snipped fragments of the net as keepsakes. The veteran coach wanted no part of the limelight.
He quickly handed off the South Regional trophy, too, eager to cede the attention elsewhere.
But if the Wolverines are to win two more games, ending the 23-year drought since the Wolverines’ last national championship, there won’t be anywhere else for him to hide.
It will have been his vision, his persistence and his path that led Michigan back to greatness.