John Beilein’s Basketball Odyssey

Paul McGuillicuddyAnalyst IFebruary 20, 2008

It’s just that the gym was Henninger High in Syracuse, New York, some 450 miles away from Ann Arbor, where Beilein presides over the basketball program at the University of Michigan.

Beilein was on hand for the opening round of sectionals to watch Henninger High’s Ben Cronin. Although Cronin is signed to attend Michigan next fall, Beilein still wants to watch as the 7’1” center continues to progress under the tutelage of Henninger head coach, Erik Saroney.

The personal touch displayed by Beilein has come to be expected by those who know the native of Buffalo, New York.

Cronin’s signing with Michigan might have raised a few eyebrows when considering that hall-of-fame coach, Jim Boeheim, is just a few miles west along Erie Boulevard at Syracuse University. That is until one considers Beilein’s reputation for working with kids and rebuilding basketball programs.

Beilein’s reputation was on display Friday night when former Henninger head coach, Joe Mazella, spotted him in the stands and made his way over to greet the Big Ten coach. "Maz" came to know Beilein when the coach directed the basketball program at LeMoyne College—the DII school located less than five miles from Henninger along Teall Avenue.

The two forged a friendship while Beilein led the Dolphins to a record of 163-94 over nine seasons. His ’87-’88 squad won a school-record 24 games and earned the Mideast Conference Championship and a berth in the NCAA.

LeMoyne represents one rung on the coaching ladder for Beilein. At each stop the coach has left behind a trail of success.

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Upon graduating from Wheeling Jesuit in 1975 Beilein returned home to Niagara Falls and took a job teaching Social Studies at nearby Newfane High. As part of his responsibilities Beilein coached the JV boys' basketball team.

When the varsity coach resigned at the end of the season, Beilein was handed the job.

After two years Beilein made the jump to the college ranks. He took over the program at nearby Erie Community College and led the Kats to a record of 75-43 during his four-year tenure.

Beilein’s work with ECC was good enough to earn him another promotion—one hour east on the New York State Thruway to DIII Nazareth College.

In one season Beilein led the Golden Flyers to a record of 20-6 and a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Flyers were so successful that Beilein was able to lure future NBA coach, Jeff Van Gundy, away from Yale University to the Pittsford, New York campus.

The two would never get a chance to work together. At the season’s end Beilein took the job at LeMoyne.

After his stint at LeMoyne, Beilein returned home to Buffalo where he coached the Canisius Golden Griffins.

During his five-year tenure the Golden Griffins amassed a record of 89 wins and 62 losses—good enough for three postseason berths including the 1996 NCAA tournament. For his efforts Beilein earned the New York State Division I coach of the year award.

After Canisius, Beilein left New York State for Richmond. He led the Spiders to the ’98 NCAA tournament and a first-round upset of the University of South Carolina. During his four years the Spiders compiled a record of 78-39.

Once again Beilein’s success would offer further opportunities.

After Richmond Beilein took the task of coaching a West Virginia Mountaineer program on the verge of NCAA sanctions. In five seasons under Beilein the Mountaineers went 104-60 while earning an NCAA Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight berth along with the 2007 NIT title.

The University of Michigan needed someone to rebuild their once-proud basketball program. Beilein’s record made him the man for the job.

Cronin helped Henninger to a first-round-sectional win over Corcoran, 78-41. Beilein’s Wolverines beat Ohio State on Sunday, 80-70. It will be interesting to watch Beilein as he rebuilds the Michigan program with the likes of Ben Cronin.