USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what you need to know ahead of the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.
USA TODAY Sports
Reporters know the ironclad rule: No cheering in the press box.
Ah, but there’s a loophole: We’re allowed to root for the story. And, man, is there a better story in American sports just now than the Michigan Wolverines?
Or a better man than the one coaching them?
I’ve known John Beilein for 25 years, since he got his first Division I basketball coaching job at Canisius College, a Jesuit school in Buffalo. He’d taken the long road, coaching in high school, junior college, NAIA and Division II — always as a head coach, never an assistant. He says now that informs how he coaches, always open to a new way of viewing basketball’s kaleidoscopic geometry.
Le Moyne, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, was the D-II stop. His uncle, Tom Niland, was the athletics director who hired him. Today, Beilein’s son Patrick is head coach there. That sort of full-circle story suits the central theme of Beilein’s career, which is family.
When his team’s plane careened off the runway two weeks ago at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mich., 109 members of the Michigan family were on board: Players, cheerleaders, band members and staff, plus coaches who’d brought their wives and kids. That’s what Beilein thought about as he helped in the evacuation of his Michigan family. Dear Lord, keep them safe.
The story line, by now, is set in the public imagination: How the passengers escaped a plane that had crashed through a perimeter fence and stopped short of a ravine — and how the Wolverines have done nothing since but win.
They won the Big Ten tournament, four games in four days, in Washington. They won their first two games of the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis. And they play Oregon on Thursday in Kansas City, two wins shy of the Final Four. Should they get that far, the harrowing moments of that aborted takeoff surely will metamorphose into the sainted, soft-focus status of sporting mythology.
All this can be overstated. The Wolverines already had turned around their Big Ten season — 4-6 after losses at rivals Michigan State and Ohio State — by winning six of their last eight, with the two losses coming in close games on the road. Still, it’s fair to say terror at top speed really did become a galvanizing force for a traumatized team.
“I don’t think we can deny that,” Beilein tells USA TODAY Sports. “Just gives you that little bit more, that sense of unity and appreciation that allows you to reach a little deeper.”
USA Today Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down how these surprise Sweet 16 squads have made it this far in March Madness.
USA TODAY Sports
Beilein, 64, promotes six core values in his program. Unity and appreciation are among them. The others are integrity, passion, diligence and accountability. He learned family values growing up on an apple farm in western New York near Lake Ontario with eight brothers and sisters. He got passionate competitiveness from his mother and a diligent work ethic from his father.
Beilein greatly admired his father, who worked his way up from entry level to plant superintendent at a paper mill. But Beilein was also greatly intrigued by his mother’s brothers, Tom and Joe Niland, who coached basketball. Uncle Joe was coach at Canisius when Beilein was born in 1953. The Golden Griffins won at Scranton that day.
The next year a Jesuit named Anthony J. Paone wrote My Daily Bread, a book of meditations that Beilein’s mother always kept on her nightstand. Since her death, he always coaches with a copy in his pocket. He had his copy with him on that charter flight. When the plane’s inflatable chute blew in gusty winds, Beilein held it in place so passengers could escape safely.
“Anybody would have done the same,” he says. “It was easy. Just hold the chute down and put up with the fumes and the noise, because the engines were running. Maybe 30 or 40 came down the chute. The kids — players, cheerleaders — they were jumping off the wings and running like hell. When it was over, it was like, wow, we made it — like the best-executed fire drill at St. Mark’s.”
That was Beilein’s parish in Buffalo when he coached Canisius. He’s a faithful communicant who attends Mass two or three times a week during Lent. On Ash Wednesday, his Wolverines lost at Northwestern on a last-second home-run pass. They haven’t lost in the seven games since.
His players playfully soak him after wins. When the Wolverines upset Louisville on Sunday, Beilein returned fire with a Super Soaker water gun. (He’d smuggled it into the locker room in an equipment bag.)
The clip blew up online. Family and friends marveled that the coach long defined by sober attention to detail was allowing himself to have fun in the moment.
“I remember at Canisius, when we beat Washington State in the (1995 quarterfinals of the) NIT to get to the Garden, we had 9,000 people in the Aud singing New York, New York,” Beilein says. “But I just walked off. I thought, ‘Coaches don’t do that. Coaches get ready for the next game.’ ”
He’s been trying to enjoy more, and stress less, for the last several seasons.
“Sort of evolving to it,” he says. “Then you have the plane incident and you think, ‘Boy, you almost didn’t have a chance to enjoy it again.’ So I’m trying to. I’m really trying to. I try not to think about the next game until the next day.”
I was at that Washington State game in 1995, back home in Buffalo only because my father had just been hospitalized for heart failure. He died several weeks later, at 83. My father taught English at Canisius for 42 years. He wrote its centennial history in 1970. And as a student there in the 1930s, he launched the Griffin as school mascot.
Beilein’s Griffs were in New York for the NIT’s semifinals when flowers arrived at my father’s bedside in intensive care. The card said they were from the Golden Griffins. They were, of course, from John. He doesn’t remember. I’ll never forget.
So forgive me if I root for the story — and for the Wolverines. When Beilein was at Richmond, I sent my son to his basketball camp. When Beilein was at West Virginia, I drove over the mountains to see his Mountaineers. He’s coached four Division I schools and taken all of them to the NCAA tournament.
If Beilein’s Wolverines keep winning now, in the madness of March, their legend will grow. If they should win it all as a seven seed, they could be the story of the year. And as long as his players keep winning, they’ll keep dousing him with water, as if from a baptismal font.
These days his copy of My Daily Bread is rumpled from all that cleansing water. Beilein doesn’t mind a bit. The old coach, at long last, is having fun.
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