Since Monday morning’s jarring news that John Beilein had accepted a job with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, the debate has been whether the move says more about the now-former Michigan basketball coach or the current sad state of college basketball.
Answer: A little of both.
Beilein is one of the game’s best coaches. In 12 years at Michigan, he took the Wolverines to two national title games, three Elite Eights and five Sweet 16s. His reputation is that of a brilliant offensive mind who molded a roster of mid-level recruits into a national championship contender.
He has also coached at every level from high school to junior college (Erie CC), to Division III (Nazareth) to Division II (Le Moyne) to Division I (Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan). He interviewed with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons last year, so you knew Beilein had some interest in the only level he hadn’t yet tried.
But here’s the thing: Used to be whenever a college coach was rumored for an NBA job, the public reaction was one of bewilderment. Is he nuts? Why would he want to put up with the prima donna players, the never-ending travel, the fickle fans and the demanding owners? Besides, NBA coaches don’t really coach as much as they just roll the ball out there, right?
Then after a pair of NCAA runner-up finishes, Brad Stevens up and left Butler for the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Florida’s Billy Donovan packed up his two national title trophies and headed for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Why Fred Hoiberg, so popular he was called “The Mayor” in Ames, left his alma mater Iowa State for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.
You don’t need inside info to figure out why. College players have been rightly granted more freedom in recent years. That’s good for them but bad for coaches who have found roster management a nightmare. Who’s staying? Who’s going? Who’s going but keeping the door open to returning? Who’s going just when you thought for sure they were staying?
“Had coffee with John Beilein in Atlanta during the live period,” ESPN recruiting analyst Paul Biancardi tweeted Monday. “He loved Michigan, but was frustrated with the new NBA Draft rules. Roster continuity was an issue with good players. The FBI situation also had him questioning much about the college game.”
Recruiting doesn’t exist in the NBA. Oh, there’s free agent recruiting, but that’s a whole different ballgame compared to the shadowy world of college basketball recruiting, a criminal enterprise according to an FBI investigation that registered a couple of guilty verdicts in corruption trials just last week.
In a CBS Sports 2017 poll, 26.6 percent of college basketball coaches voted Beilein as the coach most likely doing things “the right way.” The second-place finisher, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, garnered 10 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, Will Wade remains the coach at LSU despite reportedly being caught on a wiretap talking about a “strong-ass” offer for a prized recruit. And Sean Miller is still the coach at Arizona despite FBI testimony that has led NCAA investigators to Tucson. Any wonder Beilein jumped at the chance to go where he knows his guys are getting paid, too?
Now there’s suddenly a prime college job opening. Filling Beilein’s shoes won’t be easy for Michigan AD Warde Manuel. Donovan’s name has come up, of course. So has Stevens’. New Alabama coach Nate Oats, formerly a successful high school coach in Michigan, issued a statement saying he loves Tuscaloosa. The smart money is on former Beilein assistant LaVall Jordan, now the head coach at Butler.
Forget about Rick Pitino in Blue and Maize. If he was too risky for UCLA or UNLV, no way Michigan is hiring a coach whose string of off-the-court embarrassments finally wore out his Louisville welcome. Besides, according to his Twitter account, Rick loves coaching in Greece.
Back in the states, however, college basketball just lost one of its best coaches to the NBA. And unless something changes with the game, and soon, John Beilein won’t be the last.