John Beilein has always defined himself as a teacher. Once, at the height of his coaching success at Michigan, he jokingly referred to himself as the “the most overpaid social studies teacher in the world.”
That’s how he got his start. Beilein, a native of Burt, was actually digging ditches when he got his big break in 1975, fresh off a career as a basketball captain and history major at Wheeling Jesuit College.
His father came by work one day, leaned into the hole his son was digging and said, “There’s an opening at Newfane.”
So, Beilein went to Newfane High, where he taught English, history and social studies and coached the boys basketball team for three seasons.
He never stopped teaching, or winning, and became the best hoop coach that Western New York has produced. Beilein moved on to Erie Community College, the first of his eight college coaching jobs. He won big at every stop and had just five losing seasons in 41 years.
To this day, it’s remarkable to look over Beilein’s career. It’s a stunning monument to consistency, to one man’s ability to teach the fundamentals of basketball and a signature offensive style that routinely allowed players to perform above their natural athletic abilities.
Beilein won 64 percent of the time games in those 41 years. In five of his college jobs, his teams won between 63 and 65 percent. In 12 seasons at Michigan, his final college stop, his teams won 65 percent and lost twice in the national championship game. He won 59 percent at Canisius and led the Griffs to their only NCAA Tournament berth in the last 64 years.
Anyone who watched his teams knew how his players got better over their time in college. They became smarter players, better teammates, more responsible defenders. Beilein’s specialty was teaching kids how to be better at the most basic hoop skill: Shooting.
In 2019, at age 66, he figured it was time for a new challenge. Beilein took the job as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. This wasn’t the college game, however. It did not go well and he resigned in February of 2020, with a 14-40 record over 54 games.
So, what did he do? Beilein went back to the classroom. He taught a leadership course for two semesters at the University of Michigan. He also did some announcing for the Big Ten Network.
“I loved teaching at Michigan,” Beilein said by phone last week. “It was a great experience for me. I had some of the foremost leaders in the country speaking. It was all by Zoom. Jim Hackett, the CEO of Ford, is talking to my class. Dave Brandon, the former CEO of Domino’s, is speaking to my class.
“Muffett McGraw (former Notre Dame women’s coach and Basketball Hall of Famer) spoke to my class. So did Mary Sue Coleman, now the president of Michigan. They liked it, too. It was really good to sit back and listen to all these great speakers.”
But it was teaching the game that he missed. Beilein watched Big Ten and NBA games and knew he still had something to offer. He was friendly with Pistons head coach Dwane Casey, whose team had conducted workouts for a time at Michigan when Detroit was building a new practice center.
“I would watch their games; we’d text back and forth,” Beilein said. “So, when an opening presented itself, we sort of connected and it happened.”
The Pistons, a young and struggling franchise, needed someone to help bring the kids along. They needed a teacher. Who better than John Beilein? They hired him in June to be their senior advisor for player development, an ideal job for a man who excels at grooming young players.
“I like this,” said Beilein, who turns 69 on Saturday. “This is so different for me. I believe I can add value to the team, but I certainly don’t have the stress that I used to have.”
Beilein said Casey and his bench coaches are involved with every aspect of the team, but they’re primarily focused on the game and hand and the overall team concept. There’s not as much time to work on individual skills as there is at the college level.
“Individual development is more left up to the developmental team plus (the coaches),” Beilein said. “There’s so little time to get better during the season, you have to maximize it this way. So I sort of organize all that.”
The Pistons are a very young team right now, and a struggling squad. They were 12-38 after Tuesday night’s home loss to the Pelicans. Detroit ranks 29th in the NBA in scoring, 29th in field-goal percentage, 29th in three-point percentage.
This was the time of year when Beilein would normally gear up for the NCAA Tournament. He’s one of 10 coaches to take four different schools to the Big Dance. The young guys on this Pistons team would make a dangerous tourney team if they were still in college.
“We have four starters who really could be in college right now,” he said.
Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft, is 20. Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart are also 20. Saddiq Bey is 22. Actually, the Pistons could field a full lineup of players who could still be in college. Hamidou Diallo, 23, has started half the games and would still be a senior under Covid eligibility rules.
“So, there’s a crossover of the fundamentals from college and the next level,” said Beilein, who was inducted into the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame last fall. “And I’m learning along the way as well.
“There’s different ways to get them to listen to you,” he said. “It’s not ‘Do this because I say so.’ It’s, ‘This is what the percentages say with real data, it’s what the best players in the league are doing.’ You have to find that niche as a sort of education process, instead of just saying ‘Trust me, I know better than you.’
“The younger players are eager to learn, but in the NBA the time period for learning is in the games much more than in college. You really have to be efficient with what you do and realize it’s a bigger process, a longer process in some respects.”
Every place Beilein went as a college coach, the team won within a year of his arrival. He found out in Cleveland how difficult it can be to turn a team around in the pros. A lesser competitor might have turned his back on the NBA forever. He relished a new challenge.
“I’m a guy who’s always learning,” he said. “I’m a lifetime learner. I learned a lot there (in Cleveland) and I have no regrets. No regrets.”
At times, he misses the rush of coaching his own team. What coach wouldn’t after more than 1,300 games on the sideline?
“There’s other moments when I see a guy losing on a half-court shot at the last second and I remember the agony you’d go through for the next two days.”
Beilein loves what he’s doing in Detroit. He gets to be home in Michigan, where he’s lived for 14 years. He’s excited to see what happens when this young Pistons team figures it out and becomes a contender. He knows things can turn around in a hurry in the NBA, same as they did for him in all his college jobs.
The Cavaliers won 19, 19 and 22 games the last three years. Now they’re fourth in the East, tied with the defending champion Bucks. The Bulls were 22-43 two years ago. Now they’re leading the East. The Hawks shared the cellar with the Cavs the year Beilein walked away. They reached the conference finals last season.
“They’re all really good teams now,” Beilein said with a laugh. “You look at where they were and you say, ‘Well, that’s where a team like Detroit is right now.”
Few men have ever been better at teaching a bunch of 20-22 year olds how to play basketball the right way, and how to win. The Pistons trusted that Beilein still had the touch. Just give him time.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.