If you ask anyone who the top college basketball coaches are right now across the country, Michigan head coach John Beilein is highly likely to be mentioned in the top ten, if not the top five.
With two Final Fours and an Elite Eight appearance in the last six seasons, the Wolverine head coach has earned it.
But it wasn’t always that way.
That was Beilein’s record through his first three seasons in Ann Arbor. Although his contract had just been extended, the masses were howling in 2010 for the Wolverines to fire him.
It wasn’t just the typical fringe element fans either. Here is how one writer put it —
“In fact, given the evidence at hand, it’s pretty easy to write off the Beilein hire as a failure. Tommy Amaker never made an NCAA tournament, but he also won more games in three of his last four seasons (it went 23, 13, 22, 22) than Beilein won in his one winning season thus far at Michigan (21). […] Basically, Beilein is not the answer Michigan thought it had last year at this time. The sooner the administration realizes it, the sooner it can begin to rebuild the program. Again.”
Despite a trip to the national championship game in 2013, and a Big Ten title in 2014, the calls for his job were back by 2017. In a hilarious expose on the ridiculousness of fans, some Michigan backers were calling for his job as recently as two years ago.
This whole scene wasn’t unfamiliar to the now 65 year old coach. After a 31-29 first two years at West Virginia, there was similar chatter in Morgantown.
Presently back in the good graces of Wolverine fans, Beilein seemed like the perfect person to ask about the challenges of rebuilding a college basketball program after Michigan’s 69-46 trouncing of Indiana on Friday night.
Before we could even ask the question, Beilein teed it up perfectly with the phrase “trying to get the culture established” in reference to what are in his estimation just a couple rebuilding teams in the Big Ten in an otherwise very deep league.
Emboldened, we pounced on the opportunity. “Coach, you mentioned trying to get the culture right. You got off to a little bit of a slow start during your first few years at Michigan. What do you recall about those years in the context of what Indiana might be going through right now?”
Beilein’s initial response couldn’t have been more on point for how IU and its fans are feeling at the moment.
“Those first few years really are difficult because you think you’ll have a key victory somewhere, and then you’ll say okay, you’re almost there.”
A lot of people thought Friday night against Michigan might have been just that game. The sentiment surrounding the Hoosier program would have been significantly different if Indiana could have pulled off the upset over the Wolverines.
A 17-0 Michigan start quickly ensured that was not going to happen. Thanks coach.
Indiana will have to continue to wait for that key victory. But it was Beilein’s next thought that really hit home.
“It is really hard to maintain this, and the only way to do it is culture.”
We’ve heard takes about the lack of top to bottom elite talent on this roster. If you watched Kentucky vs. Kansas this weekend that becomes abundantly clear. You might also recall a game earlier in the year at Duke.
We know about this IU team’s wildly disproportionate to the point of just being bizarre number of injuries. That’s a real and not to be discounted thing too.
But what about the culture?
It took time for Miller at Dayton too.
You know about the Flyers’ four straight trips to the NCAA tournament that included an Elite Eight appearance. You know about the two conference titles and 24 wins in each of the last four seasons.
But those first two years?
37-27. No NCAA tournaments, and an aggregate .500 record in conference play.
Miller got things turned around at Dayton. But it didn’t happen overnight.
The challenge of changing the culture was very real when Miller stepped on the Bloomington campus in 2017.
Right, wrong, or indifferent, Miller and former head coach Tom Crean go about things in completely different ways.
This is how ESPN college basketball analyst Myron Medcalf described it when Miller was hired:
“When you played Dayton under Miller, you knew the Flyers were coming to fight.
Indiana under Tom Crean often lacked that grit, especially on the defensive end.”
Now ask yourself, which team are you seeing right now? The culture shift is still a work in process, and it is probably the most important variable of them all.
There’s one thing Coach Beilein said in response to our question that we take issue with as it relates to turning around a program —
“But you also need other teams to go down, you gotta have teams that go through stuff. We were fortunate that a few programs went down in that era. It was right after that Indiana had their rebuild.”
You can do everything right, but if nobody goes away. Wisconsin’s not going away, Michigan State’s not going away, Michigan’s not going away.”
Of course it wouldn’t hurt if a couple of the top dogs in the Big Ten went through a rough patch. That might certainly make things easier. But that is out of Miller’s control.
Instead, if Miller can have “some dogs, some meet-me-in-the-alley players” as Medcalf described his Dayton teams, then that part should take care of itself. Indiana can be the rest of the league’s rough patch, much like Dayton was in the Atlantic 10.
But for now, it’s Miller and these Hoosiers that are in the rough patch. And as Beilein knows, there’s no quick and dirty path out.
“There’s a lot of people you got to get in front of. I know Archie will do that, but it’s not as easy as people think.”
No coach. No it isn’t.
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