ATLANTA — A friend of Michigan coach John Beilein asked Beilein this week if he would wear orange underwear when the Wolverines played Syracuse — the Orange — in the Final Four on Saturday.
Though Beilein left upstate New York in the late 1990s to become coach at Richmond, he traces his roots to the area — particularly Rochester, located about 90 miles from Syracuse. He was born in Burt, a small town on the western edge of New York.
As Beilein was climbing through the coaching ranks with jobs at small colleges in Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo during the late 1970s and early ’80s, he developed a relationship with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.
Beilein learned the finer points of the 2-3 zone defense that Syracuse has essentially patented during Boeheim’s 37 years there. Their relationship was instrumental in Beilein beginning to make a name for himself in the early 1990s.
"We became great friends during that time and I have had great respect for him," Beilein said. "Along the way, he assisted me a great deal in actually getting my first Division I job at Canisius College. I believe he had something to do with me going to the Big East at West Virginia. He was very instrumental. I followed him and respected him very much."
Beilein moved beyond Boeheim and beyond the 2-3 zone, eventually abandoning it for the 1-3-1, then the man-to-man defense he employs with the Wolverines. He hasn’t completely put Boeheim in his rearview mirror, though, because for all of his success, Beilein has never beaten the Orange.
Boeheim has bested Beilein in each of their nine meetings, most when they opposed each other in the Big East. The only other Division I school Beilein has coached against more than twice without winning is Xavier (0-3).
It’s odd that Beilein hasn’t figured out a way to beat Boeheim, because Beilein almost always figures these things out. His teams have had a losing record four times in his 35 seasons; Beilein has never been an assistant coach.
The foundation Beilein built at tiny Erie Community College in Buffalo from 1978-82 serves him well now. He began a coaching journey he never thought would take him to this level, and where the work ethic instilled as one of nine children was put into practice.
Beilein pushed until he reached his first NCAA Tournament with Canisius in 1996. He won his first tournament game with Richmond two years later.
"You cannot get stale when you’re fighting for your life in all those situations I was in,” Beilein said. “Each opportunity that we embraced, the program was at a low, or one of its lower points. So we would say, OK, that clock is ticking. They’ll be with you the first, second year. You don’t start turning it around, there’s going to be somebody else."
Beilein’s ability to turn it around at Canisius and Richmond, where he reached either the NIT or the NCAA Tournament six times in 10 seasons, vaulted him to national prominence and a chance for a higher-profile position. He went to West Virginia, taking the Mountaineers to the Elite Eight in 2005 and the Sweet 16 the following year.
Unlike some coaches, who jump from a mid-major to a power six conference and are met with failure, Beilein only became more successful. He overtook downtrodden Michigan in 2007 and led the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament the following season, improving their win total from 10 to 21.
Now Beilein is in his first Final Four. Still pushing.
"You’re in a survival mode," Beilein said of his past. "When you’re in survival mode, you find ways to improvise, to get better, self-examine yourself daily. As a result it keeps you sharp. It wasn’t intentional — I’m talking survival."