For college basketball fans, even though it seems as if the Final Four and March Madness were just a few weeks ago, the new season couldn’t have come soon enough. For college basketball coaches, though, the off season is filled with recruiting trips, basketball camps, and scheduling. For them, it’s been a long time since those final games of conference tournaments and postseason play. One of these coaches is John Beilein, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
Coach Beilein was generous enough to speak openly with Dennis Baker, S.J. about his experience with Jesuit education as a student-athlete and coach, his odyssey to last year’s Final Four, and his deep love for Ignatian spirituality.
TJP: How much has your life changed since being in the Final Four? Has it really sunk in what a terrific season you guys had?
JB: Little by little. What [my wife] Kathleen and all our coaches have noticed is that you go anywhere with the Block M on, and people come out of the woodwork to say hello to you. That team captured a lot of people’s hearts who weren’t Michigan fans. They liked the look of that team, how they played, how they presented themselves in press conferences.
And that means a lot to us. We really represented the university so well.
TJP: During the tournament, you looked liked like you were enjoying it.
JB: Not all the time. I wished I smiled more. But there were some times when I actually really tried hard to embrace the moment. I know there are great coaches that the ball doesn’t bounce their way. You don’t get that opportunity [to go to a Final Four] very often.
TJP: You have a well-earned reputation for running clean, scandal-free programs, which graduate a high percentage of your players. How hard is that to do in the cutthroat world of big-time college basketball?
JB: I don’t think it’s that hard. I don’t want anyone to change my paycheck or anything, but you just do the right thing. Over time, when you’ve been coaching as long as my staff and I have been coaching, you continue to grow relationships. If you have positive relationships, and grow new ones, all of a sudden, you can get done what you want to get done without compromising your integrity.
TJP: How do you handle the pressures of putting your employment in the hands of 18 to 22-year-old young adults? That’s not always an easy thing to do.
JB: I rely on my Catholic faith quite a bit. I’m proud to admit that. Prayer is a consistent source of peace for me. It helps me gain perspective.
I feel somewhat guilty saying this, but I’m probably more prayerful during the season! But it’s the truth. I go to Sunday Mass, and I’ll go a few times a week during Lent. But Lent usually happens to be during February or March!
It’s not about praying to win. It’s about praying for wisdom in different situations that you have to handle. Or just for understanding and putting things into God’s hands.
For example, when someone makes a half court shot on you to win the game, or put it into overtime like Wisconsin did, to understand that there’s something good in that. I know that God’s will is in there somewhere. And you just pray for peace to help you handle it all.
TJP: How does a guy from Burt, New York end up at Wheeling Jesuit in West Virgnia?
JB: My uncle, Tom Niland, was the athletic director at Le Moyne for a long time. I think he was actually the first athletic director they had. His son, Tommy, the oldest of his boys, went there on the FACHEX scholarship, and had a very positive experience there. So I just decided to go there. I never visited it. I never did anything but apply. I got accepted, and said, “That’s where I’m going to go. And by the way, I’m going to make the basketball team, too.” And I did. I wasn’t recruited at all. I just went. I made the team, and the rest is somewhat history.
I’m the eighth of nine kids, so my parents were happy to get me out of the house. I took two loans: one from the Knights of Columbus and one from New York State Higher Education. I made [the difference up] that summer working and that’s how I made my money for college.
TJP: Talk about your experience as a student-athlete at Wheeling.
JB: Well, not as a student-athlete, but just as a student. What I ran into there was small classes, and people who came out of Catholic schools from all over the East and the Midwest—whether it was Cleveland, Cincinnati, New York, D.C., Philadelphia. All these Catholic school guys that were probably in my category academically, we all ended up at this same school and we had so much in common. The bonds that we formed there were long-lasting. There are many, many times—I would say over half the [Michigan] games we play—there’s someone from Wheeling that I see at the game or who will give me a call when I’m there.
TJP: Are there any Jesuits in particular that you remember from Wheeling?
JB: Father Ed Gannon, S.J., had the biggest effect on me. He was my philosophy teacher, to no surprise. He had come from the University of Scranton, and really had a great effect on me at that time. There were other [Jesuits], too. I don’t want to miss anybody because those guys really had a great effect on me, and changed a lot of my outlook on life. I went from being so small in my sight of what was really important in the world, to opening up…to looking at the whole thing from a much bigger perspective. They certainly accomplished their mission with me, believe me. When I came out of [Wheeling] four years later, I had a much different perspective on life.
TJP: How about your experience as a coach at Le Moyne? You were there for quite a stretch.
JB: Nine years, yeah. That was special because of the time my family, all of us together, spent as part of the community there. They were always on campus with me. In rebuilding that program and doing the things we did, we always felt the Jesuit influence. Fr. Vinny Ryan, S.J. had a great influence on me, as well. He talked real talk to me, but at the same time, gave me the same broad perspective that I gained while I was at Wheeling.
JB: It was a very similar experience to Le Moyne, although it was only five years. Those five years, though, we were fortunate to have great assistant coaches and excellent players. Canisius had been such a basketball “name” during the 40s, 50s, 60s. And then they disappeared a bit in the 80s and early 90s. So to get that name back to where it once was felt great. We got into the NCAA Tournament, and did some things that they hadn’t done in a bit.
Canisius is located at 2001 Main Street [in Buffalo]. It fulfills its mission as a “city university,” much in the same way a place like Fordham would. There’s great pride in the education there. I saw, between Le Moyne and Canisius, the magnitude of the graduates of those two places—in terms of what they do after they’re finished with their education.
TJP: Right when you arrived at Canisius, there was a change in presidents from Father Demske, S.J. to Father Cooke, S.J. What was it like working for Fr. Cooke?
JB: Well, he was great. Both of those presidents were outstanding to me. Fr. Demske had to have some confidence to hire a Division II coach. That was against the grain. And then when Fr. Cooke took over, I really felt he loved the direction we were going. But then I had an opportunity with Richmond that I felt was going to help me on the career path which has led me to Michigan, so I had to make the move.
That was probably the most difficult move I ever had to make because we were moving away from family. Canisius was part of that family. I had great administrative support at Canisius.
TJP: What has been the most beneficial aspect of your time in Jesuit education—as a student athlete and as a coach?
JB: I don’t think I have one thing. That’s too hard. But I’ve grown in my appreciation of Ignatian spirituality. I read Loyola Press quite often. I get the Magis Center’s Daily Ignatian Reflection in my email, which I read every morning. I read Ignatian spirituality stuff all the time; the way St. Ignatius sort of put things together.
I do the Examen all the time during the season. That helps me put things into perspective—how grateful I should be for the life I’ve been blessed with. Sometimes I write my Examen down with my iPad. I have pages and pages and pages during the season. So I think it’s just the overall appreciation of understanding your purpose in life, understanding God’s will for you.
The cover image is by Flickr user MGoBlog and can be found here.