One newspaper article perfectly summarizes the polar opposite career coaching arcs of Michigan's John Beilein and Louisville's Rick Pitino, a pair of 60-year-olds who on Monday night will meet for an NCAA basketball championship.
It was dated May 1, 1987, and for even more irony, it appeared in the Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald-Journal. Beilein beat Syracuse on Saturday to earn his first trip to a national final. Pitino spent two years as an assistant at Syracuse under Jim Boeheim.
The headline read: “Beilein eyes Canisius; Pitino to stay at PC?''
Both men were 34 at the time. Beilein had been at NCAA Division II Le Moyne for four years, and compiled a 73-43 record. He started his career as a high school coach, then moved to Erie (N.Y.) Community College and NAIA Nazareth (N.Y.) College before finding his way to Le Moyne, in Syracuse, N.Y. He's the only active coach who's led 20-win seasons at the juco, NAIA, Division II and Division I levels.
Beilein said in that 1987 article that it was his first time applying for a Division I head coaching job. He didn't get the job at Canisius, and spent five more years grinding away at Le Moyne.
But then Canisius hired him. He took the Golden Griffins to the NCAA tournament in his fourth year. That led to gigs at Richmond, West Virginia and now Michigan. His former players are saying that this is what happens when you get Beilein some legitimate talent.
The other subject of that 1987 article was Pitino, who already was on the fast track to success. He had just guided little Providence College to the Final Four, with the help of a sharp-shooting guard named Billy Donovan.
Unlike Beilein, Pitino was in high demand. The NBA's New York Knicks reportedly were offering him a five-year deal worth $3.2 million.
“I will be staying at Providence College,'' Pitino said in the previous day's press conference. One month later, he signed a five-year contract to stay with the Friars.
But Pitino didn't stay with the Friars. About two months later, he walked out on that deal and took over the Knicks. During the nine-year period from 1983 to 1992 in which Beilein was not even a blip on the radar at Le Moyne, Pitino was an assistant with the Knicks, and then the head coach at Providence, the Knicks and Kentucky.
So yes, there's a tortoise-and-the-hare element to this championship game. It's refreshing to know that you can quietly work your way through the ranks with a no-frills personality, a love of the game and a strong belief that your system will work at any level.
A lot of low-profile coaches will see themselves when they watch Beilein walk the sideline on championship night. There are plenty of coaches out there — high school, junior college, small college, lower Division I — who have been beaten down by the struggle. Maybe they didn't get support from their administration. Maybe they didn't get the break. Maybe they got the break, but then factors outside their control conspired against them. Maybe they were content with where they were, and didn't want to move young families every other year.
As the son of a longtime high school basketball coach, I have a strong appreciation for the grinders. Witnessed many of the scenes the average fan never sees. Sharing gym space with everyone under the sun. Mopping the floor. Agonizing into the wee hours over game film. Selling the importance of going to class, and then giving some effort once you get there. Explaining to kids that you can't just show up during the season and expect to be a player. Dealing with unrealistic parents.
John Beilein has been there. You can bet he's mopped some floors, washed some uniforms, eaten at his share of McDonald's, stayed at his share of “value'' hotels.
Enjoy the championship game. You don't have to root for Beilein. But I know a lot of coaches who will be.
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