ATLANTA — On Saturday afternoon, John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines will take the floor against Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange in one of the more intriguing and unexpected Final Four matchups in recent memory.
Syracuse lost seven of their last 12 regular season games. Michigan lost five of their last 10. Both programs were written off by just about everyone outside of the locker rooms at the Carrier Dome and Crisler Arena. And yet, here they are, preparing to play on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, 80 minutes of basketball away from winning a national title.
The biggest irony of all is that Beilein, one of the most well-respected coaching minds in the country, may not be here if it wasn’t for his opponent on Saturday.
Beilein’s back story has been well-documented. A descendant of the family that Saving Private Ryan was based on and a member of a noted coaching family in Western New York, Beilein began his career as a high school coach before moving on up to the Community College ranks. That was in 1978, two years after Boeheim took over at Syracuse. Beilein spent four years at Erie CC before jumping to Nazareth for a season before landing what he believed to be a big break when he was offered a job by Division II LeMoyne.
And that’s where his career started to stagnate.
A couple different Division I jobs in the area opened up during that time. Beilein applied for and was passed over each time. Finally, when Canisius came open in 1992, Beilein he was hired, but it wasn’t without some help. A call from Boeheim certainly helped move things along.
“He assisted me a great deal in actually getting my first Division I job,” Beilein said on Wednesday.
At Canisius, Beilein had five successful seasons which led to being hired by Richmond and, eventually, West Virginia. Boeheim had a hand in that as well, convincing West Virginia’s athletic director to offer the job to Beilein even though that meant that he would have to count Beilein as a conference foe. It was Beilein’s postseason success with the Mountaineers — an Elite 8 run in 2005 and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2006 — that played a major role in Michigan giving him the job in 2007.
And while it may have taken him six years, Beilein has turned the Wolverines into a national title contender.
But Beilein isn’t the only coach that Boeheim helped mentor.
Back in 1976, when Boeheim first got the Syracuse job, he needed to hire a coaching staff. As legend has it, Boeheim called Pitino down to the lobby of his hotel in New York City on Pitino’s wedding night, convincing him to take a job as an assistant immediately so that Pitino could get out on the road and land a recruit named Louis Orr.
But here’s where it gets interesting: Pitino was hired in large part due to his association with five-star basketball and the recruits that he would be able to bring in as a result. That wasn’t the only reason that Pitino was hired, however.
“[Boehiem] wanted to play more man-to-man defense,” Pitino said. “He was under Roy Danforth, who was strictly zone. Back then we played a lot of man-to-man. I was fortunate, I got to learn the zone.”
He sure was fortunate.
Pitino’s Louisville teams mix-up their defensive looks quite a bit. They press, they play man-to-man, they play 2-3 zone, sometimes they play all three on a single possession. But what he’s known for right now — the defense that has carried him to back-to-back Final Four — is that 2-3 zone.
The defense that he learned in his two seasons on the Syracuse bench.
Pitino and Beilein are both terrific basketball minds. They would have had success in this business with or without Boeheim’s help.
But it’s interesting to think that Boeheim could end up beating not one, but two of the young coaches that he mentored in their younger days.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.