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GRIFFINS ENJOY A GOLDEN ERA UNDER BEILEIN

John Beilein posed with the trio of other surviving basketball coaches at noon Sunday in the Cantor-Jolson room of the Hotel Marriott Marquis in midtown Manhattan. A red poster of the Big Apple with the emblem of the NIT could been seen in the background. Beilein had his hand on the championship trophy.

He looked as if he belonged.

Three years ago, when Canisius hired Beilein from LeMoyne College, who would have thought that he would have steered the Griffins into the Final Four of the National Invitation Tournament at this point?

"I didn't think it was possible three weeks ago," he admits.

No one is calling Beilein a miracle man. Most of the Golden Griffins responsible for this remarkable season were recruited by his predecessor, Marty Marbach. Marbach was Mr. Nice Guy, a coach universally liked, a peach of a human being. One word that would not be used to describe him is "tough."

Players remaining from Marbach's last team say that its rallying cry was something like, "Where's the party tonight?" Beilein heard about that attitude as soon as he got to Canisius. He shed the major revelers before he convened his first practice.

The atmosphere turned instantly serious. There was a renewed respect for the game. Eventually, there would be renewed respect for the Griffs themselves, culminating in the most raucous and sizable basketball crowd in the Aud in years as Canisius defeated Washington State last Thursday night to qualify for the New York portion of the tournament.

People who follow Canisius think the turnaround actually began in the MAAC tournament at the close of Beilein's first season. The Griffs of that year had been no thing of beauty. The low point was a game at the Koessler Center when they shot a pallid 30 percent in a loss to Fairfield.

Yet, in the MAAC tournament, sixth-seeded Canisius -- a team that won just nine games in the regular season -- stunned third-seeded Iona in the biggest tourney upset in six years.

Beilein disagrees. "I think things started to change last year when we beat Tulane, a well-respected team," he says.

Whatever, the Beilein Griffs exceeded expectations. When the Rev. James Demske, late president of Canisius, hired the new coach, what he had in mind were seasons of 15 or 16 victories. Father Demske had modest goals. He didn't want to see his school embarrassed in public.

Neither he nor anyone else could have imagined a 43-19 record over the last two seasons. It's not over, either. The surprises are over, however. Most NIT people concede that Canisius, with its impressive resume of road victories and background of coming from behind, could win this tournament.

Which brings us to Beilein's future.

That 43-19 record might be used primarily as a marketing tool by some coaches. Canisius' conference, the MAAC, and before that the NAC, are famous for upwardly mobile coaches: Rick Pitino from Boston U. to Providence to the Knicks to Kentucky; Jim Calhoun from Northeastern to Connecticut; Mike Jarvis from Boston U. to George Washington; and Mike Deane from Siena to Marquette.

But Beilein is unlikely to join the gypsy band. For one thing, he has work to finish. He needs to recruit successfully to keep those 20-victory seasons coming. It's not automatic.

There is another sign that Beilein is here to stay. He has Niland blood. His mother is the sister of Joe and Tommy Niland, two of Canisius' all-time greats from the early '40s. He's building, not leaving.

"Our making it to this Final Four is helping our recruiting already," he says.

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