ATLANTA – Thirty-five years ago Ralph Galanti played a hunch that would impact college basketball for decades to come. He entered the president’s office at Erie Community College and declared he had found the school’s next head coach.
The guy’s name was John Beilein. He had played college ball at Wheeling Jesuit – which isn’t exactly Duke, or even Florida Atlantic. He was coaching at Newfane High School – which isn’t exactly DeMatha, or even Bennett. Beilein’s resume was sparse, uninspiring, so lean that basketball-savvy president Oscar Smukler, who’d officiated the sport for 30 years, suggested his athletic director come back with another name.
Galanti and Santo DeSain, the assistant AD and women’s basketball coach, persisted. They explained that none of the other candidates matched Beilein’s enthusiasm and passion. The guy was a basketball junkie. The game was his calling. To say he aspired to great things in coaching didn’t take it far enough. It was more than an aspiration, closer to a link with destiny.
“He blew us out of the water,” Galanti said by phone while wintering in Florida. “He was so enthusiastic. He was young, he didn’t have any experience at the college level, but his interview just went so great.
“But our president at the time didn’t really want John. He wanted more experience, and he was really upset when Santo and I recommended him. We had a meeting in his office, and he kind of read the riot act, saying if this guy doesn’t prove himself, Santo and I might be looking for a job besides the basketball coach.”
Many years passed before Galanti retired from ECC on his own terms. He watched as Beilein made a methodical climb up the coaching ladder, from ECC to Nazareth and on to LeMoyne. Then came that first Division I job, at Canisius, until he was lured away by Richmond, which surrendered him to West Virginia. The next and presumably last stop on the journey took Beilein to Michigan, which has closed within two wins of the national championship in his sixth season with the Wolverines. They get Syracuse in tonight’s second semifinal.
It’s been a long and accomplished road that Beilein has followed from the tranquility of rural Niagara County and his hometown of Burt to the frenzy of the Final Four. He ranks among the game’s elite, the only active coach to produce 20-win seasons at four different levels (junior college, NAIA, Division II and Division I). He’s won 672 college games all told and has a salary ($1.9 million) commensurate with his successes. But it’s those four seasons at ECC beginning in 1979 that define his determination and provide the baseline for measuring how far he’s come.
DeSain remembers those times well. He and Beilein both lived in Lockport, and neither had a vehicle to brag about, so it made sense for them to carpool from Lockport to ECC’s North Campus in Amherst. “My car had issues with starting and John’s car’s the one that didn’t have the heater in it,” DeSain said. “We had some fun travels. There also were days when we took the bus together. Not a lot of those, but we did have to rely on the bus a few times to get in.
“Sometimes we left at 7 a.m., didn’t get home until 7 or 8. If one of us had the early practice and one of us had the late practice, we would have to wait for the other person. Twelve-hour days were not uncommon at all.”
Beilein laughed at the memory of those trips. Some years they included him chauffeuring his players.
“I had a 1970 Maverick,” Beilein said. “Three on the column and no radio. I picked up – in junior college you could do that – I picked up three kids from Lockport. Two kids from Lockport were in my starting lineup I think. Lawrence Maroney was a great player. Pick them up every morning, take them to school, drive them back. Oh my God.”
The Maverick was a step down from the Volvo Beilein bought when he first started coaching. Then he proposed to Kathleen, and the belt had to tighten.
“I made $10,000 a year, so what do you do? You go buy a $5,000 Volvo as soon as you make $10,000 a year,” Beilein said. “Then all of a sudden we get engaged and I trade it in for the Maverick, and she said, ‘What happened here, John? We had a Volvo, now you have a 1970 Maverick and a radio that you put on the dashboard.”
Never could travel be taken for granted. ECC commuted to away games in vans, sometimes traveling as far as South Carolina. Former UB coach Reggie Witherspoon, a Kat beginning with Beilein’s second season, recalled the team hitting the highway to the Region III tournament and barely arriving on time.
“The van broke down,” Witherspoon said. “Got on the 90, and the freaking van broke down. Tire went flat. It’s cold, windy, and trucks are passing us. Most of us lifted the van, and someone slid the tire off. No jack. Did it all manually. Got there 35, 40 minutes before game. And we lost.”
To Beilein one junior college travel disaster sounds just like another.
“I’ve had more van breakdowns ... ,” he said with a laugh.
Through it all he persevered, developing the coaching philosophies he holds dear to this day. Beilein has been captivated by the art of shooting ever since he was a boy. The best defense on the planet can never win a game unless the ball goes through the basket at least once. Defense can create opportunity, but from there offense takes over. Maybe that’s why he’s always obsessed over proper technique.
“I watched John’s practices, and whenever I could would tap into his knowledge and so forth,” DeSain said. “He worked on the science of shooting. One of the things he told me when I worked with the kids was to have them think about shooting like they’re in a phone booth. They would have to shoot out of the phone booth, which emphasized the reach and the follow-through and so forth. They would go up and down in the same spot. That really struck home with me. It made a lot of sense with me.”
“I’ve honestly heard him say that about the phone both a lot, and I had to catch myself to not use that phrase because I don’t think the kids know what a phone booth is,” Witherspoon said. “He put a premium on shooting even then. Shooting and balance. If you couldn’t shoot, you would feel left out.”
Somehow Beilein made his way without a true mentor. He was never an assistant coach, never had the luxury of learning situational coaching from someone more experienced than he.
“I think in many ways it made it more difficult to become a better coach sometimes because I couldn’t shortcut,” Beilein said. “I couldn’t sit next to a great coach and say, ‘You should never try that in a game.’ I would try it in a game, we would get our butts kicked, I would learn by sleeping on the couch that night because I didn’t sleep all night that night.
“You learn that it takes a step back, but it takes a step forward because the next time you get that opportunity you’re not going to make that same mistake again. It goes up and down, up and down. But it’s well over 1,000 games now, if you go way back to junior college as a coach.”
All the way back to the day when ECC found itself a pretty good basketball coach