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Jerry Sullivan: Michigan AD Warde Manuel sleeps well with John Beilein in charge

Warde Manuel started laughing before I could finish the question. He's been asked often in recent months, at a time when major college basketball is reeling from an FBI investigation into fraud and corruption in the sport.

How reassuring is it to have someone like John Beilein running your program?

"I sleep well at night with John at the helm," Manuel, the Michigan athletic director, said Wednesday by phone from Ann Arbor.

Manuel has been a stickler about doing things the right way since he got his first AD job at UB in 2005. He wanted to win, and his teams did plenty of that. But he also wanted to do it within the NCAA rules, without compromising the school's integrity or losing sight of the mission to educate the athletes.

That's a difficult standard in the corrupted universe of big-time American college sports, where big money raises the stakes for winning, along with the temptation for coaches and players to twist the rules to their own ends.

So Manuel, a former Michigan football player who earned three college degrees, is glad to have a man like Beilein running one of the two top programs in a $182 million department. Not only is the Burt native the best basketball coach to come out of Western New York, he might also be the sport's most honorable.

In a preseason CBS Sports poll, more than 100 coaches were asked which top-level coach "does everything by the book and operates completely within the NCAA's rulebook." Beilein, who got his start in Division I at Canisius, came in first.

"I think I represent hundreds of Division I coaches that are doing things the right way," Beilein said Monday on a national conference call.

It was typically modest of Beilein, who played at DeSales High in Lockport and at Wheeling Jesuit College. He got his start as a high school coach in Newfane, and worked his way inexorably up the ranks of his sport, as a singular sort who was a head coach in every college job and never served as someone else's assistant.

He's done it for 40 years, going back to his days at Erie CC, without a whiff of scandal, winning at every stop. Beilein is clean; he's also one of the best coaches ever. I've been saying since his Canisius days that he was one of the top 10 guys in the business, and he's gained a lot more believers along the way.

They're calling this his best coaching job ever. Beilein took a Michigan team that was supposed to finish in the middle of the Big Ten and guided it all the way to the Final Four. On Saturday in San Antonio, the Wolverines will take on Loyola of Chicago, the Cinderella of the Big Dance, in a national semifinal.

Beilein is coaching in his 12th NCAA Tournament. He's done it with four teams (Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan). If he loses to Loyola, an 11th seed, it will be only the third time his teams have bowed out against a lower seed. If Michigan wins it all, Beilein will reach exactly 800 college wins over all levels.

So it's hard to believe that, a little more than a year ago, in his first full season as AD, Manuel was receiving calls and emails from disgruntled Michigan fans calling for Beilein to be fired.

"This might be the first time I've said this publicly," Manuel said. "I'm still here as athletic director because I didn't respond to some of the emails and letters from fans who told me last year that John Beilein needed to be fired and was a terrible coach."

Michigan was struggling at the time. After a home loss to Ohio State in early February, they were 4-6 in the Big Ten. Losing to Ohio State can scramble the minds of avid Michigan fans. Two years earlier, the Wolverines had finished 16-16, a rare non-winning year for Beilein. Never mind that he'd taken them to the national title game in 2013.

"People reacted emotionally," said Manuel, whose son Evan is a team manager for Beilein. "I just took the letters and filed them away. I thought it was laughable."

There had been issues, though. Soon after becoming AD in January, 2016, Manuel talked to Beilein about his defense. Beilein is an offensive genius with a knack for taking underrecruited players and blending them into a cohesive, winning unit. His teams have often been ordinary defensively and on the boards.

In May of 2016, he hired Saddi Washington and Billy Donlon, two veteran defensive-minded coaches, to be his new assistants. The defense got better. This year's team could be the best defensive squad he's ever had.

Things came together after that Ohio State loss in 2017. Michigan finished strong. After a scary incident when their airplane skidded off the runway while attempting a takeoff, they went on an emotional four-day run to the Big Ten title. They reached the Sweet 16 before losing by a point to Oregon, which went to the Final Four.

This year's team followed a similar path. They were 8-5 in the conference after a loss at Northwestern in early February. Fans weren't imagining a Final Four run. They were just hoping to get in. Then Beilein's coaching took hold. The Wolverines have won 13 in a row since, including another four-game run to a Big Ten crown and four more as a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs.

"I give John a lot of credit," said Manuel, who was hired as UConn's AD two years before they won the NCAA title in 2014. "He adjusted."

Manuel had a favorable opinion of Beilein all along. Reggie Witherspoon, who coached under Manuel at UB, is a Beilein disciple who played for him at ECC and followed him to Wheeling.

"When I met John, I told him, 'I've always admired you because I enjoyed the way Reg talked about you and the way he lit up when he mentioned you as a coach and what you meant to him,' " Manuel said.

"But getting to see John up close, the way he handles his program, the way he recruits and what he's looking for, it's perfect. It's about building a team for success, not about seeing how many blue-chip recruits you an accumulate.

"It's who you can meld in your team to play the game you want, to win the game. Ultimately, that's what John has done his whole career."

Beilein, 65, has won everywhere he's pulled on a whistle. He took Canisius to its first NCAA tourney in 39 years. In his first year at Richmond, he led a 14th seed to an upset win. At West Virginia in 2005, he came within an overtime of an improbable Final Four berth, with a bunch of overachievers.

Five years ago, Michigan lost to Louisville in the title game. The only thing left for Beilein is to win it all. First, there's a national semifinal with a distinct Buffalo flavor. Manuel used to be the AD at UB. Steve Watson, a Franklinville native who was formerly the St. Bonaventure AD, is now AD at Loyola.

This has been the best year for Buffalo college hoops in half a century, since the days of Bob Lanier and Calvin Murphy. What better conclusion than for Beilein, a native son, to get his first national championship?

It would be a perfect, and perfectly honorable, way for it to end.

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