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After career of major challenges, Beilein accepts the biggest one of all

Mike Harrington

When the news first broke Monday morning, it was a stunner. It seemed like Michigan was going to be the last stop on John Beilein's long and winding coaching road.

At age 66, he was the program's winningest head coach with 278 wins – more than the likes of Maize and Blue legends Johnny Orr, Bill Frieder and Steve Fisher. He had job security. He had money. He also had heart surgery last summer. Coach a few more years and watch son Patrick's career blossom at Niagara and beyond.

At this point in his life, why did he need the NBA? And worse yet, the LeBron-less Cleveland Cavaliers?

Then I remembered an October day in New York City in 1992. Beilein and I shared a taxi in New York City from the airport on the way to his first MAAC Media Day as head coach at Canisius. Beilein was pumped because we were headed to the famous Heisman Room of the Downtown Athletic Club, where college football's premier award was handed out for decades.

He was 39, a first-time Division I head coach. We started talking about who might be named the league favorite, about how good Niagara might be in a year the Purple Eagles would go on to win 23 games. Canisius had been mired in five years of losing under Marty Marbach and seemed like it was going nowhere, slipping further behind the pack in the program's fourth year in the league.

We were just chatting in a cab with no notebooks or tape recorders around so I asked what I didn't broach publicly at his introductory news conference a few days earlier.

"I know it's Division I and you've been at LeMoyne for a while," I said. "And I know it's Canisius and getting back to Western New York. But why did you take this job? They're going nowhere. They're in a tougher league and they've fallen way behind even Niagara."

Beilein started laughing. I've never forgotten his answer.

"I wanted this job because we can win. Just watch," he said. "We'll do it the right way and turn it around and you can remember this conversation. Just don't put it in the paper."

Never did. Until now.

Beilein did just what he said he would, taking the Griffs to five consecutive runs to at least the semifinals of the MAAC Tournament and three postseason trips that included the 1996 NCAA Tournament and 1995 NIT Final Four. The '96 loss to Utah in Dallas remains the only NCAA bid at Canisius in the last 62 years.

The story is relevant all these years later because it gives a window into Monday's move to the NBA. Beilein is all about challenges, for both himself and his players. And he's all about instilling belief. He's done it at every stop since he left Canisius in 1997, just like he did here.

[Related Content: From Canisius to Cleveland -- John Beilein heads to the NBA]

Beilein won an NCAA game against South Carolina as a No. 14 seed at Richmond in 1998, his first year after leaving Buffalo. The Spiders won 23 games that year after winning 29 the previous three seasons combined.

He was an overtime loss to Louisville away from the Final Four at West Virginia in 2005, two years after he arrived and the program was a 20-loss disaster in the final days under Gale Catlett.

Think that experience didn't play into this decision? That West Virginia team's best win was a second-round overtime upset of Chris Paul-led Wake Forest in a game played at Cleveland State's Wolstein Center. Patrick Beilein was a standout for the Mountaineers and another star was Cleveland native Mike Gansey, who transferred from St. Bonaventure after the infamous 2003 recruiting scandal in Olean.

Gansey and Beilein remained close over the years. Where is Gansey now? Serving as a rising NBA executive as assistant GM of the Cavs. Yep.

Look at what Beilein did for Michigan in the wake of the Ed Martin booster scandal. You might still have all the thoughts of the Fab Five, but Michigan went 11 years without an NCAA bid, including the 22-loss season that Beilein opened with in 2007-08. After that? Nine NCAA appearances, two trips to the title game and six runs to the Sweet 16.

The word out of Michigan after ESPN NBA guru and Bona grad Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news was that Beilein was keenly interested in the NBA challenge. He had gotten to the pinnacle in college and had dabbled in the NBA last year by talking to Detroit and Orlando.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is a Michigan State man who nearly lured Tom Izzo to Cleveland in 2005 and thus knows all about Beilein as his school's top rival. He's tried to hire John Calipari and Bill Self in the past. Gansey undoubtedly played a major role in this hiring.

The Cavs reportedly interviewed around a dozen candidates for the job, most of whom are current NBA assistants. One of them was Miami aide Juwan Howard, the former big man of Michigan's Fab Five. While they were interviewing for the top job, it's expected some of them could form the core of Beilein's staff and assist him in his transition to the NBA.

Beilein was interviewed last week in Ann Arbor, according to reporters, and the Cavaliers then moved on with their search. Over the weekend in Denver, the Cavs interviewed four assistants. One of them was Portland assistant and former St. Bonaventure guard David Vanterpool – who starred from the Bonnies from 1991-95 and was a regular foe of Beilein when the Bonnies played Canisius during those years. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., son of the Hall of Famer, was also interviewed.

This is yet another job in which it doesn't seem like Beilein can win games. And now he has to learn how to coach professionals over an 82-game season. Some college coaches such as Calipari never learned. Billy Donovan won two titles at Florida but has had three consecutive first-round exits in the NBA at Oklahoma City. But Brad Stevens in Boston seems to have made the transition well from Butler.

Without LeBron, the Cavs went from four straight 50-win seasons and four straight trips to the NBA Finals to a 19-63 record under Tyronn Lue and Larry Drew. Just like Canisius in 1992, Richmond in 1998, West Virginia in 2003 and Michigan in 2007, they look like they're going nowhere.

Maybe that changes forever as soon as Tuesday night if they parlay their 14 percent chance in the NBA draft lottery into a Zion Williamson victory. Maybe it will take more than that instant luck.

Maybe it will just take old-fashioned Beilein hard work. The man loves shooters and the NBA is now all about the three-point line, where Beilein's teams have lived over the years.

His coaching chronology is amazing. Newfane JV. ECC. Nazareth. LeMoyne. Canisius. Richmond. West Virginia. Michigan.

And now, Cleveland. Never doubt him.

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