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From Canisius to Cleveland: John Beilein heads to the NBA

Patrick Beilein’s week began when he looked at his phone and saw the news had broken that his father, John, was going to coach in the NBA.

The first-year Niagara men’s basketball coach knew his father was getting serious about NBA coaching opportunities. But he didn’t expect to wake Monday morning to the announcement that John, who coached at Canisius from 1992 to 1997, is joining the Cleveland Cavaliers after 12 seasons as coach of the Michigan men’s basketball team.

“The Woj-bomb dropped a little early,” Patrick Beilein said, laughing as he referred to ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, who broke the news. “But this is extremely exciting. Dad’s intrigue about the NBA has been over a few years now, in watching games, and his style of play has evolved, and it’s kind of translated to the NBA.

“When the opportunity to coach in Cleveland came about, he saw that he’s going to coach the best players in the world, and he’s going to continue to coach and develop those players.”

The Cavaliers announced Monday that John Beilein replaces Larry Drew as head coach, effective immediately. It doesn’t surprise his former players and colleagues at Canisius that the Burt native is getting his chance to coach at the highest level of professional basketball.

In fact, many expect Beilein to continue the success he began cultivating when he became the head coach of the Newfane High School junior varsity basketball team in 1975.

Beilein’s success at every level he’s coached at, Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said, comes from the fact that as basketball evolved, so did Beilein as a coach.

“People might be asking, ‘Why is he going there?’ ” said Witherspoon, who played for Beilein in 1980 at Erie Community College. “But even then, it’s allowed him to say, ‘This is how I’ve done this, and this is how I feel comfortable doing this.’ And he’s done it. But he’s also been flexible enough to evolve. He’s had the same values as he did when he coached us, a long time ago, but he’s been able to do things differently.”

The Cavaliers were 19-63 last season, their first season since LeBron James' departure for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Associated Press and ESPN reported Monday that Beilein will get a five-year contract with the Cavaliers; terms of the contract were not disclosed.

Beilein becomes the third former Canisius coach to become an NBA head coach. John McCarthy coached the Buffalo Braves in 1971, and Bob MacKinnon coached the Braves in 1977. MacKinnon also coached the New Jersey Nets in 1980-81 and 1987-88.

Beilein is one of the most notable names in basketball in Western New York. He coached at Erie Community College from 1978-82, at Nazareth in Rochester in 1982-83, then at LeMoyne from 1984 to 1992. He became head coach at Richmond in 1997, after five seasons at Canisius, then coached at West Virginia from 2002 to 2007 and became Michigan’s head coach in April of 2007.

Daemen coach Mike MacDonald, who was Beilein’s assistant at Canisius College from 1988 to 1997, considers his former boss a great tactician, a quick study and a one of the smartest minds he’s ever worked with in coaching.

MacDonald has no doubt that Beilein will translate well as a coach in the NBA.

“The Cavs are making a smart hire,” said MacDonald, who succeeded Beilein as Canisius’ head coach in 1997. “He’s won wherever he’s been, at every level. Junior college, at Nazareth, at LeMoyne, at Canisius, at Richmond, at West Virginia, at Michigan. Everywhere he’s gotten to coach, he has won. Why wouldn’t he be able to win in Cleveland?”

Beilein is one of only four coaches to take four schools to the NCAA Tournament.  In addition to leading the Wolverines to nine NCAA Tournament berths and berths in the 2013 and 2018 national title games, he coached Canisius to the NCAA Tournament in 1996. Under Beilein, Richmond played in the 1998 NCAA Tournament and West Virginia played in the 2005 and 2006 NCAA Tournaments. West Virginia also won the 2007 NIT.

Beilein leaves Michigan as its winningest men’s basketball coach (278-150). He has led the Wolverines to five Sweet 16 appearances in the last seven years, including three in a row (2017, 2018 and 2019) and the Wolverines have won two Big Ten Conference tournament titles and won or shared two Big Ten regular-season titles.

“Although there’s some unique differences in the way the game is played at every level, I don’t know how many other guys have coached now, who have been a high school coach, a junior-college coach, a Division III, a Division II or a Division I coach, with that many different teams,” Witherspoon said. “And I don’t know if there are that many guys who have been around the game long enough to see all the changes, and he’s become very imaginative in how he sees the game.”

When Dan Starr hired Beilein to coach the Griffs in 1992, he didn’t look solely at Beilein’s resume or his wins and losses in nine seasons at Division II LeMoyne College.

Starr also called coaches whose teams had played against Beilein’s teams for an honest evaluation of his prospective hire.

“A couple of them told me, ‘He knows how to coach,’ ” Starr said. “The Gannon coach said that, and Gannon was one of his rivals at LeMoyne. Siena coach Mike Deane said the same thing, and to hear that coming from his college rivals and competitors, they thought extremely highly of him.”

Canisius men’s basketball, said John Maddock, who is now the school’s associate athletic director for external affairs, was not in great shape when Beilein took over nearly 27 years ago. But he saw how Beilein treated his players and how he prepared for games, sometimes weeks and months ahead of each matchup. In fact, Maddock recalled when Canisius lost 68-45 in January of 1997 at Kentucky, and Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton approached Beilein to discuss his strategy.

That’s when Maddock realized Beilein was bound to climb the college basketball coaching ladder.

“I think he has always had the urge to coach at this level, at the highest level,” said Maddock, who was the media relations director for the men’s basketball team during Beilein’s tenure at Canisius. “It’s the highest level of basketball in the world, and I think he wants the opportunity to test himself.”

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