Saturday, April 6, 2013

Beilein Perfect Example of MAAC-Like Qualities

John Beilein's run to this year's Final Four, including his Michigan team's semifinal-round game tonight against Syracuse, is about a lot more than one of our own making good,

Beilein got his first opportunity to coach at the Division I level at Canisius, where ran that program for five seasons (1992-93 through 1996-97).

His story is also about a good person making good. But that, in many respects, epitomizes what often comes out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Beilein is the living example of having an exemplary moral compass and a do-it-right philosophy that usually gets developed by experience at a mid-major level, like the MAAC. Those who have those qualities don't suddenly forget about all that as he, or she, progresses up the sport's ladder to the so-called big time.

Beilein's best qualities are well described by the terrific New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro, who got to know the former Canisius coach a little better in recent days.

Vaccaro tells us of about when, in 1995 in the consolation game of the NIT, Beilein's Canisius team was playing Penn State. Beilein was three years into his work turning around the Buffalo school and a victory over the Nittany Lions at that point certainly would have enhanced his resume.

"If you're a climber," Mike McDonald, Beilein's assistant at the time (and, eventual successor at Canisius), told Vaccaro, "then that's the perfect place to start padding your resume."

Instead, Beilein's starting lineup that night included senior walk-on John Gorman, who scored a grand total of four points that season.

:What the hell," McDonald remembers Beilein as saying. "He (Gorman) deserves it."

Penn State beat Canisius that day by two points.

There aren't any who know Beilein as anything but a class act, a guy who does things the right way. Who always did, beginning at Newfane High School in Western New York when he was the head coach of that school's JV program, to four years at Erie Community College, one at Nazareth College (Rochester, N.Y.) and nine at Le Moyne (Syracuse, N.Y.) before he came to Canisius.

Beilein is a a relative rare individual in that he has never been anywhere when he hasn't been a head coach. And for the first 22 years of his progression through the ranks his experience came at levels far below the big-time level.

Even now he exhibits the qualities he learned during his younger years. Vaccaro relates that even during the build up to the Final Four, the busiest week of his life, Beilein sent text messages to friends, telling them he had arranged to have a private Mass tomorrow morning. He had reserved a priest and a room at his team's hotel, and needed a few volunteers to help as alter servers and lectors.

And, how many other coaches that ever made it to the Final Four have ever done that?

But, Beilein is not alone in carrying the core values learned in the MAAC to the next level.

When Paul Hewitt was at Siena (1997-98 through 1999-2000), he required not only that his players attend class but that they sit in the front of classrooms and participate actively in class discussions, that they dress respectfully (no collarless shorts), that they be cleanly groomed.

Hewitt talked about how, at the MAAC level, he thought it was as important, if not more so, to prepare his players for life when their basketball careers ended.

Hewitt took that philosophy with him to Georgia Tech where he coached for 11 years and, again, to George Mason, his current coaching position.

When Mike Deane, another former Siena coach, got to Marquette, he told administrators of that relatively small Catholic college, that his aim was to bring in the "right kind" of students to play basketball there. If it meant the program wouldn't be going to the NCAA tournament every year, so be it. The NIT isn't bad, either, Deane reasoned.

But when Deane's teams only made it to the NCAA tournament once in his five seasons there, that wasn't good enough. Despite 100 victories, including four 20-win seasons, over five years, that wasn't good enough either and Deane was fired after his fifth year. He made it known that the school's administrators had a higher  competitive vision for their program than Deane did, that it was willing to take some "risks" in terms of bringing in players that Deane wasn't willing to take.

It certainly didn't hurt Jimmy Patsos' pursuit of the Siena job, to which he was named earlier this week, that he is well known for his efforts to enhance his players' educational and cultural knowledge beyond the court. Patsos uses road trips to take players to museums, historical sites, landmarks and tourist attractions. He uses movies to send messages. He engages his players in conversations that have nothing to do with basketball. Imagine that.

Yet, isn't that what college sports should be all about?

At the MAAC level, the "student" description of student-athlete still deservedly come first. That's not always the case at the higher levels.

But, it is at Michigan, with Beilein in charge.

And, maybe, those administrators at big-time programs should take that into consideration.

Coaching change goes on for some MAAC coaches. Hofstra is rumored to be heavily involved with Iona coach Tim Cluess.

Cluess is often maligned for taking the non-traditional route of relying more heavily on transfers and former junior college players than any MAAC coach in the league's history.

But, your scribe can't recall a single case of an Iona player being anything other than a good example of what a mid-major level player is supposed to be, a good representative of that particular institution.

Hofstra (and, yes, Rutgers right now) should take note.

It's time, now, that a search for a coach shouldn't be restricted to those who only know the sport's highest level because the do-everything-necessary-to-win attitude that exists in big-time college sports brings with it too many negatives.

It's time that big-time programs look to mid-major levels like the MAAC for coaches who are groomed to believe their athletes are students first. Its time to identify future hires from a pool of coaches whose moral compass points in the right direction, who believe in teaching academic and life's lessons as much as they teach basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they'll come up with the next John Beilen,

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