Two Beileins, two championships and a lifetime of lessons
BY BRENDAN QUINN, THE ATHLETIC
NEW YORK — Kathleen Beilein went into labor on March 23, 1983. Her husband, John, was by her side, fresh off his first season as head basketball coach at Nazareth College, a small NAIA school in Rochester, New York. The team went 20-6 and the young couple had no idea what the future held. Kathleen and John had a 3-year-old daughter, Seana, and now welcomed a son, Patrick.
As Kathleen Beilein held her newborn that day, an odd look creeped across John’s face. He needed to leave, he said, and go to Syracuse. Kathleen cocked an eyebrow.
“I have a job interview at Le Moyne,” a 30-year-old John explained. He hadn’t told her beforehand intentionally; didn’t want to add any stress.
Thirty-five years later, in a back hallway at Madison Square Garden, Kathleen Beilein pauses, recounting the absurdity of it all. On Saturday, it was Patrick, not John, who coached Le Moyne College to a conference tournament championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. Patrick is in his third year as head coach at the school, taking the seat his father filled from 1983 to 1992. The following day, on Sunday in New York, it was John’s turn. He coached Michigan to a conference tournament championship, taking down Purdue, 75-66, to snatch the Wolverines’ second straight Big Ten Tournament title, and another berth in the NCAA Division I Tournament.
There is no known database for father-son college coaching duos winning conference tournaments on back-to-back days, but it sure seems fairly rare. It’s also a rarity that, like so many chapters of John Beilein’s biography, comes with bizarre levels of symmetry. Patrick Beilein is not only coaching at John Beilein’s old school, but it’s the same school where John’s uncle, Tommy Niland Jr., is the all-time winningest coach. Remember that interview John had on March 24, 1983? It was with Niland, who served as the school’s athletic director following a 327-win coaching career. The gym at Le Moyne where Patrick Beilein coaches is named the Thomas J. Niland Jr. Athletic Complex.
At 65 years old, John Beilein is at an odd confluence of both his twilight and the finest days of a coaching career that has marched like an army through 40 years and seven colleges. At 34, Patrick is in the spring of a career that looks like it’ll bear some fruit. After going 10-17 his first year at Le Moyne, he’s 46-13 over the last two years. He will be a Division I coach sooner rather than later.
What do father and son have in common? So much and so little, it turns out, but the ties that bind explain so much.
“He’s continually trying to look at the game differently and trying to figure out how he can be better individually,” Patrick Beilein said by phone Sundaymorning, a few hours before Michigan’s win over Purdue. “I think that’s what you’ve seen this season. That’s something I’ve tried to do.”
When a coach is willing to look at the game differently, that coach is also willing to change. And when a coach is willing to change, that’s when a program might, say, shift from being one known for its offense to one that’s known for its defense.
Perhaps this sounds familiar.
Patrick Beilein, third from the left, and Le Moyne celebrate a 69-63 victory over Saint Anselm College in the Northeast-10 Conference championship game Saturday. (Courtesy of Le Moyne)
The Beilein stock is one that, first and foremost, carries the renown of the 2-guard offense. Though he poached parts of it from others, John Beilein is credited with creating this read-and-react offensive scheme of spacing and 3-point shooting. Young Patrick played in the system as a guard at West Virginia, appearing in 128 games for his father, and now coaches his own variation of it at Le Moyne. Whenever he lands that DI job, he’ll undoubtedly be typecast as some offensive savant.
Yet, this weekend, Michigan held Purdue to 66 points, almost 16 points below its season average (81.6 ppg), and Le Moyne held Saint Anselm College to 63, roughly 20 below its average (83.2).
“Our offensive style is one that no one plays in our league and our defense keeps us in games that we’d otherwise lose if we shoot poorly.”
That’s what Patrick Beilein said early Sunday, but it might as well have been his father.
Patrick is an interesting case study in the process being more important than the play. Like the system both he and John Beilein employ, it’s all a matter of time and patience. Their teams hit their strides when what’s asked becomes second nature. That’s how you play well in February and March, and, if you’re lucky enough, April. Similarly, for Patrick’s coaching career, while everyone holds him to his father’s standard and expects him to follow deep footsteps, any deviation from the daily process will change the topography. The moment Patrick worries about his next job, he’ll lose the one that he has now. That’s how John has operated since 1975 and, wouldn’t you know it, from Newfane High School to the University of Michigan, he’s never been fired.
Patrick, for the most part, invokes John’s temperament. They share idiosyncrasies. Patrick crosses his arms and paces the sideline, head tilted downward. He’ll walk toward half court for a play on the opposite end of the floor and take a knee. He coaches with his sleeves rolled up.
He is, though, his mother says, a cooler customer. Patrick Beilein grew up knowing what an unflappable head coach looks like because he’s seen his father as both versions. John Beilein used to be a cannon on the sidelines, but ultimately evolved into his current self. Even still, he’ll unload time and again, but John is generally viewed as a picture of composure.
Patrick, having grown alongside his father’s evolution, has opted for the unruffled version. He describes his coaching style as “never too high and never too low” and explained: “I’ve found, when everyone is flustered, that’s a time to teach.”
“I think he handles the wins and losses well, maybe even better than John did in his early years,” Kathleen Beilein said. “Maybe he’s had a good example to follow.”
This is where they’re different and the same all at once. John spent his boyhood days running around an apple orchard in a small town north of Buffalo. Winds blew from the north, off Lake Ontairo, pushing shots that John fired at an old backboard atop a 10-foot pole. He didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps as a laborer at a box factory in the nearby town of Tonawanda. He wanted, instead, to do what his uncle did, and occasionally got to see games at Le Moyne as a kid.
Patrick Beilein, on the other hand, was born in it. He grew up in the gym, terrorizing the court at Le Moyne on his Big Wheel. Then he inherited the narcotic ambition that makes obsessive coaches be obsessive coaches. He’s the only one of John’s four children to go into coaching and says that, three years into the job at Le Moyne, he only now feels like he’s coaching as himself, as opposed to coaching as John Beilein’s son.
“I think it’s always going be there,” he said, “and I am happy to say that I’m a coach’s son and I’m happy that people recognize him as a great coach, but I also understand I have to win wherever I go.”
Wearing his own skin, Patrick Beilein is becoming keenly aware of what he’s taken from his father and what he’s developed for himself. The shared traits speak to the parallel success. Patrick’s game prep mirrors his father’s — the attention to detail, the pathological film study. He does so while trying to strike a balance that it took John a lifetime to achieve. In recent years at Michigan, Beilein has found the harmony of teaching, coaching and letting go.
“You want to let your guys know that they’re well prepared going into a game and that you’re well prepared,” Patrick Beilein said. “But sometimes there’s a fine line of over-coaching. You don’t want them to be robotic.”
This is why Michigan plays with its defiant rigor. It’s why Le Moyne is doing the same.
John and Patrick talk often. John sends a text message before each game (“Good luck today — dad”) and asks for a picture of every final box score. Patrick watches Michigan games and tells his father what’s right and what’s wrong. He recently diagnosed the hitch in Zavier Simpson’s free-throw stroke from 500 miles away. Despite John’s three extra decades of experience, he doesn’t tell Patrick what he should and shouldn’t do. There are some things, he knows, that Patrick has to learn on his own. That’s why he speaks to his son as a coach.
“It’s never, ‘This is what I did, this is what you should do,’ ” Patrick Beilein said. “He tells me all the time, ‘Coach your team.’ ”
Next Saturday, Patrick will do so against Jefferson University, a Division II school from Philadelphia. The team is led by the legendary Herb Magee, the second all-time winningest coach in the history of college basketball. His 1,074 wins rank behind only Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,096. Le Moyne will host Jefferson in the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament.
Patrick Beilein, of course, will be able to call his dad. John Beilein coached against Magee for years, back when he was at Le Moyne and Magee was coaching what was then called Philadelphia Textile. They had some battles.
John might be able to attend the game. Michigan is off for at least 10 days before starting play in the Division I Tournament and a quick trip to Syracuse might be in order. As it turns out, this would be a good time for father to visit son. Patrick and his wife, Kristen, are expecting their first child. They’re due on March 19.
It’s a boy.