Once Tom Izzo got Michigan State’s basketball team rolling in the late ‘90s, the Spartans dominated the state for more than a decade.
Izzo’s teams have earned 16 straight NCAA invitations, seven Big Ten titles, five Final Fours, and one national title, in 2000. Along the way, Izzo took 18 of 21 against the Wolverines, who have had four different head coaches during his tenure.
But what a difference a few years make. Michigan basketball coach John Beilein has beaten the Spartans six of their last eight meetings, and returned the long-dormant program to its previous heights.
And by previous heights, I mean 1986, which is the last time Michigan won the Big Ten title outright. I was a senior that year – about the same age as these players’ parents.
This is just the latest of a lifetime of upsets for Beilein, starting with his coaching career itself.
He was working in a sewer – literally – when his dad appeared in the manhole above, to tell him a job had unexpectedly opened at the local junior high – and maybe he should take it.
At the next six stops before Michigan, Beilein’s players were always too small, so he created a system that stressed outside shooting. His unconventional approach worked in high schools, community colleges and three Division I universities.
But would it work on the Big Ten’s big stage?
After Beilein’s third season in Ann Arbor, when his Wolverines couldn’t win half their games, a lot of folks concluded he wasn’t ready for prime time.
Beilein didn’t listen, sticking to his system, but overhauling his staff.
Those were two big time, gutsy moves – and both worked.
The next year, Beilein’s Wolverines won the Big Ten title.
Last year, they got to the NCAA title game, and this week, they took another Big Ten title – the third straight banner they’ll be hanging in Beilein’s honor.
Unlike a few Michigan banners from the '90s, which were taken down due to NCAA sanctions, these will be up as long as the building.
Because Beilein’s system stresses savvy over size, he can afford to pass on the five-star high school prospects everybody else wants, and take the players they don’t.
The list includes Zack Novak, Trey Burke, Caris Levert, and Nik Stauskas – smart, coachable kids who either graduate on time or go to the NBA.
Then Beilein and his staff develop these overlooked players, turning them into Big Ten stars and NBA regulars.
Beilein has also attracted the sons of NBA stars like Jon Horford, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glen Robinson III. Their parents are rich, so their sons can’t be bought. They know how slick other coaches can be, too, so they can’t be fooled. So when they pick John Beilein’s program to develop their sons as people and as players, that says something.
Beilein pulled off his latest surprise this season.
Michigan lost two stars to the NBA, when first team pre-season All-American Mitch McGary had to to have back surgery mid-season.
Most experts believed Michigan had no chance for another Big Ten title, and might even miss the NCAA tournament.
I wrote, “Do not count them out,” but that’s a far cry from predicting a Big Ten banner.
The team showed more guts than all of us.
Even now, many naysayers believe Michigan won’t go far in the NCAA tournament, but do you really want to bet against Beilein…again?
He has a history of proving the doubters wrong – for his entire life.
If John Beilein is not the Big Ten coach of the year, Michigan should demand a recount.
Don’t be surprised if he wins the national award, too. It’s hard to imagine a more deserving recipient, on or off the court.
Not bad for a guy whose started his coaching career by climbing out of a sewer.