SAN ANTONIO, Texas — John Beilein sounded ready for the question Sunday about which actor would play the two coaches left if there were a movie about this NCAA tournament. Michigan’s coach offered your standard Jay Wright imagery.
“At the end of the game tomorrow, he’ll still look like George Clooney,’’ Beilein said.
For himself, Beilein named a dead guy: “I will look like Columbo by Peter Falk at the end of that thing, so there’s your comparison.”
It’s fairly easy to tab Beilein, going for his career 800th victory in addition to an NCAA title game Monday at the Alamodome, as the old, rumpled TV detective who just has one more question, which inevitably solves the crime. Sunday, the 65-year-old also threw out a couple of other from-another-time references — who else compares one of his current players to ‘70s NBA guard Randy Smith?
“I’m a Buffalo Braves fan from way back,’’ Beilein said.
There’s a homespun quality about Beilein, even when frustrated. His team was down to Loyola-Chicago early in Saturday’s second half when a Michigan reserve traveled. Beilein let loose full force, “God-dang-it!”
The wrinkle: Beilein is as modern a coach as anyone at any level of the game, far ahead of the curve in loving big men who can shoot it, a walking clinic on ball movement, always evolving, constantly finding a new technique to solve the crime.
“They were hard to guard then,’’ Wright said Sunday about facing West Virginia when he and Beilein got to the Big East at the same time. “But now with the addition of pick and roll and drive in space, they’re brutal. They’re at a whole other level now.”
At Michigan, Beilein has been within a play of winning a national title. No, he doesn’t stop this weekend to smell any roses, although he does hear the music playing outside his hotel.
“I’m looking and saying, boy, those guys are all having fun,’ ” Beilein said. “But we have work to do.”
Enjoying it all? That question gets to him a little. What is he supposed to say?
“I’m not enjoying this — I’m working,’’ he said. “I love working. It’s not like I’m sitting around laughing all day long and saying isn’t this great.”
He said all this pleasantly, by the way. Beilein was loose at the podium during his media session, impressing himself with his impression of his German big man, Moe Wagner. And the old references are combined with new ones, including the number of Twitter followers one of his former guys picked up during an epic NCAA performance.
He’s just known struggles. Beilein brought up how when he got to West Virginia from Richmond and Wright to Villanova from Hofstra, “we were both just trying to win a game. And the NCAA tournament was a dream at that point for both of us.”
If Beilein is revered by colleagues, most of all it’s because he is a living monument to being able to move up in the profession. He hit all the stops. High school history teacher and JV coach. Promoted to varsity. The big move to the local community college. NAIA program moving to Division III. Up to D-II, then Canisius, on to Richmond, before West Virginia, then the Wolverines.
Wright said he first came across Beilein as the Le Moyne coach when Wright was starting out as an assistant at Rochester.
“Division III assistant is about as low as you can be in the college basketball business,’’ Wright said, noting how in upstate New York, Beilein was a big deal. “Just like he is now, just nicest guy in the world. … But the recruiting back then — we would recruit guys all year, then John would wait until the end of the year, because he had the scholarship, [and] we didn’t.”
That’s right, a Final Four news conference included Rochester-Le Moyne recruiting battles.
“You’d be on a guy and you’d just hope you wouldn’t see John in the gym,’’ Wright said. “And, like, in April, he’d pop in and he’d see you. You’d say, ‘Are you going to take him, John?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry, but we’re going to take him. ‘ ”
Life moved on. They both hit the Big East. Their wives became close, playing tennis together at the yearly conference get-togethers.
There’s one more minor connection that neither coach may even know about. When Villanova went after Hofstra’s coach, Wright was the school’s sole target. Former athletic director Vince Nicastro used the word “exclusively” in describing whom they were going after.
However, just in case Wright decided the big Rutgers offer was the one he would take, Villanova needed a backup plan. Everyone has to have a list. The name on top of that list, John Beilein.
Nicastro, now the Big East’s deputy commissioner, confirmed this historical footnote Sunday, saying he didn’t really know Beilein at the time, just his reputation. He remembers mentioning Beilein to Michael Tranghese, then commissioner of the Big East, who was effusive in his praise for the then-Richmond coach
There was no contact by Villanova. Again, Wright was their guy. No need to imagine some alternate history.
“It worked out all right for everyone,’’ Nicastro said.