Why not cheer for John Beilein?

Many local college basketball fans had hoped to be watching Ohio State in tonight’s Final Four in Atlanta.

However, since Wichita State had other ideas and eliminated the Buckeyes last weekend in the ‘Elite 8,’ area fans will probably be pulling for Michigan this weekend.

You might be thinking, ‘for Michigan?’

Well, if you can’t pull yourself to root for the Wolverines, you can at least root for head coach John Beilein.

Beilein, the Wolverines’ head coach, is a 1975 graduate of Wheeling College, which is now Wheeling Jesuit University.

“John was a fair player at best, but he was a really great guy,” said his former teammate and then coach Tom Bechtel. “I know he loved the game, but I’d be lying if I sat here and said I thought he’d end up being the head coach at Michigan.”

Beilein came to Wheeling from upstate New York as a guard candidate for the Cardinals.

“We had a really good team with some all-conference guards and “Lein” couldn’t get in much,” Bechtel said. “There was just no playing time for him, but he always got after it and worked really hard because he just loved the game. It’s easy to say, in retrospect, that he was a great student of the game.”

Beilein graduated with his degree in history and headed back to his native New York State.

Bechtel and many others, whom Beilein had grown close to during his years in Wheeling, stayed in contact with one another, but reaching people who’ve moved away wasn’t as easy in the mid 70s as it is today.

An admitted basketball junkie himself, Bechtel was sitting in his office at the Wheeling Recreation Department skimming through a pre-season publication in 1992 and noticed Canisius University had hired Beilein as its new head coach.

“I called the basketball office at Canisius and he wasn’t in, so they gave me his home number,” Bechtel recalled. “I hadn’t talked to him in 18 years probably, but we talked like it was just yesterday.”

Beilein and Canisius opened that season at two-time defending national champion Duke.

“I called him and asked for a couple of tickets, so my buddy and I headed down to Durham,” Bechtel said.

Immediately upon arriving at the Cameron Indoor Stadium, Bechtel sought out Beilein.

“I had to do a double take when I saw him because I hardly recognized him, but it had been a while,” Bechtel said.

Beilein stayed at Canisus until 1997 when he was hired at the University of Richmond. He spent five seasons with the Spiders because he returned to the Mountain State as the head coach at West Virginia University.

“We were extremely excited for him when he got that WVU job,” Bechtel said. “I think we had 11 of his former teammates and classmates make the trip down to Morgantown for his first game. After the game, we went out to dinner and just told stories the entire time.”

Beilein, who is widely regarded as one of the true good guys in the coaching business, certainly won’t get any argument on that from his friends in Wheeling.

According to Bechtel, one of the first things that Beilein did when he signed his contract with the Mountaineers was give back to one of his best friends at Wheeling College.

“Bernie McDermott was a former custodian and Beilein had always kept in touch with him,” Bechtel said. “Bernie got sick. After getting the WVU job, (Beilein) drove to Wheeling, bought him a lift chair because it was one of his final wishes. Unfortunately, Bernie died just a couple of weeks later. John’s just that kind of good-hearted, great person. Plus, he’s never met a stranger.”

Beilein gets the opportunity to talk about his time in the Ohio Valley quite frequently because highly regarded offical Ted Valentine works a lot of games in the Big Ten.

“He’s told me that every time Valentine officiates one of his games, he tells Beilein that he’d be a much better coach if he had listened to me,” Bechtel said.

Many were stunned when Beilein resigned at WVU, which he guided to an Elite 8, to accept the Michigan job in 2007. A lot of Mountaineer fans were highly upset, especially since just a few months prior, the Wolverines had hired Rich Rodriguez away.

“It was never about the money,” Bechtel said. “People also thought his wife was never fond of Morgantown, which was never true. It was just about Michigan being a better basketball job and the ability to recruit.”

It’s certainly worked out for Beilein, who is now coaching the national collegiate player of the year in Trey Burke and has his Wolverines set to meet Syracuse tonight in the second national semifinal.

“My head says Louisville is probably the best team in it, but who would have thought Michigan would come back to beat Kansas? Or beat Florida or VCU the way it did?,” Bechtel said. “They’ve definitely earned my respect. And my heart certainly says Michigan.”


ON TOP of Beilein, a few other area connections to the Final Four, including five players who took part in the Cancer Research Classic during their prep careers. Three of those players – Michael Carter-Williams, Jerami Grant and Rakeem Christmas – play for Syracuse. Burke, who played at Northland High School in Columbus, played in the 2011 CRC and Gorgui Dieng, who played at Huntington Prep, suits up for Louisville.

Staskey can be reached at sstaskey@timesleader-online.com