Under head coach Tom Izzo, the Spartans have been to 17 straight NCAA tournaments, made it to eight Final Fours and won it all in 2000 – while graduating 81% of his players.
Not too shabby.
Thanks to the tough schedule Izzo puts together every year, his teams tend to start slowly and then build up steam as March Madness approaches. This year’s team seems to be no exception, winning nine of the last 12 games.
That’s what coaching looks like.
But you’d never know it from watching Izzo during games. His frantic expressions of disbelief and exasperation make you think he’s screaming at some local ne’er do wells who just egged his house.
But hey, it works, so there’s no point changing now.
A few years ago, in 2010, the Spartans lost their star, Kalin Lucas, right before the tournament – and proceeded to get to the Final Four anyway. At the time, I said that might be Izzo’s best coaching job.
Well, Michigan coach John Beilein has already won two Big Ten titles and gotten his team to the NCAA finals, and he’s done it all the right way.
But this year might be the best coaching of his career.
Whatever problems Izzo’s got, Beilein’s got more.
He’s recruited overlooked players and turned them into stars.
Watching them jump to the NBA, four of them in the past two years alone. But this year’s team still looked decent, until injuries cost them three starters.
If all the players had stayed, and stayed healthy, Michigan would be a juggernaut, and the current starters would be on the bench.
But that’s who Beilein has, so that’s who he plays. Against three quality Big Ten teams, Beilein’s rag-tag reserves pushed much better squads to overtime - and lost each time.
On Tuesday night, you could see the long season catching up with them. The Wolverines fell behind to the Spartans early, and never caught up.
This will likely be considered one of Beilein’s worst seasons – but I think it should go down as one of his best.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not that hard to lead when you’re winning. Everyone’s excited to go to practice, and no one wants to see the trainer, even if they’re injured.
No, it’s when you’re losing that good coaches really earn their keep.
Bo Schembechler always said the best coaching job he’d ever seen was form Ara Parseghian, at Northwestern, in 1957.
Were the Wildcats National Champs? No. Big Ten champs? No. They lost every game that season.
But in the process, Parseghian’s steady, sure leadership kept the players from giving up, or pointing fingers. They worked hard, and they stuck together – all year.
The next season, those Wildcats went 5-4, beating both Michigan and Ohio State. Parseghian earned lasting fame when he led Notre Dame to two national titles. But that’s not what Schembechler admired most.
Michigan fans have been pretty patient and understanding. But there are always a few who tweet that Beilein can’t recruit, can’t develop, and can’t coach. But you’ll never hear one of Beilein’s peers say that.
Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins once told me, “Even in a bad year, a good program is a good program.”
And that is exactly what John Beilein has built at Michigan.
The easy prediction is this: The Wolverines will be back next year, with a vengeance. If fans are lucky, the Spartans will be riding high, too, and this rivalry will finally showcase the two teams at their best.
But time is running out.
Izzo is 60 years old, and Beilein is 62. This isn’t going to last forever.
My advice: Quit yer whinin’, and enjoy it while you can.
This is as good as it gets.