Coaches talk about John Beilein with the respect due a self-made man. In a profession known for its systems and disciples, Beilein is a product of his own making: At 49 years old, in his 28th year of coaching, he has always been his own boss.
Beilein has never been an assistant coach at any level, from the day he took over as the junior varsity coach at Newfane Central High School in his native upstate New York in 1975. He is the only coach to have won 20 games at four levels: junior college (Erie Community College), NAIA (Nazareth), Division II (LeMoyne) and Division I, with five-year stints at Canisius and Richmond before his arrival at West Virginia last spring.
He took the job in April, and was at best West Virginia's third choice -- after alumnus and Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins turned the job down and Bowling Green Coach Dan Dakich accepted, then reneged, after the revelation of secondary NCAA violations regarding the team's best player, Jonathan Hargett, who later left the team.
Beilein has coaxed the Mountaineers (13-13, 4-10) out of turmoil and to the brink of a .500 record or better, including victories over Florida and Tennessee, with five returning players that combined to average 30.8 points a season ago. Along with Seton Hall's Louis Orr, he is a leading candidate for the Big East's coach of the year award.
"He's handled a very, very difficult situation [and] done an incredible job," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who got to know Beilein at cross-town LeMoyne and recommended him for the Canisius job. "There's no surprise."
West Virginia hosts Georgetown today in a critical game for both teams' Big East tournament hopes. Although a loss would not eliminate the Hoyas (13-12, 5-9) from postseason consideration, a victory would ensure them a spot in the tournament at Madison Square Garden and at least a .500 season -- which would make them eligible for the National Invitation Tournament.
The Mountaineers lost the teams' first meeting, 84-82, in overtime on Jan. 24 -- the Hoyas' lone overtime victory in eight tries over the past two seasons -- and West Virginia has lost seven of its past nine games as the strain of playing its five starters so heavily has worn on the Mountaineers.
"We never pretended to be a top 20 team," Beilein said. "Every one of those games was against a Pittsburgh or a Syracuse."
Before West Virginia, Beilein was coming off his most high-profile achievement, shepherding supposedly undermanned Richmond from the Colonial Athletic Association to a 22-14 record and the Atlantic 10 tournament final in his lone year in the conference.
"The award went to [Xavier's] Thad Matta, but John was our coach of the year," Saint Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli said. "He did the most with the least. For him to have double-figure wins [this year] is absolutely outstanding. You'll not hear about him from the guys on television, but he is the coach of year there. Anybody that asks that is wasting their time."
Beilein said his career path allowed him to develop his unique system without the pressures of a big-time program. He has brought in new ideas by hiring assistants from other programs, not former players, and gradually added new wrinkles. His nearly two decades in the lower ranks -- four at Erie, one at Nazareth, nine at LeMoyne, five at Canisius -- strengthened his conviction.
"He doesn't expect his players to do anything different from the first day to the last," said George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga, who faced Beilein for four years in the CAA. "The players learn the system and get better and better as they get older. Some coaches alter what they do significantly as their personnel changes. He has remained consistent."
His best teams are full of veterans who have learned to make the complicated reads that Beilein requires, and his freshman- and sophomore-heavy roster has labored to understand them this season. Beilein's system uses different means to the same ends as the famed Princeton offense, capitalizing on spacing through cutting -- lots of cutting -- and ball reversals. Also, his teams rarely turn the ball over, putting a premium on every possession.
"He keeps teams on defense for 20, 25, 30 seconds, knowing that someone in the five defenders will break down," said Dick Tarrant, who coached Richmond to a string of NCAA tournament upsets a decade ago. Tarrant brought Beilein to the attention of Richmond administrators, and was a radio analyst for much of Beilein's career there.
"Nobody else does what he does. It's a sophisticated offense he runs; you have to have a high basketball IQ to play in it. He doesn't really have that right now. You'll see in the next year or two when he gets his kind of kid in there. He'll give those people fits."