By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — Beilein country is blooming, even with its native son drawing so many supporters to basketball’s biggest event.
Third-generation relatives of Michigan coach John Beilein shot baskets Saturday night out back from the same farmhouse on Lake Road in rural Burt that Beilein and his eight siblings grew up in.
The Wolverines’ Final Four victory over Syracuse was projected from an iPad onto the side of the house, now owned by Beilein’s niece, Sarah, and her husband, Mike Cappen. TVs were tucked into every available space inside. More than 40 family and friends gathered to watch “Uncle John” lead his team to tonight’s national championship game. A bonfire roared. The group roared louder.
The backyard “mud court,” as Tom Beilein described it, has been paved over. A modern hoop with glass backboards has been installed. But the old iron John spent every spare hour shooting at still hangs from a big tree.
“It almost brought me to tears having the family together in that spot in Burt, New York, rooting for my uncle,” said Bill Beilein, Sarah’s brother and the coach at nearby Niagara County Community College.
“I was in awe. It was just perfect, the atmosphere, the third generation of Beileins cheering just as loud as the first.”
The party will continue tonight in Burt, while Bill Beilein joins the growing contingent in Atlanta.
“I have eight brothers and sisters, big family,” John Beilein told reporters Sunday in Atlanta. “I was fortunate enough to go to a pretty good high school. The bonds that were formed between those guys and my family, all my 44 nieces and nephews, 22 just on my side, with those nine kids. So many people that have followed this career, whether they went to West Virginia games, Richmond games. Every year there has been a bus … 45 people from Lockport, from Danny Sheehan’s Steakhouse would come to a game every year.”
Beilein said players from his coaching stops at Erie Community College, Nazareth, LeMoyne, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia have also descended on Atlanta and jumped on the Maize and Blue bandwagon.
One of those ECC players, former University at Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon, said “it’s hard to describe how uplifting it is, and how inspiring it is to have been there in his second year as a head coach and see all of the values, all of the virtues, and now see them getting the exposure of being in the national championship game.”
Mike Ennis, owner of Danny Sheehan’s Steakhouse and a childhood friend of John Beilein’s, estimated Beilein had more than 40 family members in the stands Saturday and more than 100 people attended a Sunday morning Mass that Beilein helped to organize with Niagara coach Joe Mihalich.
“John has this huge extended family and this huge network of coaching friends and admirers,” said John Murphy, voice of the Buffalo Bills and a classmate of Beilein’s at DeSales Catholic. “Even a rival coach like Joe Mihalich has a stake in John. People who love his story and have crossed path over the years, there’s so many of them here rooting for him.”
“This is our Super Bowl,” Ennis said. “We’ve followed John for 35 years and this is his moment, his ‘One Shining Moment,’ as Murph would say. It’s been a great ride for John and for the rest of us.”
The group of DeSales graduates runs about a dozen deep. Since Beilein left Canisius, they have taken an annual bus trip to see their friend coach. Counting Saturday’s win, Beilein’s teams are 14-1 with that crew in the crowd. The lone loss came in the first year of Beilein’s rebuilding job at Michigan, at the Carrier Dome, to a Syracuse team that was headed for a national championship.
“I think John knows we’re kind of his good luck charm,” Ennis said.
“It’s what I love about what I do,” John Beilein said. “Because of a game, maybe it’s free tickets sometimes, but we can bring people together, family together that doesn’t see each other except at a family reunion, or high school reunion.
“I love that we won because they paid a lot of money to come. Especially from Buffalo to come down to Atlanta, especially in this nice weather now, for four days.”
“There are an awful lot of people in Western New York that have been a big part of our lives and our family’s life,” Beilein said last week in an appearance on Murphy’s WGR radio show.
“I hope they’re rooting for us.”Follow Jonah Bronstein online at www.twitter.com/lebronstein