By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — John Beilein has long been an important figure at the Final Four.
For years, the Newfane native has brought together friends, family and colleagues in town for the annual National Association of Basketball Coaches convention at a Sunday morning Mass near the site of the NCAA championships.
In his 35th year of coaching, Beilein was blessed to be too busy to organize a congregation at the Final Four. His Michigan Wolverines will be playing Syracuse tonight in the national semifinals.
On Monday morning, at the begining of the biggest preparation week of his career, Beilein called up Joe Mihalich, an old friend and the coach at Niagara University, where Beilein earned his Master's degree.
"You must have pocket dialed me," Mihalich remarked.
"I need your help," Beilein said.
"You're not calling me to talk about zone offense, are you?" Mihalich said.
Mihalich always goes to breakfast with Beilein following Mass at the Final Four. So after Beilein made the initial call to a priest in Atlanta, he recruited Mihalich to do the rest of the planning.
"He's in the middle of watching tape and getting ready for his game and he's taking the time to make sure everything is going to work with the priest he talked to and all of the people going to this Mass," Mihalich said. "That tells you everything you need to know about John Beilein."
"He's a great coach and an even better person," said Medaille College coach Mike MacDonald, an assistant under Beilein at Canisius in the '90s. "He is the ultimate role model for all of his assistants on how to act as a coach, as a person, as a father and a husband. He's a great family man."
Those traits Beilein took from his father, Art Beilein, in Apple farmer in rural Burt who worked as a plant supervisor at a paper mill in Tonawanda.
The competitive drive that carried Beilein from the Newfane junior varsity to one of the most storied programs in college basketball — with stops at every rung on the coaching ladder — was inherited from his mother, the former Josephine Niland, one of 13 siblings in Buffalo's first family of basketball coaching.
"Anytime you get the Beileins and the Nilands together, you get these extraordinary stories of feats of strength and what they had to go through," said Bill Beilein John's nephew and the coach at Niagara County Community College. "I don't even know if all of them are true. We're all very competitive."
The most extraordinary story, the one about Tonawandans Fritz, Bobby, Preston and Ed Niland fighting in World War II, was true, though some details were fictionalized in the film "Saving Private Ryan."
Among other verifiable feats in the athletic realm, Joe Niland is the second-winningest coach ever at Canisius (behind Beilein), worked as a scout during the Buffalo Braves's heyday, and is a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Mike Niland was a successful football and basketball coach at Bishop Duffy High School. Tom Niland, who was also a World War II veteran, started the athletic program at LeMoyne College, where he would later hire a young coach named John Beilein.
"It's definitely in the genes," said Tom Beilein, the former Niagara County Sherrif and John's older brother. "I see the Niland competitive spirit in John. He may not show it. I've heard them say he doesn't show emotion. But I can assure you, that competitive spirit is there.
"John was the youngest. When we would play baseball, he wouldn't strike out. He would take strike four and strike five and he wouldn't leave the plate. He'd stand there, determined to hit the ball."
Beilein's coaching philosophies have evolved over the years, but they are based on the principles on which Joe Niland built his program a generation earlier.
"From what I can recollect, my fathers teams were very disciplined, they played extremely hard, they were solid fundamentally," said Joe Niland Jr., who recently earned his 400th career win coaching at the University of Mobile. "His team played hard, solid man-to-man defense and they valued the basketball."
When Beilein was struggling to identify a primary ballhandler on his 1983 LeMoyne team, Tom Niland suggested he run a two-guard offense. Over the years, that system has become a Beilein signature.
Joe and Tom Niland, both Canisius Athletics Hall of Fame members, pushed hard for the Golden Griffins to hire Beilein in 1992.
"Not because he was related, but because they knew he could coach," said Dave Niland, a former Canisius assistant who has coached at Penn State-Behrend for the last 19 years. "I know they are happy looking down," Dave Niland said. "They may not have said it to him. It was hard to get praise from guys like that. But my father told me toward the end of his life that he was very proud of John and thought the world of him as a coach."Follow Jonah Bronstein on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lebronstein