Education trumped wins in John Beilein's hall of fame coaching career

In this March 12, 2009 file photo, then-Michigan coach John Beilein, the Burt native, directs his team during the first half of a game against Iowa at the Big Ten men's basketball tournament in Indianapolis.

BUFFALO — When John Beilein resigned as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in February 2020, he found himself out of coaching for the first time in 45 years.

As time passed — unlike many coaches who leave the profession — Beilein didn’t need to soothe a basketball itch. He yearned to teach.

From his beginnings as a high school coach at Newfane to national championship games at Michigan and into the NBA, Beilein always considered himself a teacher. Instead of teaching history, he taught basketball.

After stepping away from his post with the Cavaliers after 54 games, the Burt native returned to Michigan to teach a class in leadership in coaching for two semesters in 2021.

Beilein received the night off to return to Western New York to be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday, but since June he has served as a senior advisor for player development for the Detroit Pistons, where his job is to teach players and coaches how to improve.

“Losses did not bother me. The pressure to keep winning started to bother me,” Beilein said. “The losses allowed me to get better as a coach. I missed watching a team lose, and a month later, go back and beat a team really well because they got better.”

As Beilein’s career progressed through stops in nine different cities, basketball also progressed into a money-making juggernaut, particularly at the Division I and professional levels. But Beilein still viewed himself as a teacher at each location.

In fact, Beilein can draw similarities from coaching Newfane in the 1970s to coaching the Cavaliers in 2020. Beilein recalled vomiting before his first game as a junior varsity coach for the Panthers in 1975, and although he stopped feeling ill prior to games over time, the excitement of gameday was always the same.

But no matter where he coached, Beilein always viewed basketball as a vehicle to educate his players.

“The film sessions, the basketball court was a classroom in many ways and I treated it like that in many ways,” Beilein said. “I didn’t get emotional or upset very many times. I just continued to try to teach and get better as an educator when the education was in winning basketball games.”

In the future, Beilein hopes he can return to MIchigan again as a professor and possibly resume work as a basketball analyst on television, but his current role with the Pistons was “too good to pass up.”

His new post allows room to teach without the pressure of boosters, fans or an NBA front office to win games. Beilein won often, recording 754 wins at the collegiate level, while suffering just five losing seasons in 41 years. He went 14-40 with a rebuilding Cleveland squad, but the joy of winning grew smaller as the pressure to win became greater.

Reflecting on his career prior to being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Beilein said he believes that if he never had the opportunity to climb the coaching ladder, he would have lived a fulfilling life as a high school coach and teacher.

Although, if Beilein remained at Newfane, he says there would have been some side bets with close friend and Wilson resident Walter Moxham when the Panthers played rival the Lakemen.

“I still see myself as a seventh-grade social studies teacher,” Beilein said. “I joked one time that I was probably the most overpaid social studies teacher in the world when I was coaching Michigan and in the NBA. I just loved that. I know that if I had stayed at Newfane, Erie Community College, Nazareth or Le Moyne, I know that I’d still be happy right now.”

Nick Sabato can be reached via email at nick.sabato@gnnewspaper.com or on Twitter @NickSabatoGNN.

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