Detroit — John Beilein has a new happy place.
It’s not pacing sidelines and yelling at officials in the Big Ten or in the NBA. It’s not crisscrossing the country pursuing five-star recruits. It’s not at Crisler Center on Michigan’s campus continuing the legacy he built there as the school’s all-time winningest coach.
Beilein has found a new joy in doing what he loves: teaching. It’s always been in his blood, from the time he started as a teacher and basketball coach at Newfane High School in upstate New York in the 1970s, through his various stops in his decorated coaching career of more than 40 years.
In that time, Beilein always had been a head coach. Always in the first chair. Always the one with the whistle, leading the team and the practice plan.
That’s not the happy place anymore.
In his new role as the senior adviser for player development under Pistons coach Dwane Casey, Beilein focuses on what he loves, and not on everything that comes with being an NBA head coach. He gets to pay more attention to the little things — the footwork, the shooting motions, the passing drills and the mundane things that basketball players generally would learn before high school.
That attention to detail became a staple for Beilein’s players at Michigan, and everywhere he’s been. It helped turn fringe college recruits into fundamental NBA players, from Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke and Caris LeVert to Duncan Robinson and Franz Wagner.
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Beilein always was well regarded as one of the best X-and-O coaches in college basketball.
And then the NBA came calling.
After two appearances in the NCAA championship game, Beilein left the comfort of Michigan — where he likely could have stayed as long as he wanted — to chase the dream of coaching in the NBA, with the Cleveland Cavaliers. His tenure lasted less than a season before it imploded in a 14-40 record and a quick exit in February 2020.
“(The time with the Cavs) still left me with a thirst to learn more about the game, albeit not as a head coach, but just to satisfy that jones I have to teach,” Beilein told The Detroit News. “Dwane and I had become friends from that time that he moved to Detroit, and they practiced at Michigan, and we just had been able to correspond by text, and I said one time that if there’s any way I can help in the years to come, let me know.
“Pretty soon, we connected and we talked and he asked me to take this position. I love it.”
Beilein, 69, has fit in with the Pistons’ coaching staff, which almost flipped from last season. There’s more of a focus on the young core, with most of the key pieces under the age of 24. More than that, it’s a group that needs help with basketball fundamentals, which fits right into Beilein’s wheelhouse.
Casey, renowned for his player development system, saw a chance for Beilein to shine in a different environment, and with a young roster of players in the same age range that Beilein was used to dealing with as a college coach, it all came together nicely, and the courtship began.
“I reached out to him after the Cleveland thing, because a lot of times we all need second chances, no matter what happened,” Casey told The News. “He was in Ann Arbor and we communicated and talked, and I invited him to practice and to our games. That’s how it kind of evolved.”
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Beilein had taken the rest of 2020 off from coaching and was working as an analyst for the Big Ten Network, along with teaching a course a Michigan. There was still a void, though. He could have retired with his wife Kathleen and just spent time with his family. Beilein had earned the right to do that.
That’s not how things worked out. Beilein was relaxed and in a different mental space, but basketball came calling again.
“I think we all thought at that point that (because I’ve coached at every level) maybe we could just settle down. I found myself not missing the stress at all last year, but missing the teaching,” Beilein said. “If you watched my ‘Beilein Blueprints’ on Big Ten Network or saw any of the stuff I was doing, I was teaching the game — and that’s when I’m the happiest. So, knowing that Dwane wanted me to try to teach some of the young guys fundamentals helped. (Kathleen) knew where I wanted to go with it.
“When you’re at Michigan and you get to the Final Four, you really did well. To see Detroit get in the playoffs eventually and to know you’re a part of that again, it’s going to be very rewarding, and she knows that’s what this is about, helping Detroit.”
Always a teacher
There’s an old adage: “Once a teacher, always a teacher.”
He’s not always front and center like he was in all his previous coaching stops, which allows him to home in on the minutiae. In practice, Beilein might be watching whether a player’s foot positioning changes when he shoots, where he holds the ball when he passes, or his hand positioning when he attempts a 3-pointer.
All those little things matter.
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Beilein jots them down in a notebook — not an iPad; he’s still old school — and keeps it in his back pocket. At games, he doesn’t sit on the bench; instead, he sits a few rows up in the stands, eyeing everything from a wrist-flick to foot positioning.
“He’s always trying to go around and find whatever he sees that he can help with, or that he can give some insight on. He’s just super involved in practice, he’s active, and he tells us what he sees,” rookie Cade Cunningham said. “He’s won so many games and he’s been around so many big-time players that you have to respect his expertise and respect his perspective on things.
“He’s helped all of us a lot.”
Sometimes that old-school message gets lost on the newer generation of players. Beilein makes a reference to something from the 1960s and young players look around and can’t get the reference.
Beilein’s way includes drills and more drills — and plenty more drills — until things are right. That can rub even veteran NBA players the wrong way, but the more astute ones see the joy in repetition.
“He’s definitely old school. He had some pretty mundane drills and the guys are looking around, like ‘Why are we doing this?’ but when you look at the (mistakes on) tape, you’re like, ‘That’s exactly why we’re doing this,’” said center Kelly Olynyk, whose father was a head coach at the University of Toronto. “You can’t really judge things until you’ve gone through them and sometimes, you don’t see the impact until down the line.
“You don’t appreciate what people say or what you have until you’re older and wiser. When your parents tried to tell you stuff when you’re younger, and you’re kind of blowing them off, it’s not important and you don’t need that. Now, you’re 30 years old and you’re telling your younger siblings or your kids or the rookies the same thing.”
Focus on fundamentals
After so many years of being the lead guy, having a title other than “head coach” doesn’t bother Beilein. He’s settled into a new stage of his life and his career in which he cares more about the teaching and the development of players than anything else.
“After 45 years of being ‘the buck stops with you’ guy, it’s nice to just give suggestions and Dwane is so receptive to any ideas I may have. He’s a lifer like me, and I think we’re both lifelong learners, so it’s really neat to share information,” Beilein said. “I know a couple of my wife’s friends have said, ‘John looks so much less stressed these days.’
“I’ll let other people be the judge of it, but … I’m looking at a lot of other things besides just like how can we win the game? Just how can we improve individually?”
Many NBA basketball coaching staffs have someone like Beilein, an old-school coach who bridges the gap and has a sense of the history of the game and an appreciation for the fundamentals.
“Coach Beilein is that type of person — he’s a basketball savant when it comes to that information and guys that really want to get better, they listen to the information and take the information the way it’s given, no matter what form it’s in,” Casey said. “Coach is a good man. There’s no fluff around him. It’s basketball, and that’s what we need, especially with our young team.”