By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – Now coach of South Carolina and formerly coach of Kansas State, Frank Martin understands what it means to try to build a basketball program when the school’s in-state rival contends for a national title every year.
Before leaving to coach the Gamecocks, Martin spent four years with the Wildcats, just down the highway from the college basketball dynasty of the Kansas Jayhawks. That experience gives Martin great appreciation for Michigan’s John Beilein, who has built a program that steadily competes with perennial powerhouse Michigan State.
The Jayhawks and Spartans enjoy powerful and respected personalities at head coach – Bill Self for Kansas, Tom Izzo for Michigan State. Playing those teams twice a year and competing for the same recruits is no picnic.
“It’s hard,” said Martin, who coached alongside Beilein for three weeks in Russia this summer at the World University Games, in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s hard. When John … got to Michigan, Michigan was not at a place that was in reality competing with Michigan State in college basketball. Tom Izzo has just built a machine. It’s unbelievable the culture that he has created there. John has built his culture into his program, and that’s why you see different players, different people, same uniform, same results over the last two or three years.”
The Wolverines had not been to the NCAA tournament since 1998 before Beilein took the team there in 2009 in his second year on the job. After missing the tournament the following season, Michigan advanced to the third round in 2011, the second round in 2012 and the national championship game in 2013. The program has returned to heights unseen since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when many victories were wiped out by NCAA sanctions.
Beilein has restored the program in more ways than one, and the in-state rivalry has turned compelling.
“It’s because of the culture that he’s built, and I would think that’s what we tried to do at K-State,” Martin said. “And I always said this – the idea is not to knock Kansas down. The idea is to match what Kansas is, and if you do that, you create unbelievable atmospheres for the people of your state. You create tremendous interest for the young people of your state, and then you know that you’ve put your program in a place where not only do you compete for a conference championship but a national championship, and I think John’s doing that. I’m sure it’s great times in the state of Michigan when those two teams play each other.”
Before coaching with Beilein this summer, Martin already had great respect for him as a professional and as a person, but working and rooming with him gave Martin an even more favorable perspective. Beilein’s sense of humor and personality impressed him greatly. The duo started their days with Beilein getting up at 4 a.m. each day to watch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings of St. Louis Cardinals baseball. Then they got coffee and went from there.
“He kept [Davidson coach and head coach of Team USA] Bob McKillop and I in a great mood the whole time,” Martin said. “I see why his players love playing for him. He’s got a dynamic to who he is that embraces people. It’s a whole lot of fun to be around.
“He’s simple, he’s honest, he’s clear on his message, and he’s just brilliant,” Martin added. “He’s got a great, great mind.”
To Martin, whose Gamecocks just won a second SEC tournament game Thursday after winning their first since 2008 on Wednesday, Beilein’s greatest strength is the ability to adjust his system to fit the players he has.
“He evolves,” Martin said. “This is what I realized being around him. Everyone says John Beilein, and they equate him to the 1-3-1 zone he played at West Virginia. Well, he barely plays that 1-3-1 anymore. He plays mostly man-to-man. And then offensively, when he had Trey Burke, he tweaked his offense predicated on Burke and [Tim] Hardaway [Jr.], and now he’s got different players, and he tweaks his offense to their personality. His ability to coach to his team is I think his strongest asset, at least that’s what I observe, that’s what I see. He’s not a guy that tries to fit a square into a circle. If he’s got a square, he’s going to mold the frame into a square so it fits the right way. That’s what I think his greatest strength is.
“He’s had real good guards here past couple years,” Martin added. “They’ve been the dominant players on this team. When he was at West Virginia, the dominant player on his team was a 6-11 center in Kevin Pittsnogle. That just shows his ability to take advantage of his best players.”
This season might be one of the best examples of Beilein’s flexibility yet. From the team that got all the way to the national championship game last March, the Wolverines lost superstars Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA and also saw Preseason All-America selection Mitch McGary lost for the season to back problems. Michigan proceeded to win the Big Ten tournament outright for the first time since 1986.
“That’s John Beilein,” Martin said. “That’s what he does. He’s a man that, which is why I have so much respect for him, he doesn’t complain about what he does not have. He focuses on what he does have, and those are some of the values that I try to live my life by, and because he worries about what he does have, he takes advantage of those rather than dwell on the stuff that he does not have. That’s the greatness of John Beilein.”
Others see it, too. Media selected Beilein as Big Ten Coach of the Year, a distinction the coach brushes off in favor of Nebraska’s Tim Miles, whom the league’s coaches voted as the conference’s best. The longer Beilein stays at Michigan, however, the more the evidence piles up.
The eighth-ranked Wolverines are seeded No. 1 for the Big Ten tournament, and they could be as high as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Michigan has now defeated Michigan State in six of the last eight meetings. Beilein might dismiss the idea, but to others, the verdict is in: Beilein is one of the best.