John Beilein: Man of Example, Man of Faith

University of Michigan basketball coach John Beilein credits commitment to prayer as source of his strength

University of Michigan basketball coach John Beilein credits commitment to prayer as source of his strength (Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan)

The door to Crisler Arena opens at 10 a.m. as University of Michigan head basketball coach John Beilein represents the first of many staff members and players to enter the arena for an early-season game that evening against the Utah Utes. He’s faced with the challenge of leading one of only four teams in the entire NCAA Division I without a senior on its roster, and a Michigan Wolverines squad that media outlets nationwide are predicting to be irrelevant in the Big Ten this season. Beilein smiles at the fact, as his greatest joy comes from coaching young teams, or as he phrases it, “putting the puzzle together.” Although tip-off isn’t until 7 p.m., Beilein’s day begins more than 12 hours earlier to fully prepare himself and his team for their second game of the 2010-2011 season. In leading such an inexperienced team, he acknowledges mistakes and losses are part of the learning process, but moves forward with an integrity and humility that recently landed him a leading position on the NCAA Ethics Coalition. Beilein approaches the challenges of leadership both on and off the court with a foundation that has defined the majority of his life: his Catholic faith.

In a recent series of interviews with the Review, Beilein shared stories of his life and how he incorporates his faith into leading as a coach, a father, and a role model.

Upon walking into Beilein’s basketball office, a family atmosphere is evident. An enormous framed photo of the 2010-2011 team standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, with arms draped around one another, hangs in the lobby between the coaches’ offices in remembrance of the team’s nine-day trip to Europe this past summer. The fourth-year head coach of the Michigan Wolverines sits cross-legged in a matching set of blue sweats on a couch in his own office, and I grab a chair next to him. We chat around a miniature wooden table shaped like a basketball court, with maize and blue pegs each with a specific number to represent a player’s position on the court. Above the couch where Beilein is sitting hangs a frame with a full-court shot of Crisler Arena during the second half of the Wolverines’ 2008 upset victory against Duke.

Game days for Beilein begin the same as almost every other day: with prayer. “Usually in the morning, I start the day to try and get in touch with my faith,” he says. “And then on the weekends and during Lent, I make daily Mass as often as I can, but it’s not more than two or three days a week.” He cites the three-minute prayers from Loyola Press, a Catholic Jesuit Ministry, as a foundation that strengthens him throughout a 15-hour game day during the week that usually begins around 7 a.m. and finishes about 10 p.m., depending on the starting time of Michigan’s game. “It gives me great structure for how I should live my life,” Beilein says of his Catholic faith and morning prayer habits. Following prayer, he immediately dives into studying film of the team’s practice from the day before. The day continues as Beilein reviews the game plan and scouting reports for Michigan’s opponent one final time with his assistant coaches in the morning, and with the team in the afternoon before tip-off in the evening.

Since graduating high school, Beilein knew his calling was to become a coach. On his first date with Kathleen, his wife of 31 years, he recalls telling her that one day she was going to see him on television coaching against the likes of Bobby Knight. In 2005, his West Virginia Mountaineers knocked off Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech Red Raiders to advance to the Sweet 16 in that year’s NCAA tournament. Throughout his 35 year coaching career, starting at a high school junior varsity level in 1975, to becoming an NCAA Division I coach at Canisius College, Richmond, West Virginia, and now Michigan with some stops in-between, Beilein has relied largely on his Catholic faith and a determination to lead by example in coaching his players. Of course, not every player on his team follows a Christian faith, but that doesn’t prevent Beilein and his assistants from fully living the positive principles of their faiths around the team. To reach out to his squad, Beilein relies mostly on being a humble example while supporting players with desires to pursue a spiritual life, themselves. “If they want to worship in some way on Sundays or if they want to express their faith in some way, we try to encourage them,” he remarks. “I think our locker room has a very great respect for people with many religions, and some players are more outgoing in their faith than others, but we respect everyone’s.”

If there’s anybody who can relate to a religious upbringing, it’s Beilein. The eighth of nine children, Beilein developed his religious roots from his Roman Catholic family, who he credits for his strong faith foundation. “There was never any discussion whether we were going to attend Mass on Sunday,” he says. “It was a given—it was happening, and basically I’ve lived my whole life like that.” Growing up as an altar boy in St. Charles Borromeo parish in his hometown of Olcott, New York, Beilein’s Catholicism was fostered by the devotion of his family as well as a priest at St. Charles Borromeo, Father Eugene Wagner. “He was a very good athlete and had a tremendous interest in our well-being,” says Beilein of the late priest. Beilein’s grandmother also worked as a housekeeper at the church where he received the Sacraments of First Communion, First Reconciliation, and Confirmation. He was baptized and married in different parishes, as he and Kathleen tied the knot in St. Mary’s parish in nearby Lockport, New York. Church wasn’t just a Sunday obligation for the Beilein family, but a part of life.

The Michigan coach’s faith was put to test at a young age. As a teenager, his brother, Tom, served in Vietnam, while his sister, Kathleen, served in Korea at the same time. “Faith was always part of our lives that we were all very proud of, but most importantly it gave our family strength during some very important times,” Beilein remarks while reflecting on his siblings’ service in the military and also citing several heart attacks his father endured during his childhood. “There are some very difficult times when you have a family that big, but faith helped us get through it.”

The Beilein Family: (Back from left) sons Patrick and Mark, (Front from left) son Andrew, wife Kathleen, John, daughter Seana, and son-in-law Ryan

Now, as a father himself, Beilein has played a more direct role in the faith and spiritual direction of his family, and he embraces that role with joy. Although the ages of sons Patrick, Mark, and Andrew, and daughter Seana, range from 20 to early 30s, and the four are well out of the house, Beilein hopes the examples of both he and his wife will continue to have an impact in the faith of their children. However, he acknowledges that it’s ultimately their decision how they choose to worship, if at all. Beilein is also careful to dedicate enough time to spend with his family despite the often demanding schedule of being an NCAA Division I head coach. “It’s something really important to me that I try focus on, but sometimes you view the team as a type of family as well.”

Although Beilein is quick to point out the differences between basketball and real life, he acknowledges many of the lessons he teaches on the court can translate to a healthier approach to life away from basketball. The philosophy holds especially true with Michigan’s 2010-2011 squad, as the coaching staff strives to establish core values in both basketball and life in one of the youngest teams Beilein has ever coached at a collegiate level. “I think with this particular group, our mindset is to really establish a strong core of intangible values that you really need to have to win on the court and in life.” He cites integrity as a valuable standard he most strongly emphasizes to players.

When asked what he wants his players to take away from their time playing under him, Beilein pauses and solemnly remarks, “I want them to have learned a great deal about the important things of life—of things about gratitude, about appreciation, of what hard work can accomplish, of what persistence can accomplish. In the end it won’t be about the trophies or the NCAA tournaments, it’ll be more about what was learned in the process of achieving them. And hopefully we do have more NCAA tournaments and we get to a Final Four. All those things are the material things that we strive for during that time, but just as big will be the education and all the other core values they’ve learned during that time—integrity—so many different things that we have preached to them—teamwork—there are a lot of things they’re going to use later in their lives.”

Whether the Wolverines win or lose, Beilein speaks with the media following each game and returns home where he confesses to indulging in pizza or other guilty pleasures like a cheeseburger and buffalo wings to cool his remaining adrenaline and relax after a long day. He hands me a prayer booklet titled My Daily Bread and points out passages he reads and prays as a way to reflect after games. For wins, Beilein’s favorite selection is titled “Gratitude to God,” while after losses, he reads a couple different excerpts that emphasize the joy and value in learning from adversity.

As the interview concludes, Beilein pauses and asks about the Catholic center at U-M, St. Mary’s Student Parish, saying he has yet to attend Mass there, but would be interested in speaking with students and spending some time on a Wednesday night. The coaching just never stops.

We depart as he shares one final thought based on an interesting excerpt he read that morning. “I don’t think God wants you not to value possessions on Earth while you’re here, He just doesn’t want you to value them too much. And that very often gets in the way—just being successful, working hard, and not looking at the bigger picture. You may not appreciate what you have right here in front of you. You may not smell the roses, and you need to do that.”

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