Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

April 8, 2013

WVU fans should support Beilein

Former Mountaineer coach will lead Michigan into championship game

Coaching moves aren’t always popular — especially to the school that gets left behind. When a coach wins big and becomes the “prom king,” it’s not uncommon for him to ditch the girl that took him to the dance and move onto the more popular girl — usually the one whose family has deep pockets.

If you want to understand just how bitter and personal such a breakup can be, check with Rich Rodriguez and ask him how welcomed he feels these days when he returns to his alma mater.

For some reason, though, John Beilein hasn’t felt that wrath. When the former Mountaineer basketball mentor — who will take his Michigan team onto the floor in Atlanta, Ga., tonight for the national championship game — is mentioned throughout the Mountain State, the conversation is usually a positive one.

Beilein, who left WVU for Michigan following an NIT championship in 2007, will have a few extra fans in West Virginia tonight, and I’m glad that the Mountaineer faithful are showing him the respect he deserves.

For starters, the impact that the Burt, N.Y., native had on the program was about as subtle as the gold uniforms his Wolverines have been wearing this March.

Beilein took over a WVU program that was in absolute shambles when he arrived in 2002. Gale Catlett had just finished off an 8-20 season, the worst in WVU history, in his final campaign, and even Bob Huggins — whose love for the program has never been questioned — walked away from an offer to coach the Mountaineers. Dan Dakich was hired and immediately ran out of town like a burglar who saw his wanted poster hanging in the post office.

Beilein came in and immediately turned things around. He ran out the players he thought were having a negative impact, he installed his 1-3-1 defense, his Princeton-style offense and, perhaps most importantly, his values.

He wasn’t afraid to shake things up. He ignored the criticism — even from those who said he was playing favorites by bringing his son Patrick, a freshman 3-point specialist, along for the ride.

The Mountaineers were immediately competitive, finishing 14-15, and Beilein quickly won the hearts of the fans in Morgantown.

A year later, WVU made it all the way to the third round of the NIT, and in his third season Beilein took Mountaineer fans — and a young reporter working for Blue & Gold News, and now writing this column — on a journey they’ll never forget.

With an 8-8 conference record, the Mountaineers were on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament when they traveled to New York City for the Big East Tournament.

A win over Providence in the opening round almost assured the Mountaineers a tournament spot, but they weren’t finished yet. They followed that up with a win over No. 7 Boston College, handing the Eagles a not-so-friendly parting gift as they left the Big East for the ACC, and sending the WVU beat writers, including this one, who had packed for a short stay scrambling to find extra socks and clean T-shirts.

Next on the list was No. 19 Villanova, and WVU passed that test, as well, to become the talk of the Big Apple and move into its first-ever Big East championship game.

The Cinderella run at Madison Square Garden ended with a loss to Syracuse in the Big East finals, but WVU picked up right where it had left off when the Mountaineers began the NCAA Tournament with a dramatic last-second win over Creighton.

Next came perhaps the biggest upset of all as WVU took out No. 5 Wake Forest and some guard named Chris Paul to advance to the Sweet 16.

There, Beilein and his club — which included the scrappy Mike Gansey, the sharp-shooting Kevin Pittsnogle and, of course, Patrick, who gunned 3s from all over the court — got the best of Bob Knight and Texas Tech to move to the Elite Eight.

One step away from a once-unlikely Final Four, WVU held a 13-point halftime lead against No. 4 Louisville, only to watch it slip away. The Cardinals eventually prevailed 93-85 in overtime, ending the magical run that captured the country’s attention and put the verb “Pittsnogled” into urban dictionaries everywhere.

Two years later — after another Sweet 16 trip and an NIT championship — Beilein left for Michigan, but he certainly left the program in better shape than it was when he found it.

Da’Sean Butler, Joe Mazzulla, Wellington Smith and the bulk of the team that led WVU to a Final Four in 2010 were all recruited by Beilein, and then momentum created under his reign helped make Huggins’ job easier when he eventually took control.

Beilein found revenge for one of the heartbreaks of 2005 when he knocked off Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Saturday in the national semifinal round. Now, ironically, he’ll have a chance to avenge the other big loss, the one to Louisville and Rick Pitino that ended the season, in tonight’s championship game.

If you’re a fan of the Mountaineers, you should be in front of the television screen yelling “Go Blue.”

Not only did Beilein make the product at WVU better, he has a long history with the Mountain State. Before leading WVU to the top of the college basketball mountain, he received his college degree at Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University) and did his student teaching at John Marshall High School.

His impact is still being felt among the West Virginia hills as Patrick, a proud WVU graduate, is now the head coach at West Virginia Wesleyan.

Aside from all that, Beilein stands for everything that is right about college sports. In a year that has been filled with so many negative headlines, it would be refreshing to finally see one of the good guys win the big prize.

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