Monday, April 2, 2018

How I will always remember John Beilein

Part I - Introduction to Richmond Basketball (1997)

In the Fall of 1997 I landed at the University of Richmond as a skinny, high energy freshman; not totally unlike how most begin their college years. That same year John Beilein (now coach of the NCAA Championship bound University of Michigan Wolverines) arrived too. I honestly had no idea what to make of Richmond athletics. I knew we weren't I-A for Football (I-AA) but frankly I had zero knowledge of our past NCAA Tournament success in basketball. I just knew that they didn't recruit out of Florida for baseball (as in visit athletes that far south) and I had some interest in maybe trying to walk on. After one very social weekend I decided rushing a fraternity would be more a better use of my time. In no time at all I would be hardly fit enough to add value to our fraternity softball team, let alone Division I baseball.

My roommate was a small forward from Memphis named Rick. He had been recruited by the previous Richmond coach (Bill Dooley) to be a Spider and he had some concerns about how that might work out over the span of his playing career. (History now remembers Dooley, not so fondly, as the placeholder coach between legendary Spider head coach Dick Tarrant and the arrival of Beilein) Rick was a 3-guard who could shoot lights out but like a lot of guys bound for the college game he had played a lot bigger in high school (F or even C). He had post moves and could handle the ball well for a '6 "4 3-guard. I don't think John liked seeing Rick put the ball on the ground (meaning he would take Rick out if he dribbled, lol). Rick and I became good friends right off the bat. Amazing he did as well academically balancing Division I sports and a lazy roommate!

Coach Beilein during his tenure as a Spider [1997-2002]

Our first game that year in '97 was an unusual one. It was played at our home (Robins Center) but the University of Virginia was given status as the home team. If memory serves me correctly University Hall in Charlottesville was under some construction and the game was moved to Richmond. Even my student ticket for the game was printed on the UVA ticket template.  Ironically growing up in Virginia I was a Cavaliers fan well before I even knew UR existed. Even though I attended high school in Florida I was still a UVA hoops fan for most of my teenage years. In 1997 Richmond had a tough schedule from jump that included 3 of the first 4 games against ACC teams (UVA, NC and Wake Forest). This was exciting as a new student "Spider" fan but I don't remember thinking much of our chances.

Here is how I remember that night. My roommate (Rick) came off of the bench pretty quickly as one of the first subs used. I believe the first shot he ever took was essentially from the scorers table as time wound down in the 1st half. That 3-pointer went in --- and he may have even banked it. This was exciting and we were holding the Wahoos close. Rick finds more minutes in the second half. He's hitting 3's and shooting freely. I think I see Ralph Sampson near my my seat. We go to overtime; then double overtime. Rick hits 6-6 free throws down the stretch and we beat UVA 83-79 with Rick scoring 19 points. "Crap," I thought --- "I'm living with Larry Bird." For any great player it would be a dream stat line for a first game as a true Freshman.

Score Sheet from November 16, 1997 UR vs UVA

Part II - Dinner with John Beilein (2002)

Rick never scored 19 points again but came close several times. John and Rick enjoyed an up and down relationship but I think they'd mostly look back on it as positive (with Rick going through some darker days as a sophomore). That first year John took the Spiders to the NCAA tournament after winning the CAA conference tournament and we beat a 3-seeded South Carolina team in the 1st round. It was exciting. John was doing big things with less talent. Rick and I lived again together as Seniors and as I like to remind Rick those were two great years for the Spiders (2001 saw us win the regular season conference championship just falling short of an at large bid for the tournament).

John stayed with the Spiders for the 2001-2002 season as we left the CAA for the superior A-10 conference but we all knew he wasn't long for the Robins Center. And as John completed his Richmond head coaching career with a respectable home loss to Syracuse in the NIT I had found my way in the world of radio working for our local Richmond ABC and Fox Sports radio affiliates.

So there I was at John Beilein's last live radio coaches show, on the eve of his departure to West Virginia with a group of radio friends, former and current Spider players and college buddies. At some point I believe John saw Rick at our table as he came over pretty quickly after the broadcast. He was kind and talkative and he bought our tab I remember which was a class move. The broadcast that evening may have even involved a friend of ours calling in to ask John who takes the last shot in a close game between Teenwolf, Jimmy Chitwood or Billy from "White Men Can't Jump"?  And that's when the fun started...

"Which one of you is Roshan?" Beilein asked. Roshan waved his hand. "Do you really think Rick should of have had more freedom to drive in the motion offense?" Ok, so I don't remember the specific questions but I had known for years that my friends would write Beilein e-mail epistles about everything from Rick's playing time, to our team merchandising to different match ups that John would recognize on the floor.  "And who is Kai?" John went on and on, calling out all of Rick's friends one by one with specific counter-point advice to what they had been e-mailing him about over the years. It was hilarious and also very telling in that John had read every single email our crew had sent him. I was close to falling out of my chair as the evening came to a close. You could tell that John was pretty respectful for the crew Rick had been able to assemble from day one. He for sure didn't face e-mail harassment from many on that campus.

It was a moment I will never forget and having that small window into John Beilein's personality felt kind of like the icing on the cake to my intimate experience with Richmond basketball at the time. John is an unassuming guy who has always been successful by doing more with less. I believe he runs one of the cleanest programs in modern age (and probably true with the game under so much scrutiny). Michigan is an interesting job for John in that he's able to recruit supreme talent and he's had to extend his vision of the game in my opinion. I've followed John Beilein's career with interest since my Spider days and although he's got a tall order tonight I know he wouldn't have it any other way.

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