The rather unromantic story of Jim Boeheim’s proposal that disrupted Rick Pitino’s honeymoon has been making the rounds for so many years it has become part of college basketball folklore.
It is sure to be revisited this week as both coaches prepare their teams for the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta. So, it should be noted that it was 37 years ago Wednesday that Boeheim, freshly hired as coach at Syracuse, called the Manhattan hotel room of newlyweds Joanne Minardi and Pitino, to tell the then-Hawaii assistant that he had a job offer at Syracuse.
Amazing that they remained friends? “He gave me my break,” Pitino has said time and time again, always eliciting laughter based on the details of their partnership.
But Boeheim has impacted other coaches during his long tenure at Syracuse. And one of those others will be making his first Final Four appearance in Atlanta Saturday.
Boeheim never hired Michigan coach John Beilein as an assistant. In fact, Boeheim says the two have never even had dinner together. But they did a piece of central New York geography and Boeheim said Monday that he has “tremendous respect and admiration” for the man who will on the opposite bench when Syracuse and Michigan meet in the NCAA national semifinals in Atlanta.
In fact, Boeheim’s respect for Beilein runs deep enough that he recommended the Michigan coach for a couple of jobs in his past.
“I helped him get the Canisius job and the West Virginia job,” Boeheim said. “Both jobs, I recommended him highly, because I thought he was a great coach and would do a great job at both places.
“When the West Virginia athletic director [Ed Pastilong] called me, I told him to hang up the phone and call John Beilein and hire him without waiting another minute because he’s a great coach and he’s won every place he’s been.”
It’s possible you won’t find a nicer, more humble man in college coaching than Beilein. His peers, like Boeheim, have been rooting for him for years. And much of that respect comes from the fact that Beilein climbed an old-school ladder to reach this point in his career, directing one of the top teams in the Big Ten to its first Final Four appearance since 1993.
A couple of years after Boeheim placed that called to Pitino, Beilein began his coaching career at Erie Community College in 1979. From there he moved to Nazareth College and then on to Le Moyne College, a Division II school in Syracuse, in 1983. And it was during those nine successful seasons at Le Moyne that Beilein toiled in Boeheim’s shadow.
|John Beilein has reached the Final Four with Michigan|
Their programs were drastically separated in stature, and their teams didn’t play on the court, but the two coaches were certainly aware of one another.
“I often refer to the times we'd be up playing St. Lawrence or Potsdam or something, playing St. Rose or St. Michael's, being in whiteouts, snowstorms [and] listening to the Syracuse-Georgetown game,’’ Beilein said Monday. “Here we're trying to make it home alive sometimes. I thought about it often, what it would be like, having confidence maybe I could get here, but knowing it was going to be a long struggle to get to this point.’’
Those Le Moyne teams were very successful. Beilein had just one losing season with the Dolphins and three 20-win seasons. And he remembers, maybe once every other season, when there was a big rivalry game – against Philadelphia Textile or some other team – Boeheim would just show up in the crowd.
“I would look up in the stands – and he never called me for a ticket – but Jim would be in the stands watching a game on occasion,” Beilein said. “I had a couple of clinics at LeMoyne and he helped me, brought his team over. They would practice. We would practice. It would be a clinic that was helpful to our budget.”
Beilein grew up in western New York and his roots ran deep. He coveted a Division I job in his home area. Canisius had an opening following the 1987-88 season but did not select Beilein. And in 1989 he did not get the Colgate job either. But in 1992, the Canisius job opened again. That’s when the call from Boeheim came through.
“He really helped me get the Canisius job, no question,” Beilein said. “I was a borderline candidate. He really got me on board and I ended up getting the job. That was 20 years ago. So I owe him a lot, and admire him a lot as well.”
Beilein’s success at Canisius led him to Richmond in 1997. Then it was on to West Virginia in 2002, Michigan in 2007 and now the Final Four in 2013. He is the only active coach to have recorded 20-win seasons at four different levels – junior college, NAIA, NCAA Division II and NCAA Division I.
“I’ve really been very fortunate,” Beilein said. “I wouldn’t suggest this route I took to anyone. You have to be very lucky to get to this point, if the right breaks fall your way.”
But, as Boeheim points out, there’s another factor that might be stronger than luck.
“He’s won every place he’s been,” Boeheim said. “That’s difficult to do.”