John Beilein coached his way to wins in 754 basketball games at all three collegiate levels over nearly four decades. Before that, he cut his teeth coaching high school and junior college. He’s a lifer and a coach whose credentials probably will get him into the Hall of Fame one day.
At Michigan, where Beilein spent the most recent 11 years of his college coaching career, his teams went to the Final Four twice, won the Big Ten regular season twice, and, in separate seasons, won the conference tournament twice. By any measure, if you hire John Beilein, you’re getting a big-league coach.
Except, as it turned out, in the big league.
Beilein resigned as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers after the All-Star break, having lasted 54 NBA games before throwing up his hands. His team won just 14 of those games, and had tuned out his in-your-face methods weeks before.
Beilein runs a demanding motion offense that requires sacrifice, selflessness, and teamwork from the players. From the look of things, the Cavs were 0-for-3 there, so the man walked.
It was interesting that Beilein’s coaching denouement in Cleveland coincided with a report from New York that Villanova’s Jay Wright was being targeted as the next coach of the New York Knicks, citing a league source who termed Wright’s hiring a “strong possibility.”
Wright shot that down quickly, telling The Inquirer, “It’s just an article. I haven’t talked to the Knicks. I’m not going to the Knicks. It’s crazy.”
And maybe it is, although certainly not from the point of view of Leon Rose, the new president and general manager of the Knicks. Hiring Wright would bring some sizzle back to Madison Square Garden, not to mention some impressive haberdashery and a proven record as a winner.
From Wright’s point of view, there would be an obvious financial gain, and if the idea of challenging himself at the highest level was appealing, then perhaps it would make sense. We’ve been down this speculative road before, of course, but every new rumor comes with a different timing attached.
Wright is 58 now, all the kids are out of the house (in fact, the house is being downsized), and there’s a growing now-or-never quality to the possibility.
Wright’s denial sounded sincere, but the Knicks have an interim in place who might hope to stick around, and expressing interest in someone else’s job is poor form in the coaching business. Not to mention, Villanova is just three weeks from tournament season with a young roster that is skitterish enough as it is.
“The NBA does intrigue me,” Wright told The Athletic in a 2018 article. “But it’s not worth giving up working with these guys. Would I like to coach in the NBA? Yes. But I have to give this up in order to do that, and I don’t see that happening.”
That was then. Two years later, things don’t look much different from the outside, and the Knicks’ job, which was also dangled after Villanova’s 2018 national championship season, doesn’t look any better now, either.
The Knicks have had nine head coaches and seven general managers in the last 15 years under dysfunctional owner James Dolan. The team has made the postseason only three times in that span, with some pretty good basketball names — including Donnie Walsh, Phil Jackson, Mike D’Antoni, Larry Brown, and Lenny Wilkens — among those who came and went without denting the franchise’s impenetrable dedication to mediocrity. They made money, but they couldn’t make a difference.
Wright always has said he has it good at Villanova, and knows it. Winning two national championships added to his job security, naturally, but as an ambassador for the university, as the public face of the school itself, the administration knows it has it pretty good with Wright, too.
He makes $3.9 million per year and has earned every dime. The university’s endowment more than doubled in the last decade, to $767 million. That wasn’t all because of a successful hoops team and its charismatic coach, but the combination didn’t hurt.
All of that can be true, and the idea of striding the floor under the bright lights of the Garden, in the middle of New York City, still can be intriguing. Maybe it never will be more than that, but it is there, and always will be.
The recent pratfall of John Beilein offers a cautionary tale, though. In that league, the players don’t lose their eligibility; the coaches do. The Cavaliers stopped listening, started ripping him anonymously behind his back, and essentially forced him out. Why? Because they could.
It is hard to imagine the same fate for Wright at any level, with any group of players, but Beilein probably couldn’t imagine it, either.
Wright is smart enough to see all the pitfalls, but also smart enough to know that every decision deserves thought. So, he’s thought about this, and the end result of that thought process isn’t necessarily reflected in what anyone says right now, but what actually happens eventually.