John Beilein and the Michigan Wolverines are redefining themselves every season. How much is the coach — in concert with his players — changing Michigan? Everyone will have a different answer.
What is worth exploring — after Michigan made its third straight Sweet 16 under Beilein, thanks to a win over the Florida Gators on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament — is the identity of a program over a longer period of time.
This is not a Michigan issue so much as a national one. Every program has to ask itself, at some point in its existence, if it has arrived at a place where expectations have changed… or should change, for better or worse. Every athletic director has to consider not just the contours of a single season, but also the larger forces affecting the program in conjunction with the fortunes of the competition in a conference and/or the same region of the country.
The identities of some programs have remained very consistent over a larger period of time: North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, and a few others at the top of the sport; Tulane, Nebraska, East Carolina, Army, The Citadel, Saint Francis-Brooklyn, William and Mary, and a few others at the bottom. Yet, for every program which remains fixed in place, another one evolves or regresses, changing the temperature within the walls of the school.
Right now, the SEC is a place where college basketball programs are definitely rethinking who and what they are. Arkansas seems to be settling for lowered expectations, while Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, and Alabama seem to be raising their aspirations. SEC schools are making better hires. Auburn is in the Sweet 16 under Bruce Pearl. It is very easy to think that at various SEC programs, the earth is shifting.
When does a program — more precisely, its athletic director — know that the world of expectations has changed?
In college football, many people will tell you that Nebraska cannot expect to be what it once was, that too much has changed in the industry since the Huskers’ heyday for the program to expect top-tier football success. That is one example of how the landscape does change — at least for those who hold the view that Nebraska will never again be dominant the way it was under Tom Osborne.
Nebraska had this identity, the argument goes. Then Osborne left. Then, as soon as the 2001 team got crushed in the Rose Bowl by Miami, the party was essentially over… and it won’t be revived.
With all this as prelude, one could have made the claim that when John Beilein took over at Michigan in the fall of 2007, Michigan was not going to become what it once was.
From 1985 through 1994 under Bill Frieder and Steve Fisher, Michigan won at least one NCAA Tournament game in every year but one (1991). Michigan was seeded No. 3 or higher in seven of the nine NCAA Tournaments it made in those 10 seasons. From 1988 through 1994, Michigan made the Sweet 16 or better in five of seven seasons. It played in three national title games and won one. Glen Rice and the Fab Five made Michigan a giant… but as soon as the Fab Five left after the 1995 season, Michigan entered a different reality.
From 1996 until Beilein’s arrival before the 2007-2008 season — a period of 12 seasons — Michigan made only two NCAA Tournaments, won won NCAA Tournament game, and made zero Sweet 16s. Michigan missed the NCAAs in nine straight seasons. Clearly, the standards set by the program weren’t being met — not even close — but one had to wonder if making national championship games on an occasional basis and Sweet 16s on a regular basis could be rediscovered and replicated in Ann Arbor.
Had Michigan basketball become what some think Nebraska football has already been for several years: a program with many glories but no reason to expect greatness once again at the highest level of competition?
I noted above that 1988-1994 gave Michigan five Sweet 16s and three national title games in a seven-season period.
Guess what: If Michigan does make the national title game, Beilein will have made five Sweet 16s and three national title games in a seven-season period.
Even if he doesn’t reach the title game, the track record of making the Sweet 16 in most seasons has been affirmed by this win over Florida.
This tweet provides an even more expansive view of how Beilein took something stagnant and injected fresh life into it (after needing a few years to find his bearings on the job):
Michigan went 19 years without a Sweet 16 appearance after 1994. Now they're going to their fifth Sweet 16 in their last seven years now. All hail John Beilein.
— Curtis (@Curtos07) March 23, 2019
The reality of a program is the same… until it’s not… until it returns again.
Do you know what the identity of YOUR program is? While you wrestle with that, realize that at Michigan, what was once mighty and then disappeared has been restored. The Wolverines have made a Beilein to top-tier prominence once more.
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