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Worth the Wait
NOW THAT West Virginia's John Beilein is recognized as one of college basketball's most respected innovators and is the early favorite for national coach of the year honors, it's hard to believe that he once thought he'd never get to be a Division I coach. He had spent 14 seasons grinding away at high school, juco, NAIA and Division II programs before he got his first interview for a D-I position, at Colgate in 1989. "I didn't get the job, and I thought it was basically over," says Beilein, who returned, crestfallen, to LeMoyne College, a Division II school in Syracuse, N.Y. In those days, he says, "losses would just eat me up because I was trying so hard to get to this level."
Yet the same thing that hindered his ability to land a top-level job—he lacked connections because he has never served as an assistant at any level—also explains his success in developing a unique offense that's now the envy of coaches nationwide. "If you're at Erie Community College, you don't really have the great coaches in your ear telling you things, so you have to go by trial and error," says Beilein, 53, who finally got his Division I shot in 1992 at Canisius. "There's no genius to this. When you've been coaching for 800-some games, you make a lot of mistakes, and hopefully you learn from them."
Beilein led Canisius and then Richmond to the NCAA tournament in the 1990s before taking over as West Virginia's coach in 2002. He took the Mountaineers to within a game of the Final Four in '05, but he may have saved his most remarkable feat for this season. Despite losing five seniors (including stars Kevin pittsnogle and Mike Gansey) from last year's Sweet 16 team and having no elite recruits to replace them, West Virginia was 13--1 at week's end, the school's best start in 25 years. After being picked to finish as low as 16th in the Big East, the Mountaineers had beaten UConn, Villanova and St. John's and led the conference with a 3--0 record.
West Virginia's surprising start has only added to Beilein's legion of admirers in the coaching profession. Before the season SI asked two dozen coaches to name the top innovator in the game today, and the most popular choice was Beilein. As Wichita State's Mark Turgeon said, "He's put his own spin on the Princeton offense, and his 1-3-1 zone is creative and tough to get used to. I study his films and try to learn from him."
Beilein calls his scheme the "two-guard" offense because it features a dual point guard alignment. The goal is to spread the floor and have five dangerous shooters on the court at once, the better to open up lanes for drives, backdoor cuts and other forms of signature trickery. Beilein has a top-secret collection of more than 100 plays that he has developed over the years with such unusual names as Dirty Harry, Best Play Ever and Double Quickie Potato. (The terms make them easier for players to remember, Beilein says. Double Quickie Potato, for instance, features a series of curls, and Beilein made the leap to curly fries and then potato.)
Opposing players may laugh when the Mountaineers call their sets but not when the plays lead to basket after basket "Coach is like a mastermind," says senior forward Frank Young, who was West Virginia's lone returning starter and is the team's top scorer, averaging 14.6 points a game through Sunday. "The way he communicates and gets the best out of us is amazing. The main thing that makes him such a good coach is his ability to adjust."
These days the coach who feared he'd never get a Division I opportunity is a hot commodity. (Beilein nearly took the N.C. State job last summer.) Yet he also cautions against jumping to conclusions about his young team. "Ask me in February," he said last week before embarking on a stretch in which the Mountaineers will play four of five games on the road. We have a chance of being good, but the learning curve has to continue to develop."