Final Four

Boeheim, Beilein rekindle CNY history in Final Four

Back in the 1980s, when Jim Boeheim’s glasses were a bit bigger and his sport coats a bit more plaid, John Beilein would look up into the stands and see his crosstown colleague there in support.

Beilein, the head coach at Le Moyne from 1983-1992, never received a phone call from Boeheim asking for tickets to any of the Dolphins’ rivalry games against schools like Gannon or Philadelphia Textile, but he would spot him in the bleachers every now and then.

“I think this happened more than just a few times, maybe every other season,” Beilein, now the head coach at Michigan, said in a teleconference Monday. “ … Jim would be in the stands watching a game on occasion.”

From their days as college coaches in the same city, Beilein and Boeheim became well acquainted — the former working his way up the coaching ladder through Central New York, and the latter helping out along the way with a timely phone call or show of support.

On Saturday, those coaches will meet again, this time on the largest stage yet: the Final Four. Beilein arrives in Atlanta following stops at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia, among others, while Boeheim remains entrenched at the university he has come to define. And when Beilein’s Wolverines meet Boeheim’s Syracuse squad, a Salt City showdown will ensue.

“We’d be up playing St. Lawrence or Potsdam or something, playing St. Rose or St. Michael’s, and it would be a whiteout or a snowstorm,” Beilein said with a chuckle. “Listening to the Syracuse-Georgetown game (on the radio) with 30,000 people while we’re just trying to make it home alive.”

Beilein, who is making his first appearance in the Final Four, described his coaching career as “nomadic.” He worked his way from Newfane (N.Y.) High School to Erie Community College to Nazareth, made stops at Le Moyne, Canisius and Richmond, then broke onto the national scene at West Virginia before finally arriving in Ann Arbor, Mich.

He’s amassed 672 total wins along the way, including a National Invitation Tournament championship in 2007. But this season, with point guard Trey Burke leading the way, Beilein guided Michigan to the Final Four.

“I’m not sure he’s had any adversity,” Boeheim said in the teleconference. “He’s been successful wherever he’s been. I remember him at Erie, Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond, you name it. West Virginia. He’s won every place he’s been. That’s difficult to do, to be able to go to five or six different places and win.”

But their relationship began when Beilein was at Le Moyne. He said Boeheim used to bring his Syracuse players to some of the clinics Le Moyne was hosting, which helped the Dolphins’ budget and generated more interest. And Beilein always admired the friendliness Boeheim displayed toward his wife and kids.

Boeheim’s respect for Beilein manifested itself in the form of reference phone calls. Beilein credited Boeheim for helping him land the head coaching job at Canisius, which he took after a decade at Le Moyne. Then, Boeheim picked up the phone again in 2002 to recommend him to West Virginia.

“Both jobs I recommended him highly because I thought he was a great coach and would do a great job at both places,” Boeheim said. “Especially when the West Virginia athletic director called me, I told him to hang up the phone and call John Beilein back and hire him without waiting another minute because he’s a great coach and he’s won every place he’s been. He’s just a tremendous guy and a great basketball coach.”

Beilein chuckled as he thought back to those days of piling his Le Moyne team into two vans — not buses — and trekking around the region through snow and sleet. Imagining himself at the Final Four, albeit two decades later, seemed farfetched.

But Saturday, it all becomes real, and Beilein will share the same stage as his figurative big brother from the late 1980s and early 90s.

From mini vans in Syracuse to chartered planes in Michigan, and now the Final Four in Atlanta.

“I wouldn’t suggest this route I took to anyone,” Beilein said. “I think you’ve got to be very lucky to get to this point.”

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