The Game That Changed The Beilein Era, Part I: ‘They Want Me To Fire You'
Part II in a series of articles focusing on the last decade of Michigan basketball — the game before ‘The Game’ in 2011
Michigan basketball became a national force under John Beilein, but not without some significant bumps in the road. A year after the Wolverines made their first NCAA Tournament since 1998, beating Clemson in a first-round game before losing to Oklahoma, they stumbled to a 15-17 season. They started the next year 10-2 heading into Big Ten play, but the conference season began with a home beating compliments of Purdue, an 80-57 deflater.
Three weeks later, Beilein’s team was 1-6 in the conference heading into a Jan. 27 tilt at Michigan State. The Spartans were heavily favored to beat their rivals for a fifth straight time, and Beilein was feeling the heat.
"We were 1-6; we lost to Minnesota at home. We were awful against Minnesota (in a 69-64 loss) … just not connected at all,” Beilein recalled. “We had practice the next day or two days later and I actually told the staff, Bacari [Alexander] and Vall [Jordan] and Jeff [Meyer], ‘we’ve got to pull this thing together. It’s not good.’”
The next day, Beilein recalled, then-athletic director David Brandon showed up at his practice.
“He came in and said to me, ‘I’m getting all kinds of calls and emails … everyone wants to fire you; a lot of people want me to fire you,’” Beilein continued. “I said, ‘I understand that.’ We were 1-6 in the Big Ten. I get that. Then he says, ‘but that would be stupid. Why would I fire you? Because I’d hire you the next day. You’re the right guy to coach here.’ Those were his exact words.
“I still get choked up thinking about this. He said, ‘you go home and tell [wife] Kathleen. You tell your assistant coaches and to tell their wives, you’re the coaching staff. Let’s go get it done.’”
The vote of confidence allowed them to exhale, but they still had major issues. One of them — what to do with sophomore point guard Darius Morris. Morris had made huge strides in his game after a solid freshman year, but he was struggling with his shot yet not lacking confidence to take it. That caused some friction between Morris and Beilein, with no easy answers.
In hindsight, Beilein admitted, he could have handled it better.
“Another lesson in coaching here … Darius was having trouble with certain shots, and I was probably overcoaching him,” Beilein said. “I think he was taking a lot of what would be considered a lot of bad twos. Analytically, that’s when it was starting that the in-between shot wasn’t so good.
“By me mentioning it to him, it was getting worse, because he was thinking about it — is this a good two? Is this a bad two? He was thinking too much.”
It was more than that, former Michigan captain and then-junior Zack Novak recalled. Morris had struggled in a preseason European trip, forcing the action a bit, and while he had his ups and downs in the non-conference season, he was still trying to figure things out.
He was also struggling to find the sweet spot with Beilein.
“We’re past the statute of limitations here, so I can say pretty much anything,” Novak quipped. “Coach told Darius before the Minnesota game, ‘will you stop shooting? You can’t shoot. Stop taking these shots.’ He kept taking like pull-up jumpers and all these really hard shots, and Coach said, ‘that’s not a good shot for you yet. You haven’t shown you can make it in practice or a game.’
“Darius — and to defend him, rightfully so — said, ‘I’m an NBA talent,’ which he was. ‘I can take and make hard shots.’ So Darius goes into that Minnesota game and is just, ‘okay — I’ll show you.’ And he doesn’t shoot. It was blatant. We’re sitting there trying to play and we’re, ‘oh, God.’ There are these little games going on, and we lose the game.”
Morris took a season-low six shots, making four (including one triple), and dished four assists. The Wolverines’ 69-64 home loss made it six setbacks in seven games and a season on the brink.
But there was talent, Novak said, and they knew it. They’d taken No. 3 Kansas to overtime and barely lost to No. 2 Ohio State in early January — they just needed to find their chemistry.
“So, we’re like, ‘we’re not that far off,’” Novak recalled. “Then Darius pulls that in that Minnesota game. To his credit — and this is where I give him a lot of credit — he had pretty good self-awareness. He would get into his own head sometimes, but he’d come out of it. And he did. He called a team meeting and he said, ‘guys … yeah, I totally did this. And it was messed up.’
“Basically, Darius calls the meeting and says, ‘this is what happened. It’s not going to happen again. I’m here with you guys and we’re going to salvage the season.’ I’ve got to give him credit, because it wasn’t as though Coach forced him to do this type of thing. It wasn’t a fake thing at all. He was genuine about it, and I think everyone was behind him.”
That included Beilein, who acknowledged his own mistakes and approached Morris following the last practice before the MSU game.
“Going into that game, I went up to him and said, ‘Darius, just let it fly, man. Just go,’” Beilein recalled.
That was the moment Morris got his swagger back … and would the Wolverines ever benefit.
NEXT: The Season Changer
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