A confession: It’s been hard for me to abide Michigan’s head basketball coach John Beilein. It started when I attended a Harvard-Michigan game six or seven years ago at tiny Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge. It’s a small venue, no bigger than the Ann Arbor high school gym. I sat directly behind the Michigan bench and watched as, three or four times during the game, coach Beilein insisted upon loudly, and with much remonstration, addressing and grandly instructing some player he had just pulled from the lineup, using elaborate hand-and-arm gestures, to make clear to that pulled-player how badly he had just executed some fine art of basketball upon which Beilein had surely – the little sideline skit was meant to tell the crowd – previously repeatedly instructed that player.
It was a petty little performance. And the faces on his team when, for example, they were assembled for a time-out ‘huddle,’ seemed bemused, distant, but wary of provoking Beilein’s wrath – and also ever-so-slightly contemptuous of his sanctimony. The great Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics always insisted that all coaching instruction be reserved for practice days; on game days, he wanted his players to perform. Mack, a hard-nosed man of dignity, grace, and compassion, was also aware that -in-game correction or instruction of players could easily be interpreted by attentive fans as an effort to show-up that player.
And then I heard Lukey Bonner describe his experience a decade ago as a freshman player at WVU years ago, when Beilein was the head coach there. Out of the blue, toward the end of the year, Beilein came to him and requested, with a straight face, that Bonner ‘take a red-shirt year.’ As Bonner described it, he said ‘NO!’ He’d never once heard the notion of red-shirting before, and he had no intention to do it then. Bonner later transferred. The story confirmed for me: Beilein, an approximately decent man, succeeds because he can don that hard-heart, which demands that he confront and pressure a young player suddenly to red-shirt, or openly scold a player before a crowd. But also, I’ve recently learned, ignore the patent duty of care he owes to his players — and his duty to react with moral force, in the face of revealed adversity.
Beilein has continued to engage in those little grandiose sideline skits which, apparently unbeknownst to him, make obvious to the public that he has some need to demonstrate that he’s not to blame for foul-ups by his players. He used this same overt, in-game show-up of his players during Michigan’s defeat of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game on March 11th.
But I will take an entirely contrary position about the need for immediate instruction, if not scolding, correction, or sanction, when it comes to obvious errors in the conduct of sports administration, particularly as regards endangering the lives of players. Specifically, with regard to the airplane accident in which the Michigan team was involved at Willow Run airport in Ypsilanti as they were attempting to fly to Washington DC for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament last week, in which the winds were 60 to 70 miles an hour. The tower at the airport was shut down. There were no good reasons for any prudent person to allow that plane, containing very valuable, high-profile big-time college players, to travel to the Big Ten Tournament.
But there were very strong personal, financial and professional reasons for characters like John Beilein and his boss, Warde Manuel, to have that plane give it a rip, and try to take off, to get to DC, despite that extraordinary storm — even though doing so meant that they needlessly endangered the lives of their players. Both men get bonuses for winning the Big Ten tournament, and for qualifying for the NCAA tournament. No bonuses are given for the players on the court who do all this ‘qualifying.’
The plane lifted off, and the wheels went up. But then the wheels went down, and the plane skidded across the runway. Some players were injured – none seriously, thank god. All players were shaken.
It was the Mad Bull of Triumph and Profit, in the person of Coach Beilein and AD Manuel, which attempted that lift-off. Somebody should be subject to serious sanction for having subjected those Michigan players to that risk.
If you think that I make this conclusion merely because of the obvious, if not terrifying risk to which Manuel and Beilein subjected their players, then you are wrong. It is also because Manuel (who might have been on the plane) and Beilein (who surely was) carried massive amounts of their own life insurance, provided as a part of their employment contracts: millions of dollars in life insurance.
Do you know how much life insurance Michigan procures for each of its players whose lives were risked last week? — $25,000. A dipshit, shit-ass, spit-in-your-eye $25,000 life insurance policy. That’s all.
Let’s take a quick breath. The NCAA makes a billion dollars on March Madness — the same March Madness tournament which propelled Beilein and Manuel to make the cavalier, devil-may-care-but-also-may-get-March-Madness-invite decision to make that plane aim to get airborne.
And as these sordid events unfolded at Willow Run, the Michigan loyal fans were engaged in some odd fund-raising mechanism, which was directed toward increasing by $100,000 the amount which might possibly be pledged to the ‘Chad Tough’ campaign which has long operated, to fund a UMich hospital effort to fight the kind of cancer which killed former football coach Lloyd Carr’s grandson recently. The $100,000, all literature and tweets suggested, was somehow to be atributed to that saintly Michigan coach: John Beilein. This is all decent, noble, and kind. It is also a process fed by the ego and narcissism of John Beilein.
Beilein should be raising money to expand the amount of insurance coverage available to his players, and also expanding his efforts to change NC double A regulations to allow such increased coverage. How could I possibly make that conclusion?
Beilein likes being a charitable icon, if not hero. Everyone likes Chad Tough. But Beilein took his eye off the ball. I want to have a sideline conference with him as the crowd watches, and I wave my arms, and contort my face, as Beilein likes to do, to ask him how anyone in their right mind, in that setting, could do what he’s done. How could he possibly have:
1) allowed that plane to try to take off, in those terrible winds – and did that decision have anything to do with the ‘incentive’ bonuses to which Beilein would be entitled if the team went to the tournament?
2) not immediately become an advocate for radical increase in insurance for big time players. Beilein professes to have been shaken by the plane crash. But he wasn’t. Beilein wears silk ties. He makes big money. He’s an aristocrat, like those same British aristocrats who founded a phony ‘amateurism’ in 1866, and which began paying its players by 1867. Beilein did not emerge from the event as a new man, or with any new insight. It never dawned upon him that he might now be precisely the right person of power and bully pulpit, able to use his sway to lobby for money to fund appropriate, substantially increased, levels of insurance for his players, to whom he had subjected rather extraordinary risk. Instead, Beilein basks in a Chad Tough glow, and waxes eloquent about his player’s toughness in the face of adversity.
John Beilein? Warde Manuel? Anybody home? Moral outrage? Tremble for your players and their parents, other than little lip service at some fawning press conference? John Beilein, have you been on the phone the last 3 or 4 nights, to ten NCAA coaches who also have $20 million contracts, and massive life insurance policies, to persuade them that immediate new legislation is needed, to provide all players with, not $25,000 in death benefit coverage, but $250,000?
Suppose that that plane had actually took off but then was grounded by the extraordinary storm which had overtaken the Midwest, and that all of Michigan’s 12 scholarship players were then killed in the plane crash – much as occurred when the Marshall University football team went down back in 1971. Maybe John Beilein would think beyond his own bank account, and be a force for change?
Time for a TO, John Beilein and Warde Manuel. What were you thinking?