SYRACUSE, N.Y. — They’re sort of polar opposites in a way — one a coaching nomad for over three decades, the other parked pretty much in the same place for most of the last half century.
And yet the careers of Michigan’s John Beilein and longtime Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim are so intertwined that Saturday’s national semifinal between Beilein’s Wolverines (30-7) and Boeheim’s Orange (30-9) likely will be bittersweet, no matter the outcome.
After all, the two upstate New Yorkers have ties that bind.
Born and raised in western New York, Beilein began his coaching career in high school, spent four years at the community college level, and one in Division III at Nazareth in suburban Rochester, N.Y.
In 1983, Beilein landed at Le Moyne — a stone’s throw from Boeheim’s old office at Manley Field House — and his stint there would forever change his coaching life.
Beilein produced three 20-win seasons and had only one losing campaign in nine seasons with the Dolphins, a Division II program.
The other guy noticed.
“We’d be playing a game, maybe it would be a big game,” Beilein said. “I would look up in the stands, never called me for a ticket, maybe called others, but Jim would be in the stands watching a game on occasion.
“I had a couple clinics at Le Moyne, he helped me, brought his team over. They would practice, we would practice. It would be a clinic that was helpful to our budget.”
Though they didn’t interact socially, there was a budding mutual respect.
“I’ve always admired his coaching at every level, watching his teams play,” said Boeheim, a native of Lyons, N.Y., about an hour west of Syracuse. “I just have tremendous respect and admiration for how he coaches.”
So much so that when the job at Canisius opened in 1992, Boeheim, already Syracuse’s all-time winningest coach, put in a good word. Turned down four years earlier by the Golden Griffins, Beilein landed the job.
“He really helped me get the Canisius job, no question,” Beilein said. “I was a borderline candidate. I owe him a lot.”
For Boeheim, it was a no-brainer.
“I always thought he would do a good job, and he did,” said Boeheim, who enrolled at Syracuse in 1962 and has been head coach at his alma mater since 1976. “He’s a tremendous basketball coach, one of the best offensive coaches in the game. He’s won every place he’s been.
“We have great respect for each other.”
Beilein fashioned an 89-62 record in five years at Canisius, winning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference coach of the year honors in 1994, then went to Richmond and had five winning seasons there.
After Beilein’s Spiders lost 60-46 at home to Syracuse in the 2002 NIT, an opportunity beckoned in the Big East at West Virginia and Boeheim again went to bat for Beilein when the Mountaineers called asking for guidance.
“I told him (former West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong) to hang up the phone and call John Beilein back and hire him without waiting another minute,” Boeheim said.
So, Beilein landed the job and went 104-60 in yet another five-year stint, guiding the Mountaineers to the round of eight and round of 16 in successive seasons before leaving for Michigan.
Beilein had a couple of subpar years but has the Wolverines thriving again, and after they beat Florida handily to make the Final Four, the 60-year-old Beilein called the milestone victory “the frosting on the cake.”
And now there he is on the big stage in Atlanta, against a 68-year-old icon he’s never beaten in nine tries and who has won more games (920) than any coach in Division I history except Mike Krzyzewski.
Those road trips to New York’s north country traveling in a van through blinding snowstorms seem a lifetime ago.
“I thought about that often. Here we’re trying to make it home alive sometimes,” Beilein said. “I thought about it often, what it would be like, having confidence maybe I could get here, but knowing it was going to be a long struggle to get to this point.
“Really been very fortunate. I wouldn’t suggest this route I took to anyone. You have to be very lucky to get to this point if the right breaks fall your way.”
And if you know the right people.