One was his uncle, Tommy Niland Jr., who turned the basketball program he started at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., over to the up-and-coming coach at Nazareth College in nearby Rochester.
Niland reportedly failed to tell anyone Beilein was his nephew.
The other coach who made an impact on Beilein was well-known in Baltimore before dying in 2013.
His name was Paul Baker, who after coaching at Towson Catholic High and the University of Baltimore trekked out to Wheeling College in West Virginia (now Wheeling Jesuit University) for the start of the 1971-72 season.
It was Beilein’s freshman year at Wheeling.
A walk-on from upstate New York, the long-haired Beilein seemed an unlikely muse for the short-fused Baker, who “was extremely fiery, a total motivator. He was crazy in a good way,” according to Baker’s assistant, Tom “Bear” Bechtel.
Somehow, Beilein and Baker meshed.
First, Baker offered Beilein a chance to play. Then he gave him a scholarship. The only thing he couldn’t give him was playing time.
Still, Beilein has always been appreciative.
“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Beilein recalled last month. “He showed me a side of basketball that I never had learned in my whole life.
“The intensity that we practiced with, the purpose that we practiced with, the planning that went on. Like most kids coming from high school, I did not realize that was part of it.”
After playing under Baker for four years — though he did more practicing than playing, Beilein was the team’s captain during his junior season — Beilein had decided on following in the footsteps of these two men.
“I knew that I wanted to be a coach badly,” Beilein said.
Specifically, he wanted to be a head coach.
From his first job coaching junior varsity at Newfane High School near his hometown of Burt, N.Y., to Erie (N.Y.) Community College, then Nazareth (where he missed coaching future NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy by a year) and Le Moyne, Beilein was a head coach.
And Baker remained one of his biggest supporters.
“By the time John got to Le Moyne, my dad knew that he was a terrific coach, but thought, ‘Is he going to get a break or not?’ ” recalled Steve Baker, the oldest of his three sons. ”Did my dad know he was going to be a super-duper coach when he was at Newfane High School? I don’t know.”
Steve Baker, who would become a Division I assistant at Towson University and Loyola Maryland during his own 11-year coaching career, said Beilein followed a different path than many trying to work their way up in the profession.
“When John got out of college, my dad told him, ‘You’ve got to go to the Five-Star Camp and work with the Greenbergs [Seth and his brother Brad] and [John] Calipari and you’ve got to get in the mix,’ ” Steve Baker said.
“John was like, ‘I’m going to be a JV coach. I just figure if I’m a good JV coach, I’ll be a varsity coach, and if I’m good with the varsity then I’ll have my chance to move up.’ John took the logical approach, which doesn't always work out.”
It took a while, including nine years at Le Moyne for Beilein to get his first Division I job at Canisius. His success there led to Richmond, West Virginia and eventually Michigan, where he is in his 12th season.
“He’s proven that his way can work, too,” Steve Baker said. “We all start out at the same level after being walk-ons. It’s the Danny Mannings and Juan Dixons — the flagship player at the school — that gets the immediate chance. … He’s unique in the profession because he’s climbed it a different way than other guys have.”
The way Baker approached his first job at a four-year school eventually became the way Beilein did many things as well, though tossing chairs and picking up technical fouls with regularity — save for his recent ejection at Penn State — has never been Beilein’s style.
Now 66, Beilein is finally getting his due.
When he takes No. 9 Michigan into Xfinity Center on Sunday to play No. 17 Maryland, Beilein is widely considered one of college basketball’s elite coaches, leading the Wolverines to the NCAA title game twice in the past six NCAA tournaments.
Along with 14 other coaches, including Marylander Steve Wojciechowski at Marquette, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Purdue’s Matt Painter, Beilein is a finalist for the Naismith Award for men’s basketball coach of the year.
‘The P.T. Barnum’ of college basketball
Baker tried to turn Wheeling College, an NAIA school, into something of a national power.
Bechtel tells how Baker, shortly after he arrived, sent letters to every Division I program asking for a game. He got one response, from UCLA, then in the midst of winning nine national titles in 12 years under the legendary John Wooden.
“Their AD [J.D. Morgan] was a famous guy, too, and he actually sent back a two-page letter and he was apologizing, and said, ‘We only make one trip back East a year and that's to play Notre Dame’ on national television,” Bechtel recalled.
Baker was eventually able to schedule games with Georgetown under its new coach, John Thompson, as well as Xavier, Pittsburgh and South Carolina. Bechtel said Baker also set high standards as a recruiter.
“One summer day we went up to Akron and tried to recruit a kid, and I go in and the mother’s there and the grandmother’s there, but the kid’s not there. He’s away, and I’m looking on the wall and this kid’s a McDonald’s All-American,” Bechtel recalled. “I go to the grandmother and ask where the kid is and she’s says, ‘He’s at Indiana, Coach [Bob] Knight’s trying to recruit him.’ ”
Baker’s sideline demeanor was more Knight than Wooden. In fact, as Bechtel tells it, “He threw a chair before Bobby Knight ever did it,” adding that Baker “was the P.T. Barnum of his day, but on a smaller scale.”
A product and proponent of the Five-Star camps, which he brought to Wheeling one summer, Baker tried to incorporate some of the defensive principles of Knight’s man-to-man defense and North Carolina coach Dean Smith’s “run-and-jump defense,” as well as others.
“He had knowledge, passion,” Bechtel said of Baker. “If I had a knock on him, he tried to do too much. Paul had too much exposure [to coaches and their systems] and I think it caught up with him.”
The best player Baker coached at Wheeling was also from Baltimore. James “Dickey” Kelly had starred at Dunbar, then bounced around a couple of junior colleges before landing in Wheeling for the 1974-75 season as a 26-year-old junior.
In Kelly’s two years, Wheeling went 47-19 and he was named all-conference in both. Baker lasted another three years, finishing with an overall record of 130-106, before returning to Baltimore to help his wife, Connie, raise their family.
After spending a season as an assistant at George Washington, Baker left coaching. He ran camps, wrote basketball columns for the News-American, scouted for the then-Washington Bullets and evaluated Atlantic Coast Conference officials for 20 years.
Baker died in 2013 at age 78, suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
‘He did not like losing’
Steve Baker has vivid memories from his family’s nine years in Wheeling. Beilein and some of his teammates would often babysit for Steve and his two younger brothers. Because he didn’t get much playing time, Beilein was their favorite.
“When John got into the games, we would go bananas,” Steve Baker said.
Beilein stayed in touch with his old coach for years, coming back to speak at Five-Star camps Baker and Steve ran in the Baltimore area for years. The intensity one sees from Beilein on the sideline has its roots at Wheeling College.
Some of the things Beilein still does go back to his years at Wheeling and come from Baker.
“He wanted to win very badly,” Beilein said. “He did not like losing at all. He instilled that in us and I think that made us better players.”