When it comes to John Beilein and Rick Pitino, the national narrative universally is going to point back to 2005. To that crazy regional final in Albuquerque in which Louisville roared back from a 20-point deficit to deny Beilein a Final Four trip while he was in charge at West Virginia.
But Beilein and Pitino go back far earlier.
Pitino – who coached against Niagara and Canisius in 1982 while he was at Boston University – was directing Kentucky in 1996, preparing for an NCAA Tournament run that would lead to a national championship. Beilein, in his fourth year at Canisius, had just led the Griffs to the MAAC title and to their first NCAA trip since 1957.
The Griffs and several hundred fans gathered in the old Aud Club for the CBS telecast of Selection Sunday and Beilein started working the crowd before the brackets were announced.
“The bad news is we’re playing Kentucky,” Beilein said, as the crowd ooohed and cringed while he devilishly prepared his punch line.
“The good news is the game is going to be in the Koessler Center!”
The place went nuts. The chants of “Let’s Go Griffs” – egged on by Beilein – filled the old hall. Anyone there remembers that moment far more than anything about the 29-point loss to Utah four days later in Dallas.
Lo and behold, what happened the next season? Beilein met Pitino, just as he will do tonight in Atlanta.
More on that in a minute.
Beilein had a good reputation when Canisius plucked him from Le Moyne in 1992. Still, he had been only a Division II coach. The best thing he had going for him was he was a local guy and a chip off the Niland family block.
When Beilein got the Canisius job in 1992, it came down to him and Tom Brennan of Vermont. As Brennan famously told the story when he came back to Buffalo for the NCAA Tournament in 2004, he was so sure he was getting the job that he told his wife, “At this time tomorrow night, you’ll be sleeping with the new head coach of Canisius.”
When Canisius officials instead chose Beilein, Brennan says his wife’s first reaction was: “So is Beilein coming over here or am I going over to his house?”
There were no laughs during Beilein’s first game at Canisius: On Dec. 1, 1992, he lost at Duke, 110-62. Yes, 110-62. He started 0-3 and his first Division I win was a 74-52 triumph over St. Francis (Pa.) at Koessler on Dec. 21, 1992.
Beilein won 10 games his first year but by ’96 Canisius had gone to the NIT Final Four and become an NCAA team. In ’97, the Griffs had some graduation losses but still had some swagger when they headed to historic Rupp Arena in Lexington to meet Pitino’s defending national champs.
When you entered the Canisius practice at Rupp on Jan. 8, 1997, the starry-eyed feeling of entering a famous arena was quickly jolted away because Beilein’s voice was booming off the 24,000 empty seats.
“I don’t care if we lose this game by 30,” Beilein roared. “I only care that we get better and we’re going to practice today until we get better.”
Practice got better in a hurry. Great teachable moment.
The next night, Kentucky struggled with Canisius for about 16 minutes before pulling away to win by 23. I asked Pitino about the early struggles and he responded with huge praise for Beilein, about his offensive coaching skills, about the pace at which his team played, about its spacing on the floor.
It’s the same thing you hear nowadays with Michigan. Only thing is Beilein is now coaching sons of NBA players and future NBAers.
Just before Pitino spoke, I was walking off the floor with John Maddock, the longtime Canisius official who was the sports information director at the time. Beilein was a few feet in front of us as legendary coach and then-Kentucky athletics director C.M. Newton approached him.
Newton put his left arm around Beilein as they kept walking, congratulating him for his NCAA berth the previous year, for his players’ comportment on their road trip and for the way he coached them during the game.
Maddock had tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the scene. When Beilein headed for the locker room, Maddock said, “THAT is how people get jobs.”
It was the instant you knew Beilein was going big-time. Three months later, he was off to Richmond. Then came West Virginia. Then Michigan. And it all leads to tonight in the Georgia Dome.
Where John Beilein sees Rick Pitino all over again.