John Beilein says he forgets his own birthday sometimes.
That sort of thinking — the sentimental, emotional kind — just isn’t usually part of his nature.
But it sure was this week.
Standing on a stage surrounded by smiles and confetti, Beilein used his post-game speech to talk about his pre-game one. That speech, one that spoke to the Wolverines’ future selves as much as their present ones, was simply the latest instance of a wave of emotion the Michigan coach has been riding during the Big Ten Tournament.
“I just said, ‘Guys, it’s going to be five years, 10 years, 20 years later, and if you can win this thing — and we can win it — you’re going to come back one day,” Beilein said, “And you’re going to say to your sons and daughters, I want to tell you about those five days, those four games, and the Michigan Wolverines.’ ”
There’s a reason Beilein made certain to say those “five” days, and not four.
As much as it may have seemed that the Wolverines were part of a fairytale during their run to the title, it’s impossible to forget the near tragic beginnings. That first day — when the team plane skidded off the runway at Willow Run airport — is as much a part of the legend-in-waiting as anything else involved.
It’s hard to truly know whether it affected the Wolverines’ play in the tournament — Derrick Walton Jr. was already on a tear, and Michigan’s supporting cast has been on the rise for the last month, too. But it certainly changed something for Beilein.
“I don’t think it bothered me for (the first) day,” Beilein said. “It was just about going over your business. I think about it all the time now. Just think about what could have happened, or value. Every time you go up; every hug with Kathleen; seeing your grand kids; seeing these kids at practice every day. It’s a little different. I hope it never goes away.”
For all the important basketball breakthroughs Michigan made this week — from D.J. Wilson’s post defense to Zak Irvin’s finesse at the rim — Beilein’s point comes through most prominently.
Already one of the greatest coaches — if not the singular greatest — in program history, Beilein guided a team that had been through the unimaginable to play its best basketball of the year.
They came out on fire against Illinois. They came back on Purdue and they held off Minnesota. Then they let loose against Wisconsin. They looked like a team that had been to hell and back together. All of that matters immensely from a basketball standpoint, and the effects will surely be visible as the team moves on to the NCAA Tournament.
But Beilein was right in his pre-game speech, too.
The greatest thing any Michigan player will take from this tournament will not have happened in the Verizon Center. It will not have come against Illinois, or Purdue, or Minnesota, or Wisconsin. It will not be the nets they cut down.
It will come in five years, or 10, or 20. It will come when they’re done playing and they want to look back. And it will come as a surprise to everyone they tell for the rest of their lives.
This team survived.