ANN ARBOR, Mich. - When I first stepped foot on the campus of the University of Michigan, nobody really cared about college basketball.
It was August 2010 and fans had already endured two agonizing seasons of Rich Rodriguez-coached football teams, but still, the buzz around campus centered much more around Tate Forcier than the likes of Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, who would end up being much more deserving.
Michigan basketball was hardly even an afterthought. John Beilein was entering his fourth season after a team ranked in the preseason top 20 tanked to 15-17 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time in 12 years.
The Wolverines had one win in the Big Dance over that span, a 62-59 win against Clemson that everyone outside of Ann Arbor forgot the moment Blake Griffin sent Michigan packing in the next round.
Beilein faced what looked like an impossible task. Irrelevance is a death sentence in college sports, and Michigan basketball was far removed from being relevant. A decade of mediocrity and sanctions combined with a fan base obsessed with football buried the basketball program in the minds of most students.
I can't even remember if students had to pay for their basketball tickets that year. If so, they didn't cost much. Nobody really cared to watch another season of Darius Morris or learn to love some guy named Novak or meet unheralded freshmen Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan.
At least, not yet, they didn't.
When I showed up to my first Michigan basketball game as a student -- South Carolina Upstate was visiting. I'm sure you can imagine the dozens of fans who packed into Crisler Arena -- I found, to put it nicely, a small gathering of other students in the bleachers.
The trip from Bursley Hall to Crisler was a long one, but it was worth it. Morris looked better. Hardaway seemed like a good shooter. Maybe the team would at least be entertaining?
As the alma mater played and the 20 or so students still at the arena zipped up our coats, we had absolutely no idea the journey Beilein was about to take us on.
That season carried its own set of highs and lows. Beilein's first truly big win came on the tails of a six-game losing streak in late January. Michigan wasn't going to the NCAA Tournament after heartbreaking losses to Kansas and Ohio State in the span of four days. But somehow, improbably, the Wolverines went on the road and beat Michigan State, courtesy of a cold-blooded triple from Stu Douglass.
That win vaulted Michigan to an 8-3 finish and an NCAA Tournament berth. Beilein's team blasted Tennesee by 30 points before falling a Morris floater short of forcing overtime against No. 1 seed Duke.
For most people, Michigan was a cute story and an example that anybody can have a good weekend in the NCAA Tournament. In reality, the basketball program was back.
The following season saw Michigan go 24-10 and earn a share of the Big Ten championship. Michigan, a Big Ten champion? Competing with college basketball blue bloods like Michigan State and Indiana? It was real, and it was here to stay.
I'll never forget the home game against Ohio State. ESPN's "College Gameday" came to Ann Arbor to see Michigan host the No. 6 team in the country. Tipoff was at 9 p.m. Saturday, but hundreds of us bundled up outside Crisler Arena on Friday evening to keep our spot in line. We couldn't show up 10 minutes early and stand in the first row anymore. Michigan basketball was starting to matter.
For the second time in the Beilein era -- the previous month's MSU game was the first -- Crisler was truly electric. Students forgot they had just spent the better part of 24 hours sitting on cold concrete during a Michigan winter and watched Trey Burke and Hardaway and Morgan outplay the likes of Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft and DeShaun Thomas.
That season ultimately ended in heartbreak, as Michigan lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed -- arguably Beilein's only underachievement in 12 seasons. But that loss couldn't erase the feeling that Michigan was on the rise.
By 2012-13, everyone was on board. Crisler was the place to be as Michigan took down the likes of Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue once again. Beilein was doing what the football program never could: beating rivals, hanging banners and accomplishing his goals at a national level.
The most magical moment of our college career came March 29, 2013, when Burke hit the most memorable shot of the basketball season, completing a massive comeback against Kansas. Five minutes later, Michigan basketball was heading to the Elite 8 courtesy of a win over Kansas. Kansas!
I was mauled by my housemates in the living room of 720 Catherine Street. Some of them weren't really basketball fans. Others had been to every single game with me that season. It didn't really matter in that moment.
Florida stood no chance two days later. This team was going to the Final Four, just two years removed from being a laughingstock.
Beilein had resurrected the program in a way nobody expected. Michigan playing in the Final Four wasn't even a consideration when I got to campus, but here it was.
Michigan students flocked to Atlanta, no matter what it took. I remember asking my Spanish teacher whether I could reschedule an exam or if I had to take a zero. Missing the Final Four was never even a consideration. (He let me take it the day before I left. Gracias, señor García-Amaya.)
The Atlanta experience was, well, it's difficult to put it into words, and words are the life blood of my career. Michigan was the center of the college basketball world, and it wasn't even a fluke. Beilein had assembled a roster that included six future NBA players and reached a peak nobody had dared imagine.
Except it wasn't the peak.
He beat Syracuse to reach the national championship game. There were two teams left out of 353, and Michigan was one of them. Michigan even held a double-digit lead for a good stretch in the first half, courtesy of Spike Albrecht's shooting heroics. Even when Luke Hancock brought Louisville back and red confetti tumbled from the rafters, it was hard not to appreciate what Michigan had accomplished.
That's the kind of moment Beilein provided for Michigan fans. He made the NCAA Tournament eight times in the last nine years, coached in two national championship games and reached five Sweet 16s. Most fans probably don't even remember the general indifference that echoed through the rafters of Crisler Arena from 1998-2010.
Beilein gave me, and the entire student body, that unforgettable weekend in Atlanta. Two years ago, he gave a new generation of students the same experience in San Antonio. He's won two regular season conference titles and two Big Ten Tournament titles.
Remember the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, when Michigan recovered from a plane crash to win four games in four days in Washington, D.C.? Or when the team started 20-1 in 2012-13 and reached No. 1 in the AP Poll? Or when a perfect last-second play led to Jordan Poole's incredible buzzer beater against Houston in the NCAA Tournament?
Beilein won 278 games at Michigan, a school he had no connection to before he was plucked from West Virginia to hopefully at least get back to the NCAA Tournament. He did it all without a shred of controversy in a time when dozens of fan bases have had to sweat possible punishment due to violations.
There have been so many incredible moments over the last 12 years as Beilein picked up the debris and steadily built one of the most consistent programs in the country.
We got to watch not only Hardaway, Burke and Morris, but also Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas. He made stars out of Moe Wagner, Derrick Walton Jr., Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole.
No matter how many players left early thanks to Beilein's tutelage, another star and fan favorite would emerge and get fans through the winter months.
Beilein is the reason I got to experience Atlanta, San Antonio, Indianapolis and Chicago with some of my closest friends. I got to know my wife thanks to Michigan basketball. I got to experience a Big Ten Tournament championship with my dad and a Michigan-Michigan State home game with my mom. And I know there are thousands of others with memories just like those.
College basketball is the most emotionally volatile sport in the country, exposing us to both the most crushing heartbreak and the greatest euphoria.
Thanks to Beilein, Michigan fans have experienced both, after years of feeling nothing at all.
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