John Beilein: When I got to Michigan we were struggling in those first three years, and I realized I couldn’t just lead by example. I had to make an intentional effort to shape the culture of the team. So I sat down and I asked, "What are the five things you value the most?" And that's when we came up with unity, passion, appreciation, integrity, and diligence—in the form of a lot of hard work. So those are our core values, and then we added accountability, because we felt that our team held themselves accountable as individuals, but that didn't extend to others around them. Our players were so nice that they wouldn't step outside of their comfort zone to tell a teammate, "You need to talk more in practice, you're too quiet." Or, "You have a relationship that is toxic to you, and you have to end it.” We were not good at that, so we added it.
O’Donnell: Every player has different interests and different styles on the court and off. How do you tailor your coaching and your guidance to each person? And what stays the same?
Beilein: They are all so unique in their personality, in their desires, and in their likes and their dislikes. And I have to make sure that I adapt my style to each player’s self esteem, background, family, all kinds of things.That's why the relationships are so important. As you get to know a young person, you need to know as much as you can about them so you can talk to them about life outside of basketball. I need to do that more, and I work at it.
O’Donnell: What does mentorship within the team look like?
Beilein: It's very intentional. We pick their locker room positions around where we want mentorship to happen within the program. If you are dressing next to a guy every day, it’s like you're his roommate. We do the same thing on the road. We hope that we are teaching our more experienced players how to teach the younger guys to make good decisions, whether it’s on the court or off the court—something we say all the time is “Do the next right thing in your life.” Once the young guys come in here, and they see the upperclassmen doing that, then they do it too.
O’Donnell: Can you tell me about a moment from your last season that reflects the exact kind of mentorship you are working toward?
Beilein: Derrick Walton Jr. was our starting point guard, had been a four-year starter, and his heir apparent is a young man named Xavier Simpson. Xavier, as most freshmen do, found college basketball to be a different animal, and he was still getting used to it. I remember hearing Derrick say to Xavier one time, “Coach is going to be very demanding of you because he believes you can be a really good player, and this team needs you, so you can't get down at all. You have got to continue to push forward, because you're important, and Coach thinks you're important, and I think you're important.” It's not an isolated incident. I would say every practice, the older guys are mentoring the younger guys. There is this attitude in our practice that we need the young guys to be as good as they can be, and a simple, short communication can really assist them in that.