John Beilein saved Michigan basketball. He made it matter. More than that, he understood what it meant to wear Maize and Blue.
He was a perfect fit in Ann Arbor. And the loss of that fit is as painful today for Wolverine fans as the prospect of the loss of relevance.
This isn't to say that U-M's athletic director Warde Manuel won't find a replacement for Beilein who will win at a similar clip, now that Beilein is off to chase his dream in the NBA. (And understand, this has long been a dream of his.)
Manuel could certainly find a coach who will come and win. Mostly because Beilein made U-M one of the best jobs in college basketball.
Still, replacing a coach who embodied the school's aspirational khaki culture will be exceedingly difficult. Because there is no other coach quite like him.
Here was a high-level college coach who considered himself a teacher first. And meant it. He just happened to be a teacher with a world-class competitive soul.
That's the combination that not only lifted U-M's program but galvanized a university community and fan base that sees a responsibility in how it wins.
Beilein once told his players before they broke from a meeting on the eve of a Big Ten tournament game to make sure and open the drapes in their hotel rooms when they awoke in order to soak in the replenishing light of sunshine.
The coach in him wanted them as ready as possible. But the teacher in him wanted them to understand how to care for themselves whether they had a game or not.
It's fair to wonder whether that sort of detail management will work as well in the NBA. Cleveland's owner, Dan Gilbert, thinks it will.
"(Beilein) cares deeply about his players and others who work for him and around him," Gilbert said in a statement. "He defines the words class, integrity and character. He is a tireless worker who obsesses about finding better ways and the inches that will help his team and the organization grow."
In other words, Gilbert and his general manager, Koby Altman, sought Beilein precisely because he is mindful of how his players awake. They weren't just after Beilein's on-court mind; they wanted everything else that whirs and clicks upstairs.
They want him to build a culture.
Something he's been able to do at every one of his stops during his career, from Newfane High School to Le Moyne College, from the University of Richmond to Michigan, and at every stop in between.
Wherever he went, he remained true to his principles even as he personified the institution that hired him. He is both his own man and a man of the place he inhabits.
Nowhere was that truer than at U-M.
He arrived with a reputation as an offensive innovator who favored big-men with shooting range and guards who could see the floor as he did from the bench. He liked space and misdirection and flow, and his best teams – at their best – were beautiful to watch.
That progressive outlook fit snugly into a campus that sees itself as an innovative place in general. And early on in his tenure, he realized both he and the program had to change.
He started with the facilities, studying his competitor's practice gyms and locker rooms and arenas – including rival Michigan State's – and lobbied to remake the dark and stuffy Crisler Arena into the light-filled basketball stage it is today.
He scrapped the 1-3-1 zone defense. Brought in big men who could screen and roll to spread the floor. And hired defensive-minded assistants – first in Billy Donlon, then in Luke Yaklich – to compliment his NBA-level offensive strategies. Then asked those coaches to teach him how to teach defense.
He loved shooters, but he fell in love with grit, and used that word to describe his teams the last few seasons often.
He relished his role as the leader of a classroom and added a daily laboratory component to boot. In that sense, he was no different than a professor on campus, forever in search of a theorem that might unlock more secrets of the game.
He kept a miniature wooden basketball board in his office and constantly moved the pieces on it, like a chess master eyeing an advantage. And when he spoke about his players, especially after losses, he detailed the technicalities of what they didn't do, and what they needed to do better.
Yet he never blamed them. He blamed himself. Said he needed more time to teach them. Or that he needed more time to hone his message.
That style should play well in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers are young and presumably willing to learn. In fact, Beilein is banking on it.
"I love the position the team is in to build and grow and this was something I felt was the perfect fit for me," he said in a statement released by the Cavaliers. "With hard work and dedication by all of us, we will grow this team day by day and reinforce a culture of success that sustains itself with strong core values."
The Cavaliers' youth should give Beilein time to build without much pressure. And, who knows, maybe he'll end up getting to coach Zion Williamson if Cleveland gets lucky in the lottery.
It's certainly tantalizing. But even if his new team winds up with Ja Morant or R.J. Barrett or some other top lottery pick, Beilein won't fret too much.
He is finally getting the chance to see how his vision – and his version – of this beautiful game will fit into its highest level. In the end, that's why he left. Not because of early departures or constant recruiting or unending meet-and-greets with alums.
Beilein is a teacher and a competitor and a coach. He sees the staggering level of skill in the NBA and he wanted to be a part of it. In that sense, he wins, whether he ultimately wins enough games or not.
His departure is a gut-punch to a school whose program flailed for at least a decade. In the history of U-M's basketball program, never has a coach's spirit aligned with how the university saw itself.
He didn't just win. He redoubled an identity.
By leaving, he takes a piece of it with him. Replacing this will be the school's toughest challenge.