He sat inside a parking lot construction trailer, papers all over the place, with a large chunk of cardboard serving as a curtain to block out the sun's glare hanging over a makeshift desk that might have been from IKEA.
This was John Beilein when I first met him, and at the time, I was sure there was no place else he'd rather be.
"You want any of this coffee?" he asked with a smile, back in the summer of 2011.
Back then, Michigan basketball wasn't what you know it as today. And Beilein wasn't exactly who he is right now. The Crisler Center was still called Crisler Arena. There was no practice facility. Beilein's office was in a parking lot. His program hadn't raised a banner yet. He was only one year removed from the belief that he was entering a season coaching for his job.
But Beilein seemed like a guy who had just won the lottery. Beyond excited about where the next part of his evolution as a basketball mind would take him and his team. A few weeks later he gathered a bunch of media folks onto the floor at Crisler to give us a demonstration about ball screens and why they were about to be really important. He talked faster than a mile a minute. None of us had any clue what he was saying. He didn't care. He kept teaching.
"It's always been about trying to figure out this puzzle that is basketball," Beilein would later tell me. "It always keeps going. That's the journey. (And) the journey never ends."
The journey doesn't end. It evolves. And no one in basketball evolves like John Beilein.
He evolved from a school teacher to a Division III coach. Then to Division II. Then low-level Division I. Then a little higher. Then West Virginia. And, ultimately, Michigan. At some point along the way, at each stop, his evolution grew to a point of no return.
And that process continued Monday.
Beilein took the job at Michigan sight unseen in 2007 and, 12 years later, turned himself into the greatest coach the program's ever had. But you can't stop evolution. And Beilein's puzzle never finishes.
If a few conversations had gone different last spring, Beilein would've already made his next move. Instead, a wave of conversations picked up steam over the weekend when an offer to become the next coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers turned into something he couldn't turn down. Michigan's brass got final word Monday morning and, believe it or not, those who had been paying attention were far from stunned.
Beilein's been asked about the final chapter of his coaching career more times than I can count. He always said the right stuff, that he'd be more than happy staying at Michigan for the rest of his career. But he never liked discussing the final chapter. Because to him, there's nothing final about basketball. It's always flowing and moving and changing.
And so is he.
For Michigan, this is the type of devastating blow everyone knew was coming at some point, even if plenty chose not to think about it. At some point, the guy who breathed life into a flat-lined program was going to end his run at Michigan. He couldn't do this forever. Maybe you believed he'd be a Michigan lifer, because that'd make for the best story. There's surely a portion of Beilein that thought that same thing.
But you can't stop evolution.
What you can do is appreciate what you just saw.
Beilein got the job at Michigan because Bill Martin once read a blurb about Beilein in Sports Illustrated and allowed fascination to take over. He took the job as Michigan was working its way into a 10-year NCAA Tournament drought. Fan interest was lukewarm on its best day. Recruiting was beyond difficult, thanks to Michigan's own deficiencies, the competition in the Big Ten and the fact that the program's chief rival, Michigan State, had turned itself into a power at the same time U-M had collapsed.
He took a job that was desirable in name only. He'll leave it as a job that's desirable in every facet of the word. Because he made it that way. His abilities as a coach, talent evaluator and developer blossomed here – just like they did at every other stop along the way. And Michigan reaped the benefits.
By now you know all the numbers: Two Final Fours, five Sweet 16s, two Big Ten titles, two Big Ten Tournament titles. Beilein's been the greatest coach Michigan's ever had for a minute now. If that's where his career ended, it'd be enough.
But on top of that, Beilein earned his true stripes as a Michigan legend by demonstrating an ability to do everything with unflinching integrity.
College basketball, in many circles, can be an utter cesspool. Cheating is rampant and has been for years. Michigan athletics knows that all too well. Unscrupulous behavior got the basketball program into the mess it was in when Beilein found it. But Beilein dragged it out by doing everything the right way – which is also the hard way, make no mistake. He cut zero corners. He followed seemingly every rule, no matter how absurd, to the letter. And, because he also happened to be one of the greatest basketball minds in a generation, he won big.
That's a double-edged sword, though. Beilein's development skill, for college purposes, was often too good. He lost 11 players early to the NBA draft. None of them were McDonald's All-Americans; their average recruiting ranking was 86. And the other side of the blade, like it or not, was going to lead Beilein to the path he's on now in the NBA.
Beilein loves Michigan. He loves his players. He loves Ann Arbor.
But, above all else, he's a basketball mind. One of the best. And you can't hold that type of thing in one place forever.
Last spring, I waited for Beilein outside a speaking engagement a few days after his flirtation with the Detroit Pistons came to an end. We talked about the process, about Michigan, about the NBA and about basketball. There were days during the eight years I covered Beilein at Michigan where he was difficult to figure out. Most days were like this, actually. Especially back before he went from the coach who looked like your grandfather to a nationally dubbed basketball savant.
But on this day, it was clear. A large part of him seemed like it really wanted to want to be at Michigan until his final game as a coach. But the majority of him seemed to know that probably wasn't going to happen.
Because Beilein's puzzle never ends. And it always evolves.
Michigan's next coach won't have to work in a parking lot. Recruiting will be easier. He'll inherit better talent. He'll have a stable fan base. He'll be one of the highest-paid coaches in the country. He'll have Beilein to thank for all of it.
As will Michigan, a school that will be eternally grateful to the best it ever saw.