- Dwayne Stephens is in his 16th season as an assistant on Tom Izzo's staff at Michigan State. He has coached in six Final Fours and is the perfect guy to lead a top program. But, for some reason, the right head coaching opportunity has yet to present itself.
MINNEAPOLIS – The Final Four is a basketball event for four schools and a job fair for everybody else. You would think there would be some crossover there. You would think that sometime this week, a smart athletic director would walk out of the sweat-suit convention going on in the lobby of the coaches’ hotel and over to U.S. Bank Stadium to try to hire Dwayne Stephens.
Stephens is 47. He has coached in six Final Fours. His boss, Tom Izzo, is a Hall of Famer. His program, Michigan State, has not been in trouble with the NCAA. He is one of the best assistant coaches in the country. He is also the walking embodiment of what is wrong with the hiring process.
Stephens is a big, quiet black man, and even in 2019, too many people on the outside look at guys like that and think “recruiter” or players’ "friend” instead of “future head-coaching star.” Athletic directors don’t just hire a coach. They hire an image. They want somebody who looks and plays the part of head coach. And the search firms that charge wildly exorbitant fees to “find” the next great head coach are looking for an image, too.
If you want a great coach, not just some false image of one, Stephens is your man. Mike Garland, Izzo’s best friend and longtime assistant, says “I consider Tom the guru of defensive basketball. His abilities to be able to put his players in position to be able to stop you offensively, get stops, is off the charts. I’m gonna tell you now: D’s mind, especially on that end of the floor, is right there with him.”
Yes, Stephens is also an excellent recruiter. That speaks to his work ethic and ability to connect with people, but it’s important to note that Michigan State rarely gets top-20 players. The Spartans have made 22 straight tournament appearances by identifying the right people. One former Michigan State assistant told me Stephens is as strong a talent evaluator as he has ever been around.
So why hasn’t he gotten a head coaching job? Part of Stephens’s problem is that he has a big chest but refuses to pound it. Thursday, in a corner of a room connected to the Michigan State locker room, he said, “If I could tell my younger self something moving forward, I would say, ‘Hey, you gotta do a better job of networking and being open with the media.’”
Stephens is actually quite open with the media. He just doesn’t offer a lot of quips, and he doesn’t go out of his way to sell himself. He is unfailingly nice but doesn’t glad-hand. (When I found him Thursday and said I would write this column, he just smiled.)
“Coach Izzo has told me on several occasions, ‘You’ve got to be more of a bulls---ter,” Stephens says. “I was too laid-back and honest or whatever …
“You’ve got to promote yourself a little bit. It’s weird, man. This is what I tell my kids: You’ve got to be who you are. As soon as you try to be something you’re not … I don’t believe in that.”
You would think that athletic directors would want a guy like that. If you hire a guy who angles to get your job, you will get a guy who angles for the next one. Salesmen don’t stop being salesmen after you hire them.
Stephens is different. He is much better at doing a job than getting one. It would be easy to take his quiet nature as a lack of social adeptness. In fact, his understanding of personalities is an essential part of the Michigan State program.
Stephens is so good, in fact, that when he asks former Spartans like Steve Smith or Draymond Green to call a school on his behalf, he gets a strange response.
Sure, they’ll say, but why would you want to go THERE?
“They’re not in it, but they know what I’ve done,” Stephens says. “They think I should get a better job.”
Stephens says he has turned down one offer. At other times, he wanted a job but didn’t get it. He burns to be a head coach, but he also wants to make sure he gets a job where he can succeed.
In the meantime, Michigan State knows what it has, even if nobody else seems to realize it.
“That’s part of why we’ve had such success (defensively),” Garland says. “We don’t have one guy. We have two. It’s unreal. If Coach doesn’t figure it out, D.J.’s gonna figure it out. Some of the schemes he comes up with, I don’t even know how he comes up with them. He’s got an unbelievable basketball mind. He has the whole package.”