In what felt like the blink of an eye, one of college basketball’s most stable programs suddenly finds itself facing an uncertain future.
That program is Michigan, which now needs a new head coach after John Beilein’s decision to leave Ann Arbor to test his X’s and O’s as head coach of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers.
For Michigan, this forthcoming murkiness comes after a decade of sustained excellence. When Beilein took over the Wolverines in 2007–08, Michigan hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in nine seasons. In 12 seasons since, the Wolverines have played in nine NCAA tournaments, two national championship games and have captured four Big Ten titles—two in the regular season and two in the conference tournament. In losing Beilein, Michigan loses a beacon of consistency who ran one of the cleanest—and best—programs in college basketball.
Now, the focus of the college basketball world turns to 50-year-old athletic director Warde Manuel, who now faces the most important singular decision of his three-plus years as Michigan’s AD. Beilein’s decision came as a shock to many, but not Manuel. Despite inking Beilein to an extension through the 2022–23 season last summer, Manuel reportedly believed Beilein would leave Michigan if offered an NBA head coaching job after Beilein’s name came up for the Detroit Pistons job in 2018. According to the Detroit Free Press, Manuel has had a short list of candidates to replace Beilein ready since then.
If Manuel chooses, he won’t have to look too far to find Beilein’s replacement, though nobody can really replace the winningest coach in school history. Assistants Luke Yaklich and Saddi Washington, who have been at Michigan under Beilein for two and three years, respectively, would provide continuity for a program that’s been rolling recently. Yaklich, who came to Michigan after a four-year stint as an assistant at Illinois State, has coordinated a Wolverine defense that has been in the top three in country in efficiency in each of the last two seasons, per kenpom. Washington, meanwhile, has been Beilein’s top assistant. Both candidates could be pivotal in keeping Michigan’s current and future recruiting classes intact. Jalen Wilson, a consensus top-50 recruit and the Wolverines’ top 2019 commit, has already expressed his preference for a familiar hire.
Manuel, speaking at Monday’s Big Ten meetings in Rosemont, Ill., said he’d prefer to hire someone with previous head coaching experience.
“If I can get a proven coach, someone with a track record as a head coach, that’s what I’d like to see,” he said.
Manuel could find a middle ground with Butler head coach LaVall Jordan, who served as an assistant under Beilein from 2010 through 2016 and has spent the last two seasons at his alma mater in Indianapolis. Jordan isn’t yet fully proven as a head coach, but he at least has a track record, unlike Yaklich and Washington. Splashy names like Billy Donovan, Jay Wright and Brad Stevens would be no-brainers for Manuel, but also long shots.
An outside hire, with the exception of Jordan, would be a significant change for a program that’s been humming on all cylinders for years. There will be roster turnover after the departures of Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole, and Ignas Brazdeikis seems likely to be gone too after the Beilein news. Still, Zavier Simpson is one of the best returning guards in the country, Jon Teske is a reliable option down low and Isaiah Livers is primed to break out with increased opportunities offensively. There are a host of highly-recruited young players who could contribute too. From a roster standpoint, Michigan’s system has been able to withstand losing talent and steadily reload in recent years. That was Beilein’s system, though. Without Beilein, the program’s foundation will face its biggest test in a long time.
Because of its returning talent and its recent run of success, Michigan is a demonstrably better head-coaching job than it was when Beilein took over in 2007. But with success comes heightened expectations. For that reason, there’s immense pressure on Warde Manuel to get this next hire right.