How an ex-high school social studies teacher helped put Michigan in the Final Four
Before Luke Yaklich went from Illinois State to Michigan, he spent 17 years teaching high school social studies
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SAN ANTONIO -- On July 26, 2017, in the middle of a scorching Las Vegas summer afternoon, Luke Yaklich got into his rental car, blasted the air conditioner on high and cranked the stereo volume even higher.
Within seconds he was screaming along to John Mellencamp's 1982 chart-topping hit "Jack & Diane."
This is the man, now 41 years old, partly responsible for Michigan's run to the Final Four.
"Whomever was next to me at the stoplight probably got a hell of a show," Yaklich said.
Yaklich was emotionally charged; his life had just changed forever. So had Michigan's future, even though nobody knew it then. Moments earlier, at the South Point Hotel, Wolverines coach John Beilein offered Yaklich a coveted spot on his staff. At the time, Yaklich was an unknown assistant with few Division I ties. Eight months later he's become the buzzy name attached to Michigan's defensive makeover.
The Wolverines' amazing push to San Antonio might not have been if not for two offseason hirings by Beilein, who took a chance and made an unusual move in choosing to bring on two men (Yaklich being one of them) he did not know before interviewing them. In the ultra-connected world of college coaching, this is unorthodox, particularly for coaches in the later stages of their careers like Beilein. He could've gone the easy route and picked a couple of guys he knew and stayed crouched in his ways. Instead, a philosophical twist was in the works, the upshot of which is now an opportunity for Michigan to win its second tournament championship in program history.
For as much credit as Beilein has rightfully received, another coach -- Illinois State's Dan Muller -- is owed plenty as well. Assistant coaches are routinely overlooked by many outside the niche world inside college basketball for their importance, but head coaches (most of whom are former assistants themselves) intimately know just how valuable quality assistants are.
What does it say then about Muller that he was willing to endorse Yaklich and another ISU assistant, DeAndre Haynes, for both of Michigan's vacancies? It was a rare thing, something most coaches would not have done. A dual blessing that Beilein took to heart -- and did so in the middle of July, which is the most critical period on the recruiting calendar. Losing one assistant to a highly respected coach in the middle of the summer is part of the gig as a mid-major coach. But two at once -- to the same program?
"I said no, I'm not going to hire somebody I don't know," Beilein said. "I want to research this. I can't take two guys from the same school. I couldn't do that to anybody. And Dan was such a champion through it, saying, Coach, these guys deserve this opportunity. They want to play in the Big Ten. Do not let me get in the way to that. Just an absolute champion about it."
As third-seeded Michigan prepares to play vs. a Cinderella out of the Missouri Valley in Saturday's national semifinal, the Wolverines have two former Valley assistants hard at work trying to end the feel-good story of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Haynes wound up having a layover at Illinois State. He was hired by Muller in spring 2017 and had just unpacked the last box in his house when he got the call from Beilein. He began to sweat and cry after getting the offer.
Haynes, a Detroit native, was a natural fit.
"After [Beilein] asked about Dre, and he talked to Dre once, I knew he was hiring Dre," Muller said. "He didn't tell me he was hiring him, but I knew what he was looking for, and I knew Dre."
Michigan's guard play has been consistently improving over the past eight weeks. Much of that is owed to Haynes, who has helped turn Zavier Simpson into a point guard of the future for Michigan and built up Charles Matthews into an even better pro prospect.
Haynes has been under-the-radar integral, while Yaklich has seen his star rise swiftly in the past month. Amid a highly publicized Big Ten Tournament run and now this Final Four appearance, Beilein has continuously praised and credited Yaklich for the Wolverines' defense. On that end of the floor Michigan is playing at a level never before seen at this program in Beilein's time there. The Wolverines rank fourth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency; the 2012-13 team that made the national title game was 37th.
Prior to this season, that 2012-13 team was the best defensive unit Beilein had ever coached at the high-major level. This one crushes it.
Yaklich joining Michigan's staff and bringing along an enthusiastic, atypical defensive mindset helps tell the story for Michigan.
But Yaklich's story overall is bizarrely fascinating. He has no match in college basketball.
To get where Michigan is now, you need to go back to Normal, Illinois, in the mid-1990s, when Yaklich was a team manager for Illinois State. He became close friends with Muller, then a player for the Redbirds. The two of them lived with two other ISU players in an off-campus house.
"I just remember him coming up to me and saying, 'We need a roommate,'" Yaklich said. "The was feeling like, 'Hey, I've arrived. The players think I'm cool.'"
That planted the seeds for a friendship more than 20 years strong now. Muller and Yaklich are alike but not, which makes their friendship so entertaining. And Yaklich's path is so uncommon that Beilein himself might be the only head coach who can identify with it.
They're both former social studies teachers.
Here's the crazy thing: Yaklich wasn't a college basketball coach until five years ago. His first paying job as a coach came when he was at Illinois' La Salle-Peru Township High School, coaching his younger sister's junior varsity girls team. He loved basketball, but teaching was an equal passion. Yaklich had four coaching jobs in 17 years, plus taught five sections of world history and won the teacher of the year award at Joliet West High School in Chicago.
The last time Michigan made the Final Four, in 2013, Yaklich was the head coach at Joliet West and grading papers for 17-year-olds.
"I had my dream job as a teacher at Joliet," Yaklich said.
In fact, Muller tried to hire Yaklich to his staff, knowing it was a lifelong desire of Luke's to be on a college bench ... only to hear Yaklich then ask if he could have a day to think about it.
"The silence on the phone was like, 'Are you freaking serious?'" Yaklich said.
He accepted the job -- then backed out less than 24 hours later. It was around 3 in the morning when Yaklich woke up and called his father and father-in-law to talk about it more. By 6:45 a.m., Yaklich text messaged Muller and told him he couldn't take the job.
"I was an idiot," Yaklich said. "I was a chicken. I didn't want to tell him over the phone."
This was after having gone through the wringer of being interviewed at Illinois State, preparing scouting reports and proving to Muller he was truly capable of coaching at the Division I level.
"I had tenure at Joliet," Yaklich said. "Two master's degrees, all this education. Do I let this all go for an unknown? In college coaching, you never know."
There are a dozen ways this story never happens, but it nevertheless has. Still, for example, Muller went on to offer the job to then-Navy assistant Dan Earl, who turned it down. (Earl is now the head coach at VMI.)
"If Dan would have said yes, none of this would have happened," Muller said.
Frustrated, Muller called up Yaklich's wife and wanted to know what the hell was wrong with her husband for accepting and then turning down this opportunity in the first place.
"I've given him shit for it multiple times since," Muller said at his San Antonio hotel as he reminisced about his friendship with Yaklich.
Eventually, of course, Yaklich took the job. Illinois State went from 89th in defensive ranking the year before he got there to 19th in his last season. He learned from Muller and from former ISU assistants Dana Ford and Torrey Ward. His adaptation to college basketball came fast, owed in large part to his willingness to take criticism and realize how much he didn't know.
"It says everything about Dan, who he is as a person and a coach," Yaklich said. "The thing I loved about Dan is, even though we're friends, even if there was something to improve upon, it was always to the point. His willingness to keep talking to Coach Beilein on our behalf when really at any point he could've said, 'Coach, I can't afford to lose both, just take one. He's a great friend and is a great mentor to me. Had it not been for Dan and the opening he had, the trust he had ... I'm forever grateful for that."
Muller allowed Yaklich to be productive, to get his hands dirty in the day-to-day grind. Yaklich was green when he got to ISU. He didn't know what a guarantee game was, that certain schools paid other schools to come and play them. He went from working the concession stands at his high school to scheduling Illinois State's games, being in charge of team tickets and overseeing ISU's team academics.
Within four years, Yaklich had an uncommon rise.
When the Michigan job came open, Yaklich only found out because of his wife. She'd learned about it through Twitter. An end-of-season evaluation by Muller led to a discussion between the two old friends about Yaklich's readiness to coach at a higher level. Yaklich is obsessed with fishing, and he first got a call from Beilein about the job opening while sitting on a farm pond trying to catch bass with his son, Griffin.
Beilein talked more about family, baseball and teaching than hoops.
"And just a little bit about defense," Yaklich said. "Looking back at that conversation, that's exactly who Coach Beilein is."
His first interview came at the Delta Sky Club in the Atlanta Airport. Yaklich changed in the bathroom stall and put on a suit and tie. Beilein still gives him grief about that -- he'd never seen anyone else come to a job interview at an airport dressed like that.
Though it took a couple of weeks -- Beilein initially passed on Yaklich -- the former high school history teacher with a nerdy streak was eventually screaming in delight in his car. Michigan is seen in a whole new way because of Yaklich and Beilein and Haynes, but all due to Muller.
"He loves basketball -- not all coaches love basketball -- he loves basketball," Muller said. "Luke can do it all."
Haynes and Yaklich have become close themselves over the past 11 months with all that's transpired. March brings unexpected stories annually, but this one isn't about the players on the court. It's about two head coaches and the faith and trust they put into two other men.
Now that leap of faith has brought Michigan back to the biggest stage in college basketball. Luke Yaklich has studied history most of his life. He's two wins away from becoming part of it.
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