Bacari Alexander remains MIA at UDM as intrigue grows

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Detroit Mercy coach Bacari Alexander has missed the past five games due to a "personnel" matter.

Detroit — One year, seven months and one day ago, Bacari Alexander came back to his alma mater, the star of a high-energy press conference, having landed his first Division I head-coaching job.

On Saturday afternoon at Calihan Hall, as the Detroit Mercy men's basketball team was steamrolling a Division II opponent before a typically sleepy holiday weekend crowd, he was nowhere to be found. For the fifth consecutive game, Alexander was out  with what now only can be described as an indefinite suspension, with no specific return date in sight.

Using its status as a private institution, thus not bound by open-records requests and able to withhold information such as salary and disciplinary measures, Detroit Mercy officials aren't commenting beyond a vague, 20-word statement issued last week.

The university is calling the situation a "personnel" matter, not to be confused with "personal" matter. An initial statement, read on the team's broadcast when Alexander missed his first game, a home win Nov. 13 against Michigan-Dearborn, called it "personal" reasons. That broadcast statement also said it was to be a one-game absence. It's now going on nearly two weeks since Alexander coached a game or attended a team practice.

Alexander, 41, remains listed as the head coach in the team's game notes, but he hasn't posted anything original on his Twitter account since Nov. 13. There have been some retweets from his account since then, but it's unknown if he retweeted them. He's previously said he doesn't handle all his own posting.

Alexander hasn't returned several messages from The News. For the past several days, phone calls to his cell phone have gone directly to voice mail.

At Calihan Hall on Saturday, athletic director Robert Vowels said he could say little beyond the university's original statement. There are several university officials involved in this situation, including some higher up the hierarchy ladder than Vowels.

In Alexander's place has stepped Jermaine Jackson, an assistant at Detroit Mercy under Ray McCallum Sr. and who was a staff holdover after Alexander got the job. Jackson was named the designated "next-in-succession" in the event of things like sickness, family emergency or, apparently, whatever's going on now.

It's an interesting position to be in for Jackson, who played alongside Alexander at Detroit Mercy in the 1990s. The two were even roommates in college.

Asked if he's been in contact with Alexander, Jackson said, "Well, I mean, that's a situation that we're not able to talk about."

Vowels has been in contact with Alexander, who spent 15 years as an assistant coach before getting his first head-coaching job  starting at Detroit Mercy, then Ohio and then Western Michigan before John Beilein hired him at Michigan. He spent six years in Ann Arbor before Detroit hired him in April 2016.

After the first-game absence earlier this month, Detroit Mercy went on the road for three games  two in Nashville, Tenn., and one in Saint Louis  and Alexander did not travel with the team. The team is 4-1 in his absence, also with victories over Houston Baptist and Saint Louis.

The Titans have won three in a row, including Saturday's easy-as-pie, 131-69 victory over Siena Heights.

Jackson was animated on the sidelines throughout the game, chirping at refs and barking at his players. He was dressed to the nines, with a sharp navy suit and a blue and gray tie with the pocket square to match. He looked plenty comfortable on the job.

"I'm just doing my job. I'm never in an uncomfortable situation," said Jackson, 41. "Just coaching the guys like I was from Day 1, do what I have to do to keep the guys under control, keep the guys happy."

That task, keeping the players happy  or, more importantly, focused  would seem like a challenge, given these are young men, after all, some just barely out of high school. A sudden change in leadership, even if it's only a temporary one, would seem to potentially have a jarring effect on young athletes.

But Jackson said that hasn't been an issue.

After his professional career was over, including several seasons in the NBA, Jackson returned to Metro Detroit and opened a basketball academy and was head coach at Mount Clemens High. He later was hired by McCallum and was the interim coach when McCallum was fired in March 2016 after eight seasons on the job. Jackson interviewed for the head-coaching job before Alexander was hired; Alexander reportedly received a seven-year contract.

Jackson was then retained as an assistant  it's unclear if that was Vowels' or Alexander's call  and also made the program's recruiting coordinator. One of his biggest "gets" was his own son, Macomb Dakota guard Jermaine Jr., who finished one steal shy of a triple-double Saturday.

"I've been dealing with kids for the last 15, 20 years, that's what I do," Jackson said. "We go in there, the locker room is happy, practice is happy, we travel happy, everybody's happy. That's how we've been from Day 1. Guys are not just happy now; we've been happy from Day 1."

Detroit Mercy officials did not make any players available to the media after Saturday's game.

Expectations were elevated this season for the Titans, who were picked fourth in the Horizon League preseason poll  despite finishing last season 8-23.

And the results on the court have been encouraging, at least since a second consecutive exhibition-opening loss to Division II city rival Wayne State. The team is 4-2 in regular-season play, the victories over Houston Baptist (overtime) and Saint Louis (two points) especially thrilling.

Next up is a road game at Fort Wayne on Tuesday, before a marquee trip to UCLA on Dec. 3.

Jackson may or may not know long he'll be the interim coach  he's not saying  but seems prepared to stay on the job as long as he's asked.

"All Jermaine Jackson can do is take an everyday approach to life," he said. "Like when I played ball, my approach every day was a one-day contract."