MSU's Dwayne Stephens a 'home run hire' as Western Michigan men's basketball coach

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Western Michigan didn't go far to find its next men's basketball coach.

Dwayne Stephens, who's been on Tom Izzo's staff at Michigan State for nearly two decades, has accepted the job at Western Michigan, the school announced Monday afternoon. 

Stephens replaces Clayton Bates, who was let go this spring after the second year of a three-year deal.

Michigan State assistant basketball coach Dwayne Stephens has been hired as Western Michigan's new head coach.

Stephens' contract is a six-year deal worth $420,000 a year, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations. That nearly doubles the deal for Bates, in terms of salary and years. Bates was on a three-year deal contract worth $220,000 a year. In his most recent contract at Michigan State, Stephens was making more than $350,000. Stephens' salary at WMU matches what Central Michigan is paying Tony Barbee and exceeds what Eastern Michigan is paying Stan Heath ($375,000), both of whom were hired last year.

Stephens will be introduced as the 15th head coach in program history at a Wednesday press conference.

“I’m very excited for the opportunity to lead Western Michigan basketball,” Stephens said in a statement. “I’ve spent nearly 20 years at Michigan State, working under a Hall of Fame Coach in Tom Izzo. Saying thanks to him for what I’ve learned and for our friendship isn’t enough. I will carry all of those lessons with me to Western Michigan, which I think is a perfect place for me as a head coach.  

"I consider myself a blue-collar coach, who is a grinder and I will work tirelessly to make Western Michigan one of the best in the Mid-American Conference and take the program to new heights. I will expect my staff and our student-athletes to carry the same work ethic and dedication, both on and off the floor, into making our school and the Kalamazoo community proud of our program. 

"I’m so very happy for this opportunity and can’t wait to get started."

Izzo made a strong push for Stephens to get the job two years ago, after Western Michigan moved on from longtime head coach Steve Hawkins. Stephens interviewed with then-athletic director Kathy Beauregard, but in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the university went into an outside hiring freeze and thus decided to promote Hawkins' assistant, Bates.

With the school's finances in better shape now, past the COVID-19 uncertainty and with the help of a recent $55 million donation to the athletic department, Stephens was among the top targets early in Western Michigan's search this time around, along with Michigan assistant and WMU alum Saddi Washington.

For the second time in two years, Washington decided to stay at Michigan, and will sign an extension to remain on Juwan Howard's staff. Washington makes $330,000 under the deal that expires at month's end.

Western Michigan talked to Stephens and Washington on the same day early in this search, a source said, before Washington pulled out of the running. New WMU athletic director Dan Bartholomae talked to Stephens again over the weekend at the Final Four in New Orleans.

Stephens just finished his 19th season at Michigan State and 10th as associate head coach under Izzo.

"He gets it, he understands it, he’s both analytical and has a great understanding of the X’s and O’s," Izzo said as part of WMU's news release. "I know his goal will be to bring Western Michigan to an elite level. I can’t tell you how much we will just miss his presence here, but this is a great opportunity for him and we are so happy for Dwayne and his family. Western Michigan is getting a great man, a wonderful family and a coach who I think will be a perfect fit to take their program to new heights.” 

The former Spartans standout from Ferndale — he was high-school teammates with Cornell Mann, who just was named head men's coach at Grand Valley State — has primarily been responsible for coaching Michigan State’s big men, including first-round NBA Draft picks Adreian Payne, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. He’s also helped develop players like three-time NBA champion Draymond Green and current Memphis Grizzlies reserve Xavier Tillman.

With a reputation as one of the top recruiters in the nation — "He understands the importance of recruiting and what it takes to build a successful program," MSU football coach Mel Tucker said — Stephens, 50, has coached in 20 straight NCAA Tournaments, including the 2003 Final Four with Marquette and the 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2019 Final Fours with Michigan State.

At Marquette, he worked under then-head coach Tom Crean, another former Spartans assistant who called WMU's selection of Stephens "an absolute home run hire." At Michigan State, Stephens also helped guide Spartans to six Big Ten championships and four Big Ten tournament titles.

“From our earliest conversations, DJ rose to the top of an incredibly competitive candidate pool as the right choice to lead our men’s basketball program to excellence," Bartholomae said in a statement about his first major hire since taking over AD in January (his first major move was extending football coach Tim Lester). "His reputation as one of the nation’s most elite recruiters and his experience in developing some of the world’s finest basketball athletes separated him as one of the country’s most outstanding basketball coaches.

"However, it was his sincere and authentic personality, coupled with his commitment to the holistic development of our student-athletes, that made him the best fit for our position."

Western Michigan used the DHR Global search firm to identify candidates, and among those interested were several who had taken teams to the NCAA Tournament.

Western Michigan was 13-39 under Bates, including 8-23 this past season. After he took the job following Hawkins' departure, the Broncos lost two star players to the transfer portal.

The Broncos last won a Mid-American Conference title and made the NCAA Tournament in 2014, and haven't had a winning season since 2017-18 (under Hawkins, who recently returned to Division II Quincy). Interest in the program has waned so much since, men's basketball sold 250 season tickets last season.

"I am certain that our basketball program will inspire pride and excitement amongst the community and we are excited to introduce this new era of Bronco men's basketball to the Southwest Michigan community, and to our WMU friends nationwide," Bartholomae said. "We can’t wait for you all to join us in supporting Coach Stephens and this fantastic group of young men. Go Broncos!” 

Stephens earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Michigan State in 1993, and began his coaching career as an assistant at Oakland in 1997. Stephens and wife Sarah have three children.

Meanwhile, Stephens’ departure from Michigan State creates an opening on Izzo’s staff for the second time in the last two years. Long one of the more stable staffs in the country, things began to shuffle a year ago when Dane Fife, who was also an associate head coach for the Spartans, announced he was leaving after to take an assistant coaching position at Indiana, his alma mater. (Fife wasn't retained after that one season.)

Before that move, Izzo’s staff of three full-time assistants had been intact for 10 seasons with Mike Garland joining Stephens and Fife. Now Izzo will again be looking to fill a void.

Last summer, Michigan State promoted Doug Wojcik from recruiting coordinator to assistant coach while at the same time bringing back former assistant Mark Montgomery to take the recruiting coordinator position. Just before the 2021-22 season began, Garland decided to take a step back in his responsibilities and was named special assistant to the head coach while Montgomery was made a full-time assistant.

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Detroit News sportswriter Matt Charboneau contributed.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984