'Basketball savant' LaVall Jordan helped fuel Michigan's rise under John Beilein
When LaVall Jordan arrived at Michigan in 2010, the basketball program was in a state of flux.
The Wolverines were coming off a 15-17 season and the entire assistant coaching staff was overhauled and replaced by the 2010-11 campaign.
But before Jordan left after six seasons for head-coaching stops at Milwaukee and Butler, he helped transform the Wolverines from a bubble team to a national-title contender.
While former coach John Beilein spearheaded the program’s revival, Jordan, an Albion native, was as instrumental as anyone in Michigan’s rise during his time in Ann Arbor.
"He should get a ton of credit,” Josh Bartelstein, who played for Michigan from 2009-13, told The Detroit News. “I think the first thing LaVall and all the assistant coaches do is define who we are in our mission statement, in our core values and LaVall has his fingerprints all over that.
“When you look back on Coach Beilein's tenure at Michigan and the 12 years, there's clearly an inflection point of when those assistant coaches (Jeff Meyer and Bacari Alexander) and 'Vall came in. He did an incredible job and people took notice.”
As Michigan’s coaching search hits the one-week mark, Jordan’s name has garnered attention as a potential successor to Beilein.
While it’s still anybody’s guess which direction athletic director Warde Manuel will go with the hire, Jordan checks off several boxes based on the criteria that Manuel is looking for.
Beilein was widely known for his ability to evaluate and develop players, even turning unheralded recruits into NBA Draft picks.
Yet, Jordan established his own respectable track record at Michigan and aided in the development of several of the program’s top backcourt players.
“If you look through the guards that went through our program whether it was Tim (Hardaway Jr.) or Caris (LeVert) or Nik (Stauskas) or Trey (Burke) or Darius (Morris), how many of those guys went to the NBA? And none of them were five-star recruits,” Bartelstein said. “Those players get a ton of credit, Coach Beilein gets a lot of credit and 'Vall was an integral part of that, as well. He’s a really incredible player development coach and elite level as far as working with guards.”
Bartelstein said Jordan’s success in that area stemmed from the amount of time he would spend watching film, breaking down clips and using examples from other college or NBA players.
“He's a student of the game, and I think he's a basketball savant when it comes down to playing within the pick-and-roll and playing between dribbles and understanding how to change speeds and change direction,” Bartelstein said. “I've been lucky to be around basketball for most of life now and he's one of the best.”
Stuart Douglass, who played at Michigan from 2008-12, credited Jordan with adding the floater to his game — a shot he still carries with him as he plays overseas in Israel — and teaching him how to play with pace.
According to Douglass, Jordan excelled at developing players' skills because he had playing experience at different levels — at Butler from 1997-2001 and professionally overseas — and he never stopped trying to learn once he moved into coaching in 2003.
“He was never the most athletic guy when he played, but he was still a great scorer and a good shooter, and he knew how to get his shot off,” Douglass said. “We played similarly (from an athletic standpoint), so just picking up from that details here and there about spacing, about keeping guys on your hip on ball screens and getting shots off over taller guys.
“He's just been growing his knowledge of the game every year as far as I can tell. He employed a lot of what he taught us just from personal experience. …A lot of stuff in our offense (at Michigan) was very dictated by the system and with a lot of ball-screen stuff with the point guard, so he probably couldn't teach us everything that he had in his basketball brain.”
Douglass described Jordan’s coaching style as “very calm but serious,” and noted he was always professional and attentive to detail during their two seasons together at Michigan.
“Everyone respected him, and he knew a lot about that game on both sides of the ball,” Douglass said. “Our offense was pretty much a set …but defensively I was really impressed with how all the assistants were very knowledgeable on defense game to game and game planning. It was like all parts. There was really nothing missing that I saw.”
Jordan spent 13 years as an assistant coach at Butler, Iowa and Michigan before he landed his first head coaching job at Milwaukee in 2016.
During his one year at Milwaukee, the Panthers finished with an 11-24 record before making an improbable run to the Horizon League tournament title game as the No. 10 seed.
The next year, Jordan was hired by his alma mater to replace Chris Holtmann and became Butler’s fourth head coach in six seasons. In his first year, Jordan led the Bulldogs to a 21-14 mark, a win over No. 1-ranked Villanova in the regular season and to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, though, Butler fell to 16-17 and landed in the NIT after losing five of its final seven regular-season games to drop out of NCAA Tournament contention.
Jordan has a 48-55 record over the past three seasons and in two of those years his teams have finished last in the conference. His past two recruiting classes at Butler also ranked No. 62 and No. 103 in the nation and No. 9 in the 10-team Big East, according to 247Sports.
Despite the up-and-down start to his head-coaching career, Bartelstein described Jordan as someone who is down-to-earth, who can connect with everyone and who “looks at things from 100,000 feet and makes strategic decisions.”
“I think he has a great feel for X's and O's and schemes,” Bartelstein said. “And how that relates to him as a coach is he'll take a step back, he's very calm and he'll get on you when he needs to get on you, but he's much more of a calming presence. He’s a guy who you know has your back and you want to play hard for him.
“He's incredibly well respected and I think all the success he's had is well deserved."
Winning with integrity
In addition to building Michigan back up, Beilein had a sparkling reputation for doing things the right way and running one of the cleanest programs in the nation.
Manuel said given the issues that have popped up in the sport last offseason, he wants a leader who is “beyond reproach.”
According to Bartelstein, Jordan is “cut from the same fabric” as Beilein and Michigan’s core values are “embedded in his blood.”
“Before you can coach your players, you've got to know them as people and care about them as people because the players are going to play harder for you,” Bartelstein said. “When the first questions you ask are about your family, about their life and their school, it makes a big difference than just about the amount of points they score or the assists they have. What I think what LaVall is great at is he cultivates relationships off the court and it's not just about performing. It's someone like me who truly didn't score a lot of points; I still talked to Coach Jordan. Whether you're the star player or the 15th player, he does an incredible job connecting with you and players respect you for that and they want to play.
“I think if you watch Butler, Milwaukee and players at Michigan, all of his guys want to play hard for him because they want to show what LaVall stands for. And the way to do that is to perform on the court at the highest level.”
Douglass added Jordan played a crucial role in establishing and carrying on the culture Beilein was striving for but wasn’t able to achieve during his first few years at Michigan.
"From Day 1, I noticed he aligned very much with Coach Beilein,” Douglass said of Jordan’s values and what he stands for.
“They are not even close to the exact same person, but in that sense they’re probably about as similar as any other coach I've had. If Michigan wants to keep that going, that seems like a perfect succession plan.”
Making a case
While Jordan is viewed as a possible candidate, the question is whether his resume is deserving enough and, more importantly, if he’s ready for the next step.
That’s ultimately for Manuel to decide. But if Manuel does strongly consider Jordan, Douglass said his former assistant coach would be prepared for the job.
“I think as much as you want to win every game, you need to lose and you need to feel some of that pain to prepare yourself for growth at the heading coaching position,” Douglass said. “Even with Beilein's escalation from where he started to where he is now, he experienced a lot of ups and downs and a lot of those growing pains, and I think it's necessary.
“He understands the expectations at Michigan. He understands all of it top to bottom, like recruiting the state, recruiting in the Midwest, which he's still been doing for the last three years, the administration, the fans, all of it. I think going into it makes it a smooth transition for the future. Five years from now I don't know how that will translate, but I think at the beginning it would be a pretty smooth transition."