'Different twists' pave Jay Smith's path back to Michigan basketball
Ann Arbor — When Jay Smith walked out the media room at Crisler Center, he took a couple of steps before stopping, looking around and poking his head back into the room.
“Do you know how I get to the practice court?” Smith asked a group of reporters.
One can’t blame Smith because not only was it his first week on the job as Michigan basketball’s director of player personnel and development, it was his first time in this part of the building — the same one he spent seven years as an assistant coach on Steve Fisher’s staff over two decades ago.
“Finding your way around was pretty easy back then. You walk into a tunnel, you go to the court and you're there. Now there are twists and turns…but it was personally a cool feeling,” Smith told The Detroit News earlier this week.
“It was just different in a good way. Everything that goes racing through your mind when you walk into this place, like 'Wow, I can remember this, or I can remember that. I remember driving through town and seeing this.' That was pretty cool."
During his time at Michigan from 1989-96, Smith accrued no shortage of fond memories. He assisted in recruiting the famed Fab Five class and worked with several All-Americans along the way, including Rumeal Robinson, Loy Vaught, Terry Mills, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, the one who’s responsible for Smith’s return.
After Smith left Ann Arbor for his first head-coaching gig at Division II Grand Valley State — and every stop that followed from Central Michigan (1997-2006) to Detroit Mercy (2008-16) to Division III Kalamazoo College (2016-19) — he always kept his eye on Michigan. Not because he ever thought he’d be back, but because it was a memorable part of his 34-year coaching journey.
Then when former coach John Beilein left Michigan for the NBA, where he accepted the head job with the Cleveland Cavaliers on May 13, that started to change.
“When (the Michigan head coaching position) opened, it was like, 'Wow,’” said Smith, who was a legendary high school player at Mio Au Sable and played collegiately at Bowling Green and Saginaw Valley State.
“Juwan's name came to me right away, but obviously I didn't talk to anybody about that. I just thought that would be really a cool thing.”
Smith, 58, added the plausibility of Howard becoming a head coach was a topic of conversation a month before Beilein’s sudden exit when he, Fisher and a few other Michigan coaches met for a lunch during Final Four weekend in Minneapolis.
Sure enough, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel’s 10-day national search ended with Howard signing a five-year deal with his alma mater and becoming the 17th head coach in program history on May 22.
“I was just elated for him,” Smith said. “To watch him grow from when he first got here as a student, that's breathtaking for me. It's been a really neat thing to watch him grow and then next thing you know he's here. It's like, ‘Bang.’”
Smith noted he and Howard always texted or called one another periodically over the years, particularly when Smith was helping coach Howard’s son, Juwan Howard Jr., for three seasons at Detroit Mercy. So, after Howard assembled his assistant coaches — Phil Martelli, Howard Eisley and Saddi Washington — he turned his attention to his support staff and reached out to Smith.
“One thing led to another, we started talking and over a 20-, 30-minute conversation it came up,” Smith said of the job offer. “He asked and I said, 'Absolutely I'd be interested. Absolutely.' It didn't take very long. The only thing I had to tell him is I have to ask my wife.”
Howard said it didn’t take much to convince Smith and “it meant a lot to me for Jay to say yes.”
However, Smith said as easy as it was to accept Howard's offer, it was equally as difficult to say goodbye to Kalamazoo College, where he spent the past three seasons as head coach.
"It's always tough when you leave somewhere where you recruited players,” Smith said. “I don't care what coach you are. Those are always hard conversations to have, but our players knew it's Michigan and a chance to come back and be with Juwan and somebody you coached.”
For Smith, this season will mark his first time working with one of his former players on the same staff — and doing so on the same court where his relationship with Howard developed through workouts.
While Crisler Center has changed since Smith and Howard last called it home, Smith noted Howard approaches everything the same way like he did back when he was a standout at Michigan.
"Juwan is a worker. He worked hard in practice. There wasn't a time when he didn't,” Smith said. “Everything he did he worked hard at and was passionate about. I think you saw that in his press conference. He's a passionate guy. He wears his emotions on his sleeve.
“It's neat to see it — his maturity level and how it has blossomed. I remember he was really young but now you watch him develop, it's just off the charts.”
This season will be a bit of an adjustment for Smith as he takes on a role that doesn’t include “coach” in the title for the first time since he began coaching college basketball in 1984 at Kent State.
His duties will include helping out with academic, compliance and analytic matters. Come game days, Smith will still have a seat on the bench, though it'll be behind Howard and not beside him.
“I'm looking forward to it. It's a little different. You wear different hats and I'm OK with that,” Smith said. “I managed a facility (at Kalamazoo) and I’ve never done that before. I covered the gamut with some of those things, and I'm looking forward to growing from the assistants coaches we have.
“You're never too old to learn, trust me. That's going to be my nugget — keep listening and watching."
More importantly, though, Smith is going to keep fighting the prostate cancer he was diagnosed with in June 2018.
According to Smith, he finished radiation therapy at the end of May and will have more tests in August.
“Everything is going well,” Smith said. “Right when (radiation) ended for about a three-week period I was tired, like you were worn out. It's a little bit of a journey and all of a sudden the end of June kicked in and everything came together, and I've been feeling good since.
“I've been jogging now. My wife had me cleaning and doing (house) stuff. I should've faked sick. If I was smart, I would've. It's been good. I'm blessed and fortunate and grateful for the opportunity.”
An opportunity Smith never imagined would’ve led him back to Ann Arbor.
“You always go back to the good memories and visit and see friends that are in the program, but you didn't sit here and go well, 'Two more years I'll be back.' You just didn't think like that,” Smith said. “Now, all of a sudden, by the grace of the good Lord, things happen in this crazy profession, different twists happen and next thing you know you're here.”