Niyo: As John Beilein heads to NBA, pressure shifts to Michigan's Warde Manuel

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Warde Manuel can’t say he was caught off guard. Not this time, at least.

Monday morning's news that John Beilein was leaving Michigan for the NBA, agreeing to a five-year contract to be the Cleveland Cavaliers’ next head coach, landed like a bombshell.

But it was also a headline that was foreshadowed last summer, when the Pistons’ interest in Beilein was reciprocated and the longtime college coach admitted he might’ve left if an offer had been forthcoming.

Head coach John Beilein is heading to the NBA, leaving Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel to find a replacement.

So regardless of what was said then, when Beilein announced he was staying and Manuel, Michigan’s athletic director, noted how excited he was that Beilein and his wife, Kathleen, planned “to stay for years to come,” everyone knew this could happen. Or would happen, quite frankly.

Everyone knew that Beilein, who’d spent 40-plus years climbing a coaching ladder of his own making, from the junior varsity at Newfane (N.Y.) High School to the top of Division I hoops at Michigan, was eyeing another rung, considering the next challenge, maybe even searching for a way out.

And now, as Beilein sets about trying to “build” and “grow” in a new arena — “I am really looking forward to calling Cleveland home for years to come,” his statement read Monday, much to the chagrin of Michigan fans — the more immediate challenge is the one facing Manuel.

If this isn’t his biggest test yet as athletic director, it’s at least his most public-facing one. And we’re about to find out how well he prepared for this moment. We’re about to find out not just what Manuel thinks of this newly-vacated coaching position — "My priority now is to commence a full national search for our next basketball coach," he said in a statement Monday afternoon — but what everyone else thinks of it, too.

Take your best shot

Clearly, Michigan’s program is in a far different place than it was a dozen years ago when then-AD Bill Martin cast a wide net looking for a replacement for Tommy Amaker. The Wolverines hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in nearly a decade at the time, and the weight of the Ed Martin scandal and the resulting sanctions still felt like a burden when Martin sat down with Beilein and his wife and convinced them Ann Arbor was the right fit for all parties involved.

He was right. And now Manuel must be, too. Because as attractive as this Michigan job would seem to be, beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to college basketball these days, what with all the focus on FBI investigations and the dirty laundry being aired with various middlemen hung out to dry.

Beilein steered clear of that sort of thing more scrupulously than any other coach in the sport. And if that's the standard now at Michigan, it only raises the bar higher for Manuel as he looks for a new leader. Someone "beyond reproach," as he put it Monday night, speaking with reporters at the Big Ten's annual spring meetings in Chicago.

Still, while Michigan’s forever a football school, it’s also a marquee name — with a Jordan Brand apparel deal to boot — that allows its basketball coach to operate without some of the inherent pressures coaches face at similar top-flight programs.

Beilein was making nearly $4 million by the end of his tenure, with the facilities to match, and if Manuel’s willing to pay top dollar, then he’ll need to start his search with calls to some of the obvious high-profile candidates. Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan in the NBA, Tony Bennett and Jay Wright in college. Those seem like long shots, at best, and NBA coaches will require something approaching Jim Harbaugh money.

But this is where you make your name as an athletic director, and Manuel surely knows that. Just as he knows Michigan basketball fans have come to expect something else in recent years. Manuel said Monday he views Michigan as a "top 10" program based on the last few years and he intends to "get somebody in here who can help to continue that level of success."

Easier said than done, of course. But if that's the goal, he'd better not be shy about taking his shots. So go try to pry Mike Brey away from Notre Dame, perhaps. That’d be viewed as a home-run hire, and Brey, though he's likely content to stay in South Bend, certainly fits the bill of clean program health. Some other names that’ll get tossed around in the coming days likely won’t, and Manuel presumably knows that as well.

The in-house candidates include Saddi Washington, who spent a decade at Oakland before joining Beilein’s staff in Ann Arbor, and Luke Yaklich, whose work the last two years helped transform the Wolverines into one of the nation’s best defensive teams. But I highly doubt Manuel’s planning to hand the Michigan job to a first-time head coach, unless it's former Fab Five linchpin Juwan Howard, an assistant with the Miami Heat who's ready to take over an NBA team, or possibly at his alma mater.

Experience wanted

Manuel acknowledges the timing isn't very good, sitting here in mid-May looking for "proven coach" with a track record. But maybe that means someone like Providence's Ed Cooley, whose work Manuel saw firsthand while he was AD at UConn. Or maybe he’ll turn to former UM assistant LaVall Jordan, who spent six years on Beilein’s staff before taking the head coaching job at Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2016. Jordan has spent the last two years coaching at Butler, his alma mater. But he’s coming off a losing season — a rarity for that program anymore — that saw the Bulldogs finished tied for last in the Big East. Manuel could do a lot worse than Jordan, though I'm guessing fans will tell him -- some of them IN ALL CAPS -- that he can do better.

Until then, some of those fans should brace themselves. If anything, this latest spin of the coaching carousel in college hoops reminded everyone it’s never as easy as you might think. Rarely as quick, either. UCLA floundered for what seemed like an eternity before finally settling for Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, just to cite one example.

John Beilein isn’t John Wooden. But he’s not Steve Alford, either. And he leaves Ann Arbor as the most successful coach in program history, winning 278 games over 12 seasons, a pair of Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, and with two Final Four berths — reaching the national title game both times — among nine NCAA Tournament appearances.

He also produced nine NBA draft picks during his tenure, with a few more candidates — Charles Matthews, Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole — leaving early this spring and adding to the head coach’s roster-juggling headaches.

That’s a subject that wears on every successful college coach, and Beilein acknowledged as much again in his recent public comments at Michigan’s season-ending banquet.

“It’s a sad state of things when you say, 'Oh, I hope he’s not too good as a freshman,'” Beilein said. “Just think about that. You think Jim Harbaugh is ever gonna say that? Hockey’s got the same issue. Baseball (and football), they have to stay at least three years. There are some things we gotta try to fix. But then again, it’s a free world and I think the sentiment is, kids should be able to go out and have these opportunities.”

The grown-ups sure do. And what Beilein made clear Monday is what he’d strongly hinted at last summer, that sentimentality wasn’t going to define the end of his career.

How Warde Manuel reacts to all that now, though, figures to play a significant role in defining his at Michigan.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo