Jaaron Simmons waited for a phone call — one that would dictate the future of both his burgeoning family and coaching career.
It was mid-April 2020 and video analyst David Metzendorf had left the Michigan men’s basketball team for an assistant coaching position at the Air Force Academy. Simmons, at the end of his year-long stint working alongside Metzendorf as a graduate assistant on the Wolverines’ staff, wanted the job and knew he could step in right away. He just had to convince Michigan coach Juwan Howard of the same.
“‘Hey Coach, I know how to do everything,’ in a nutshell that’s what I was saying,” Simmons told The Daily. “‘I can continue where Dave left off. We won’t miss a beat. I promise you,’ that’s what I was telling him, ‘I promise you we won’t miss a beat.’ ”
Just days earlier, Simmons had been offered the video analyst role at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where former Michigan assistant, Luke Yaklich, had been named the head coach. While grateful for the opportunity, Simmons wanted to stay in Ann Arbor. His girlfriend was pregnant with their first child and moving across state lines wasn’t an ideal scenario.
Sure enough, 24 hours after their initial conversation, Howard called him back.
“He’s like, ‘You good. You can stay stationary. You don’t have to move the family. I want to offer you the position to be our video coordinator,’ ” Simmons said. “You know, I accepted it and I’m still here.”
Added Michigan assistant Saddi Washington: “To Jaaron’s credit, he did a great job of learning the video and adding tools to his tool-belt so when these opportunities came, he could advocate for himself to slide into those roles.”
Jean Dolores Schmidt was having a blast.
The 98-year-old nun, better known as Loyola Chicago superfan Sister Jean, looked on as her 11-seed Ramblers were on the brink of yet another upset — this time in the 2018 Final Four.
With just 11:46 remaining in the game, Loyola Chicago took a nine-point lead over 3-seed Michigan. The Wolverines needed a spark and Jaaron Simmons obliged.
The backup point guard hit just his sixth 3-pointer of the season to ignite a 17-4 run over the next six minutes and vault Michigan into the 2018 National Championship game, where it would eventually lose to Villanova. For Simmons, though, who had joined the Wolverines as a graduate transfer from Ohio University prior to the season, the run was a dream come true.
“I had never played in the NCAA Tournament to that point,” Simmons said. “So from game one, with (Zavier Simpson) getting in foul trouble against Montana, I think, and me getting into the game, that was memorable. Just stepping on the floor for the first time. Then you fast forward to being out in Los Angeles and playing Texas A&M. We’re far from Michigan and there’s a lot of Michigan fans you know, we filled that arena. That was eye-opening for me and that was the reason that I came to Michigan, because of that Block ‘M,’ because of the alumni and the fans that travel.
“… I can’t pick one moment but it was all just a great experience.”
Team success aside, that season was hardly all sunshine and rainbows for Simmons.
During his two years with the Bobcats — he sat out the 2014-2015 season after transferring from the University of Houston after his freshman season — the Dayton, Ohio native averaged 15.7 points, 7.2 assists and earned first-team All-MAC honors as a senior. Upon joining the Wolverines though, he played a measly eight minutes per game off the bench as a graduate transfer.
“It was extremely difficult,” Simmons said. “Throughout my career, pretty much my whole life, I’d been a starter, one of the main guys on the team. A leader on the team. So to become a role player in my last year, it was difficult.”
Grounded by his desire to win and earn a master’s degree from Michigan, though, Simmons never checked out on the team — something that both his teammates and coaches took note of.
“I always tell people this, from the first day, that kid’s humbleness and competitive nature was a big reason why we were able to make it to Monday night,” Washington said. “Because there are programs where guys are in that situation and they become problematic in the locker room, become a distraction or become a cancer. Jaaron was just the opposite. He’s always been a giver.”
Added Simmons’s mother, Sarita Simmons: “I think it built a lot of character in him as far as ‘You can’t have everything your way. … You can play basketball but you’re there to get your education.’ He was like ‘Okay, I’ll keep going.’ He was not a quitter, so he was not going to quit.”
Faced with the disappointment of a reduced role, Simmons learned how much he loved the game of basketball that season. Devoid of the notoriety and accolades he had achieved previously, he still had to show up every day, work as hard as any of the starters, cheer them on from the sidelines and, most importantly, perform when his name was called.
On a team with 10 underclassmen, the 22-year-old Simmons counseled his teammates as only an experienced college player could.
“Jaaron helped me,” Isaiah Livers, a freshman at the time, said. “You hear about freshmen struggling during their first year on campus, being away from home, not understanding college basketball or the new system. Jaaron was like that big brother for me. He was a guy who took me under his wing. If me, (Eli Brooks) and (Jordan Poole) were struggling during practice or a game, he’d pull us aside and say, ‘Hey, man. Everything’s all right. There’s more stuff to worry about than worrying about your performance or a practice. You gotta move on.’ … I’ll never, ever forget what he did for me.”
Whether Simmons meant to or not, he became a coach that season.
Scouting is equal parts science and art. While it requires the highly-mechanical task of sifting through hours of game tape to identify everything from an opponent’s ball-screen coverages to its baseline plays, it also requires a discerning eye to pick out nuances and how to best exploit those tendencies. This is what keeps Simmons in the office late into the night.
After Michigan’s student managers have downloaded, coded and saved film of the Wolverines’ next opponent, Simmons parses through about four to five games, records his observations and then exchanges notes with the assistant coach assigned to that specific scout. It’s an interaction predicated on equal standing between the two parties, and one that Simmons has become increasingly comfortable with.
“He’ll present an idea to you,” Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli said. “He’ll even come down after seeing what I have written up and the film has been produced and he’ll say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this or what do you think about that idea?’ because he has seen so much of this film. … He’s much more assertive in that way this year and maybe last year at times he felt like he was still a player, like he was still connected with those guys. He has clearly moved to the point where he sees himself very, very tied to the staff.”
For Simmons, that newfound confidence is a byproduct of preparation.
“If I had to say one thing I’d say that I learned to be a grinder in the office,” Simmons said. “I was always a hard worker on the court, getting my work in, trying to improve my game but coach Howard uses that term a lot, ‘Be a grinder,’ and I learned that it takes a lot to be a coach. It’s not just you come in and you try and tell guys what to do. There’s a lot that comes with it and I learned how to grind in the office.”
From there, Simmons creates digestible film packages for Howard and the players. In addition to a clip consisting of the opponents’ general actions and tendencies, he creates clips of individual players on the opposing team, giving each Michigan player a chance to hone in on their specific matchups. Everything is uploaded to their personal iPads for convenient viewing.
Video is not just reserved for game days, though.
“We watch a lot of practice film,” Simmons said. “We’ll have our scout team run the opposing team’s main sets and we’ll put that together to make sure we see the opposing team running their set, then we’ll show the scout team running their set and how well or bad we did defending it in practice.”
Prior to the season, the NCAA increased the number of staff members allowed on the court during practice by two. Howard chose Simmons and Director of Basketball Operations Chris Hunter.
With the student managers taking over recording duties from the stands, Simmons has experienced the nitty-gritty of coaching like never before. Both he and the Wolverines have benefited.
“His feel for the game and knowledge of the game is helpful for our staff because it’s just another set of eyes that gets to see things from a player perspective,” Washington said. “And now, he’s grown so much by watching so much video. He’s watching it from a coaching perspective now and his advice and his recommendations are a lot of times on point.”
Added Livers: “Him actually playing the game, he understands a lot more. He can put himself in that situation and be like, ‘Hey, this is what you can do on the floor. Let’s work on this today.’ That’s the type of stuff that he can recognize, because he has a feel for the game, especially being a point guard.”
In his current role, Simmons also coordinates the team’s recruiting events — which this year revolve around Zoom calls rather than in-person visits. From reaching out to a recruit and his family, to operating informative powerpoints during the Zoom calls and developing, you guessed it, film of Michigan’s style of play, Simmons is the logistical point-person.
“If there’s a player that (the recruit) might be similar to on our team now, we’ll put together clips and kinda show them our style of play and basically where they fit in,” Simmons said. “That’s my job, to paint that picture for them and make sure that they see this is a place where they can thrive and be successful.”
So far, so good. The Wolverines’ incoming class features two five stars, three McDonald’s All-Americans and four top-100 players, making it the No. 1 recruiting class in the country per 247Sports. Howard and the rest of the coaching staff might be the faces of the operation, but Simmons plays an essential part in the pitch.
“If there’s an unsung hero in recruiting, it’s him,” Martelli said.
At this stage of Simmons’s young career, every moment is a learning opportunity. Just like analyzing film and participating in practice, his involvement in recruiting is a mutually beneficial exercise — he puts forth the effort and receives insight in return.
“That’s my favorite part of the (recruiting) call,” Simmons said. “When I get to turn my camera off, turn my mic off and I can just listen. I feel like I learn so much during those times because we have some great recruiters on this staff. … They do such a good job connecting with these families and being genuine. What I’m always saying behind the camera is, ‘Man, we would get every kid if they knew that everything they’re saying on this Zoom call, this is real. We really live this every day. This is our culture.’ ”
Union Neuchâtel was in the midst of another coaching change. The Swiss basketball club, located just 30 kilometers from the French border, had just hired its third coach of the season. It was only December.
Simmons — who had signed with the team just months after Michigan’s 2018 Final Four run — quickly realized that his priorities laid elsewhere, an ocean away.
“We did speak to him daily while he was there,” Sarita Simmons said. “It was just a little rough being that far away from home. I think that was the issue, so it didn’t work out the way he planned there.”
Added Jaaron: “As a child, I never dreamed of going overseas to play professionally. I dreamed of playing in the NBA, obviously, but a lot of people are content with going overseas if they don’t make it to the NBA. Me, on the other hand, I was definitely appreciative and thankful, and going into it I wanted to make the most out of it and make it work but being overseas, that kinda wasn’t for me. So it was kinda easier for me to hang it up and move in a different direction.”
His dreams of playing professional basketball behind him, Simmons switched gears entirely — or so he thought. He returned to Ann Arbor to finish his two-year master’s program at Michigan with no intention of becoming a graduate assistant. But when Juwan Howard, newly-appointed as the coach of the Wolverines, reached out and offered him the position, Simmons’s outlook changed entirely.
“From day one, I knew this is where I needed to be,” Simmons said. “It was kinda like a calling from God that I transitioned immediately from playing overseas to the coaching world. Since that day that I stepped foot in this office on the other side of the game, I’ve been in love with it.”
As for his future plans, Simmons intends to do what he’s always done — put his head down, work hard, take every opportunity in stride and let the rest fall into place.
“Short term, I just want to continue to learn,” Simmons said. “Long term, the way my life has gone, I’m just going to wait for the opportunities. Whatever opportunity presents itself that’s the best for me and my family, that’s the opportunity I’m going to take. … I just want to take it one day, one year at a time. That’s pretty much how I operate. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.”
In the meantime, Simmons will just keep flourishing behind-the-scenes of one of college basketball’s premier programs. Just don’t expect him to be there much longer.
“He’s been a star in his role as a video analyst,” Washington said. “He’s going to be a star one day if he decides to take the coaching path.”
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