Benjamin Katz: Warde Manuel’s career-defining decision

Monday, May 13, 2019 - 7:54pm

Athletic Director Warde Manuel must find a replacement for John Beilein.

Athletic Director Warde Manuel must find a replacement for John Beilein. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Warde Manuel has been here before.

In 2012, as athletic director at Connecticut, he oversaw the men’s basketball program’s transition from retiring Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun to the hiring of Kevin Ollie. And just two years ago, as Michigan’s athletic director, Manuel appointed Mel Pearson to assume reigns of the Michigan hockey team, succeeding legendary coach Red Berenson.

John Beilein’s announcement Monday morning to leave the Michigan men’s basketball program and coach the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers means Manuel is faced with a similar task once again. But this will by far be the biggest decision during his tenure in Ann Arbor — and possibly his career.

“My priority now is to commence a full national search for our next basketball coach,” Manuel said in a statement.

How does one replace the all-time winningest and greatest men’s basketball coach in school history?

At Monday’s Big Ten meetings, Manuel acknowledged he prepared for this moment since Beilein was in talks with the Detroit Pistons last year. Knowing the coach’s possibility to ascend to the pro ranks despite a virtual lifetime contract signed last summer, a shortlist of candidates has been at the ready.

It’s what Manuel does with this shortlist, and the results which stem from the impending decision, that will define his career at Michigan.

Coaching changes are never easy, but Manuel’s track record demonstrates nothing but smooth transitions — and fast success. Two years after Ollie arrived, the Huskies won a national championship. Their first season under Pearson, the Wolverines advanced to the Frozen Four.

But this one is different. This is a change from a coach with no connection to any semblance of foul play or scandal, a coach who excelled in player development and a coach who, over the past 12 years, redefined Michigan basketball and made it, once again, a top-tier program nationally.

This decision is unlike the others where quick accomplishments represent the greatest litmus test for a positive replacement. This outlines the future of the program, one that can enter an era of rebuilding or continue to produce winning seasons year in and year out with Sweet Sixteen appearances essentially the norm. This is one that needs to steady a ship that has now entered unchartered waters, its captain gone from the helm.

“The way he’s carried himself with class and dignity and doing things the right way, I’m just so proud to work with him and to have him at Michigan,” Manuel said minutes after the Wolverines clinched their sixth Final Four berth in 2018. “John is the stability of what we’ve been doing in basketball for the last decade and we didn’t have this kind of success consistently until John came.

“For me, I couldn’t ask for a better person.”

Now begins the search for a successor, one who can fill Beilein’s enormous shoes and maintain a high level of excellence expected by the athletic department and fan base alike.

Should Michigan hire from within or look outside the program? How will this affect current players potentially transferring or assistant coaches possibly departing? Will this hurt recruiting in the long run?

The announcement is still fresh, but questions have already been raised and will continue to be obsessed as Manuel contemplates the choice in front of him. The rumor mill of potential Beilein replacements has already been at work with Butler’s LaVall Jordan, Texas Tech’s Chris Beard and Miami Heat assistant and Fab Five member Juwan Howard thrown into the mix. On top of that, Manuel said Monday he has received multiple calls from those with interest in the coveted vacancy.

The timeframe for the decision?

“The timeline is I want to get it right,” Manuel said Monday. “While I’d like it to be done ASAP, I’m also going to take the time to make sure that we find the right person for Michigan.”

In the following weeks, Manuel, along with Turnkey Search, will conduct interviews and eventually name the 17th head coach of the Michigan men’s basketball team. The so-called “culture driver” in Beilein has left for Cleveland and it’s up to Manuel, in his biggest move yet, to get to vetting and selecting a replacement who will also leave an indelible mark in Ann Arbor.

Warde Manuel has been here before. But unlike with Ollie and Pearson and any other past appointments, this move changes the trajectory of an elite Michigan basketball program for years to come — and cements Manuel’s legacy as athletic director, for better or worse.

Katz can be reached at benjkatz@umich.edu or on Twitter @benkatz27.