The idea was planted in Jennifer Klein’s mind last December.
Then, at a Women’s Coaches Academy conference in Denver, Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins gave the keynote address. Embedded within was a de facto advertisement for the athletic department in which Hutchins has worked for 35 years.
Klein, an associate head coach at Southern California at the time, didn’t talk to Hutchins that night — “She was pretty busy with quite a few of the other coaches,” Klein said Thursday afternoon, standing on a practice field she now commandeers adjacent to U-M Soccer Stadium. “But what she said just really resonated and made me think, ‘Man, if that ever was an opportunity to go to Michigan, I’d definitely wanna try to pursue it.’ ”
A 6-6-6 finish in 2017, prompting a third NCAA Tournament miss in four seasons for the Wolverines, meant that chance came sooner than Klein expected. A month after that conference, a press release announced previous coach Greg Ryan was out after 10 years in the job.
“I have enjoyed my time at the University of Michigan and appreciate the opportunity to lead these student-athletes,” Ryan said in a statement at the time. “I am proud of our successes and look forward to my next professional opportunity.”
And just like that, the door swung open for Klein.
She sent in a resume, made some calls and scored a phone interview in February. Klein sold athletic director Warde Manuel on rebuilding culture, finding the right players and developing them in the right way. Klein was hired on March 1, signing a contract through 2022 that will see her make $155,000 annually, per a Freedom of Information Act request obtained by The Daily.
Asked about goals for her inaugural season, Klein echoes the goal set by the athletes on the team — winning a Big Ten title, either conference or regular season, and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. That’s done with purpose.
“I think culture happens from the top down,” Klein said. “But it comes alive from the bottom up, and really empowering your staff from coaches to the support staff to feel empowered and take ownership of the area that they’re looking at. And so you have to allow for some room for those people to flourish, and then just guide them where you see that they need a little bit of guidance.”
As for the second part of that mission, Klein has a strong background in recruiting. At USC, she was in charge of it for a team that won a national title in 2016. She also holds an assistant coaching position for the U19 U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. This isn’t a sport with scouting services at every relevant high school game, and with star-ratings fluctuating weekly. Recruiting well means making good, dependable connections — and Klein has them.
This is the first head coaching job Klein has held since 2011, at Nevada-Las Vegas. She has since held assistant positions with Washington State and the Trojans. With the Runnin’ Rebels, she was the youngest head coach at the Division I level, going 19-18-4 over two years.
“It was trial by fire (at UNLV),” Klein said. “It was just get in and just do it and kind of learn as you go. And I think some of my biggest takeaways were not so much of the soccer side of it, but just management of people. And how to manage a team, how to manage a staff, how to work with your administration to reach the goals of the program. And so I think from that standpoint those are the biggest things I learned. You don’t know it ‘til you do it, and it was very valuable.
“… It’s a lot more work than just coaching, Xs and Os. Yeah, it’s something that you have to spend a lot of time in every day, and making sure you spend time with people. Not just our direct staff, but all of our support staff. Because you need everybody to be successful from athletic training to sports information, to academic advising. So really spending time with them and letting them feel a part of our program, so that they’re continuing the message all the way through.”
When she finally met Hutchins in person, Klein told her about that conference, and got some advice in return.
“She’s been really encouraging and kind of just reiterates, ‘It’s a process and it’s gonna take time, just stay positive,’ ” Klein said.
So far, that has borne out. The Wolverines are .500 through their first six games — Klein says their goal is to finish non-conference play above it.
“I think for us, my preaching to the team is, ‘We don’t want to peak too early. We want to be there in the end,’ ” Klein said. “So taking those experiences, game by game, and just working to improve and get better every time that we’re out on the field.”