Ten months into his first season on a Division I coaching staff at Illinois State, 37-year-old Luke Yaklich created a Microsoft Word file on his computer. He named it “When I Become a Head Coach.”
Yaklich divided the file into four sections: offense, defense, culture and recruiting. Tidbits of information — gleaned from picking the brains of other coaches and scouts, reading books, watching online clinics and just being around the game — were partitioned into the different categories.
In terms of the college coaching circuit, Yaklich had only just dipped his toes into the water. Being a Division I head coach seemed like a pipe dream, but so had being an assistant coach at that level. It was impossible to know where exactly his journey would lead him next.
“It was, ‘Okay, if I ever do get a head coaching job, I’m not going to have all the answers, and it’s going to change when I actually meet my team and figure out what we’re going to be good at,’ ” Yaklich said. “But you want to have a base of things that you can fall back on and say, ‘Okay, I like this, I like that.’ ”
On March 26, Yaklich, age 44, got his chance. The former Michigan assistant coach was hired to be the head coach at the University of Illinois-Chicago, a middle-of-the-pack program in the Horizon League. With 14 seasons of high school coaching experience, 7 years in the college ranks, and a full portfolio of notes at his disposal, Yaklich was prepared.
To an extent, at least.
“None of that had COVID in it,” Yaklich said with a laugh, taking a moment to relish in the absurdity of navigating his first college head coaching gig in the throes of a global pandemic. “There’s no manual or chapter in the head coaching book to figure out how exactly to put a program, a staff and a roster together in the middle of a pandemic.”
To label it as too steep a challenge, though, would be a foolish exercise. He’s been through the wringer, no stranger to the grind requisite for coaching.
Not too long ago, Yaklich spent countless hours traversing rural Illinois on a rickety school bus as the head coach of Joliet West High School. Before Joliet, he did the same at Sterling and then later La-Salle Peru Township, all while doubling as a high school history teacher. And before that, he took care of the thankless behind-the-scenes duties as a student manager for Illinois State.
Point being: For Yaklich, the pandemic is just another hurdle to climb.
“We do what we ask our players to do, which is to respond and handle the situation that’s in front of you in the best possible way with everything that you have,” Yaklich said. “And that’s what our guys and our staff have done.”
After taking the job at UIC, Yaklich wasted no time getting to work. Hunkered down in his new home-office in Austin, Texas, he rounded out his coaching staff, retaining one assistant from the prior regime and hiring two more from Bryant and North Dakota State.
The four of them, spread out across four different states, set out to piece together a roster. UIC’s three top scorers from the 2019-20 season had graduated, leaving sizable holes. Tackling recruiting through a computer screen and over the phone, Yaklich brought on six transfers to pair with a three-man freshman class.
“The main thing that I tried to really establish is just getting to know everybody as people, rather than players,” Yaklich said. “I was making sure that the human connection was first and foremost.
“We did some team activities over Zoom. It really ended up being a unifying thing, that going into it, you may not have seen it as such, but our guys grew. Then when they finally got together, there was a connection and an excitement to be in the gym together.”
That came on July 6, 96 days after Yaklich was first hired.
“We learned to appreciate the time together in the gym and the opportunity to play together and to be a part of a team,” Yaklich said. “We realized how quickly that time can be taken away.”
Once allowed to return to the gym, the offseason more closely resembled normalcy. Players worked out in pods. Defensive drills, Yaklich’s calling card, abounded. Seven years after he started typing in that empty Word document, Yaklich could finally see his ideas put into motion.
When Yaklich got his first men’s high school coaching position at Sterling in 2000, he attempted to produce a carbon copy of the system he knew from his time at Illinois State. The experiment went poorly — “like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” Yaklich says.
Twenty years later, Yaklich, now the disciple of Dan Muller, John Beilein and Shaka Smart, has plenty to draw from while building his program at UIC. When instilling a program-wide culture — the preeminent item on his head coaching agenda — Yaklich turns to Beilein.
“The one thing with Coach B was really having a culture that you can live out on and off the court,” Yaklich said. “You knew what to expect each and every day as a staff, and then as a player, because everything was grounded back to the core values that Coach believed in. It created an identity of the program and a sense of belonging to the culture.
“So we’re just trying to grow our players one percent better as students, athletes, players and young men. I think if you really do that, you’re going to create a family culture because the people that you’re working with are going to know that you care and that’s going to carry over to what we call the three C’s: classroom, community and the court. And we want to create an environment where our guys are high achievers in all three of those areas.”
With the season approaching, the unconventionality that defined Yaklich’s first six months on the job is in the rearview mirror. As the familiar rhythm of practices and games pick up again, he can lean on all he’s learned from his journey.
“We’re just making the most of our eight hours together (per week) now that the NCAA has allowed us,” Yaklich said. “It’s been a great experience. Our guys have embraced everything like champions.”
The focus now rests in organization, highlighting different aspects he’s implemented and marking off other details that still need to be contrived.
And Yaklich, ever upbeat, is ready to continue giving it his all with whatever cards he’s dealt.
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