DAYTON, Ohio — As Connecticut’s athletic director, Warde Manuel traveled to the Bahamas in November to watch his program’s basketball team compete in the Battle 4 Atlantis. While on Paradise Island, he ran into a man he thought he should introduce himself to: Michigan basketball coach John Beilein.
“Obviously, this wasn’t all going on, with the search,” Manuel said of the prospect for his return to Ann Arbor. “We just talked. I just introduced myself to him and met him for the first time, and had a 10-minute conversation about his team, my team, those kind of things. … Lo and behold, I got to see him on Sunday again.”
Beilein likely didn’t expect to run into Manuel again so quickly, but there he was at Michigan’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show watch party over the weekend. Manuel is already logging some impressive mileage, as he traveled to Dayton to watch the Wolverines in their First Four matchup against Tulsa and planned to fly to Brooklyn on Thursday if they prevailed.
Before he left for Dayton, Manuel’s first week was characterized by what he called a “listening tour,” in which he dropped in unexpectedly on some staffers and sat down in a more formal setting with others.
“I’ve already had several meetings,” Manuel said. “I sit down with each head coach for about an hour, an hour and a half, get to know them, have them get to know me. Everybody’s got advice for the AD, so I’m really on a listening tour a little bit right now.”
Being a new face atop an administration is a familiar experience for Manuel, who previously served as athletic director at Buffalo and then at Connecticut before returning to Ann Arbor.
“You just want (your staff) to know that everything’s OK,” Manuel said. “I’m down to earth, I’m going to be out and about and interested in hearing what they think.”
After a lengthy period of tumult under former Athletic Director Dave Brandon, Manuel said he doesn’t have a sense of urgency in terms of shaking up perhaps the University’s highest-profile department.
“I don’t have a set timetable on decisions or changes,” he said. “I’ll do it as they come or they’re needed.”
One looming decision likely isn’t Manuel’s to begin with. Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson in is his 32nd year at the helm for the Wolverines and his retirement has been considered imminent for years. Despite rampant speculation, he has yet to publicly announce whether he’ll return for the 2016-17 season.
Interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett, during his 17-month tenure, said that he would be happy with whatever decision Berenson made. On Wednesday, Manuel took a bolder stance.
“We’ll see where it goes,” Manuel said. “Red is in a good place. I love what Coach Berenson has brought to the University of Michigan all of his life. At the end of the season, Red and I will sit down and have more of a conversation about the future and what he wants to do. As far as I’m concerned, I’d love for Red Berenson to be our coach next season.”
One of the coaches Manuel hasn’t yet had the chance to meet with is perhaps Michigan’s busiest at the moment: Beilein.
“We were scheduled to meet yesterday, but he had to stand me up to come (to Dayton),” Manuel said in jest. “That’s not a good start for him.”
Of course, the best-known coach in Manuel’s organization is the one he fielded the most questions about: Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh has proven a controversial figure since his arrival in Ann Arbor. His ideas have caused a stir in the college football world, for instance: moving his team’s spring practice this season to IMG Academy in Florida, hosting “satellite” camps for high-school athletes around the country and turning football signing day into “Signing of the Stars,” a live-streamed, celebrity-laden event unprecedented in college athletics.
“There’s nothing Jim has done that would cause me any concern,” Manuel said. “He’s probably one of the most creative coaches I’ve seen, in terms of thinking about things and bringing new ideas to fruition. There’s a lot of creative people in this business, but I think Jim, in how he’s thinking about football and coaching our program, he’s bringing some new thoughts to the table, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
There are still some minutiae to be worked out with Harbaugh, Manuel said. Much of the negotiations surrounding Harbaugh’s contract restructuring and a deferred compensation adjustment took place under Hackett, though, and Manuel is still being briefed on what happened prior to his arrival.
As for the Athletic Department’s relationship with the student body — always tenuous under Brandon’s administration — Manuel said he’s open to ideas and plans on keeping an open dialogue, but doesn’t yet have specifics as to what the partnership might entail.
“I don’t know yet,” Manuel said. “I know it’s going to be a great relationship with the student body, from my perspective, and (that’s) what I desire and want. I’m open to different ideas and different thoughts and the way that the students want to interact, particularly at events and at type of things around athletics.”
Manuel says he’ll be accessible to students, fans and alumni alike. With his distinctive facial features and the frame of a former football player, it’s not as if he has a choice.
“I can’t hide when I go out,” Manuel said. “I’ve learned that, I’ve tried that. I plan on being out as much as I can. I try to mix it up (between) internal and external.”
He won’t be alone in Ann Arbor, either. Manuel’s daughter is starting at the University’s Medical School in July, and his son, a high-school senior, is currently choosing between his father’s two past and present employers: Connecticut and Michigan. His wife, Chrislan, will join him once Evan wraps up high school.
In the early going, Manuel simply seems grateful to be back in Ann Arbor — a place he called home for years as a Michigan athlete and then as an associate athletic director.
“It was a little surreal,” Manuel said of his return. “I left 11 and a half years ago never knowing if I’d be back. Loving the place, always, but never knowing if I’d come back in any capacity. So to come back, to be able to work at Michigan again, was a big thing for me.”