Saddi Washington rolled out of bed and into basketball purgatory.
On the morning of May 13, 2019, John Beilein, Michigan’s all-time winningest coach, accepted the head-coaching position with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. In his wake, a stunned program pondered its suddenly precarious future.
Washington, an assistant under Beilein, had no intention of leaving Ann Arbor anytime soon. Across three years on Beilein’s staff, he emerged as an integral part of Michigan’s success, helping spur the Wolverines into college basketball’s upper-echelon with two consecutive 30-win seasons. Meanwhile, his daughter, Sidney, had settled into high school while his son, Caleb, transitioned into middle school.
“I always say, the Michigan experience has been very kind to the Washingtons,” Washington told The Daily.
For days, Washington wondered whether that experience was over. Two weeks later, loitering toward the back of Juwan Howard’s introductory press conference, Washington found himself as Michigan’s longest-tenured assistant coach. Suddenly, he was the senior-most link to Beilein’s program.
As the staff’s holdover, his priorities shifted.
He needed to work alongside the new staff to maintain Michigan’s success, an effort rooted in conserving the culture.
A pair of pictures drape the back wall to Washington’s office, tethers to the past.
The first, a photo of the 2016-17 Wolverines celebrating their Big Ten Tournament championship. The other, a team picture taken on the court in San Antonio before the 2018 Final Four.
Since those moments, players and coaches have come and gone within the program. And yet, success has endured.
It’s early February, and when Washington leans back in his desk chair, both photos come into view, blown-up and framed. He didn’t know that, a month later, he would be standing underneath a drizzle of maize confetti in the belly of a hollow Crisler Center, exchanging hugs and fist-bumps at the outer-edge of a mosh pit. Michigan, in domineering fashion, secured the outright Big Ten regular-season championship.
Another photo to add to the display.
The last 11 seasons comprise arguably the greatest period of sustained success in Michigan men’s basketball history. Eight (soon to be nine, would have been 10) NCAA Tournament appearances. Five Big Ten championships. Two Final Fours and perhaps more forthcoming.
The transition from Beilein to Howard elicited no apparent drop-off, with the two tenures merging into one glorified era.
Scanning those photos — both the pair already framed and the one soon to be there — reveals Washington to be the constant.
After graduating from Oakland in 2010, Johnathon Jones was alone, bound for Slovakia on a pro-contract having spent the first 23 years of his life in Michigan. A few days before he left, he received a phone call from his former assistant coach, Saddi Washington, with some advice.
A decade earlier, Washington wore Jones’s shoes. He was en route to France, having left behind his wife and fleeting NBA dreams to prolong his playing career overseas.
Challenges awaited — new teammates, a new style of play, a new culture — with no simple remedies. Washington had no one to guide him through the transition; bootlegged TV programs represented the only sort of contact with home.
And, early on in his tenure as an assistant coach at Oakland, Washington sought to provide his players the mentorship he sorely lacked during that time.
“I just tried to be there every step of the way, even though I wasn’t physically there,” Washington said. “It goes back to that day you’re sitting in a kid’s living room and they’re on campus and you start the recruiting pitch and you’re talking about family, from my perspective that shouldn’t end the moment they leave campus.”
Drawing upon his own international experience — stints in France, Italy, Israel and Greece — Washington curated a running Microsoft Word file dubbed the “European Survival Kit.” It encompassed everything from packing essentials to advice on acclimating to foreign customs, to stipulations to watch for in contracts.
“Kinda like when a freshman goes to college, you have certain things that help you get by,” Jones, who played for Oakland from 2007-2011, said. “First time going overseas, he sat me down, made a checklist, told me what I could expect.”
As Washington’s players continued to embark on international careers, he would “make his rounds,” checking in on dozens of players at a time.
“He’d reach out, ‘Young fella, man, you got everything you need?’ ” Reggie Hamilton, who played in seven different countries after his Oakland career, said. “He really just wanted you to be successful from the times he had.”
That’s what gravitated Washington to coaching in the first place. As his playing career fizzled, coaching emerged as a way to give back through future generations. “To put them in a position … to be successful not just in basketball, but in life,” Washington says.
He served one year as a volunteer assistant under current-Alabama coach Nate Oats at Romulus High School before moving on to Oakland University in 2006 as an assistant coach. There, he quickly embraced his different hats — not just that of an assistant coach.
“You ask Saddi, ‘Who are you?’ and he’s not gonna tell you he’s a basketball coach,” Oats said.
He extended open invitations to his house, hosting players to watch film, eat dinner or simply relax and watch the nightly slate of NBA action. In an academic setting, he pushed his players to take more strenuous classes and ensured they completed their assignments on time.
“That’s not his job, man,” Jalen Hayes, who played at Oakland from 2013-2018, said. “His job is to coach us on the court. Just going the extra mile, stuff that he didn’t have to do, but he did anyway because he wanted to see us be successful.”
That mindset is reflected in everything Washington does.
When NBA speculation inundated Kay Felder during his junior season, Washington initiated a heart-to-heart at the baggage carousel before a flight home.
“He didn’t try to steer me and say, ‘Oh, you should stay another year’ or ‘you should go,’ ” Felder said. “It was basically, ‘I’m on your side.’ ”
And when Drew Valentine, an uncommitted high school prospect, tore his ACL in September of his senior year, Washington made sure to be at the hospital. When Valentine opened his eyes after surgery, he saw Washington first.
“His biggest attribute is he’s real,” Carlton Valentine, Drew’s father and a close friend of Washington’s, said. “You could sense his genuine care and concern. There’s not a fake bone in his body.”
There’s no perfect science to a coaching change. On multiple levels, it’s a balancing act, between players and staff members, pre-existing program values and the new regime’s vision. Each one is different from the next.
Most new coaches at high-major schools inherit floundering programs in need of a complete makeover. At Michigan, that was far from the case. Beilein ingrained a culture that bred sustained success; Howard faced the challenge of building off it.
“Going off, ‘Well, it’s not exactly broke here at Michigan, let’s keep a staff member on,’ and (Juwan) did that,” Beilein said. “We also understand that Juwan has to put his own stamp on it. The whole idea of creating his own identity but not letting go of the success that we’ve had.”
Retaining Washington offered a tangible way to do that. On Howard’s staff, Phil Martelli offered 24 years of collegiate head-coaching experience and Howard Eisley brought a heralded NBA pedigree. Yet Washington, hired by Beilein in May of 2016, possessed a familiarity with the players and program that others lacked.
“You gotta have somebody that knows these guys,” Oats, who was present for coaching changes at both Buffalo and Alabama, said. “It’s hard to just come in, everybody on staff building a new relationship from scratch. You have to do it sometimes, but it’s not easy. It’s a lot easier and better to do it when you keep somebody.”
Beilein recommended each of his staff members to Howard. Washington and Howard had crossed paths before, both on the recruiting trail with Howard’s son, Jace, and during times when Howard would visit the program in past summers. They hit it off immediately.
“Coach Juwan, he’s a people-person, a relationship guy much like myself,” Washington said. “So you got two guys that really thrive off the energy in a relationship.”
Once on board, Washington’s innate ability to develop relationships rendered him a perfect fit to connect one era to the next. He first thought to address the needs and apprehensions of his players.
He sought to hasten Howard’s learning curve, parceling out information and compiling cheatsheets on personalities, strengths and weaknesses. As Howard devised a playbook, Washington served as the liaison between systems old and new.
“He’s been a star in his role as far as doing a great job in assisting the staff and myself,” Howard said. “He could have easily gone to any school, I’m sure, and joined someone else’s staff as an assistant … because of his knowledge for the game and understanding of how to relate to players. I’m just happy that Saddi’s on our side.”
Washington added: “I really just tried to serve as the bridge.”
Last March, lost in the shuffle of the pandemic, Western Michigan relieved its longstanding coach, Steve Hawkins. The opening seemed tailor-made for Washington: a two-time All-MAC player, he starred as a Bronco from 1994-1998.
Except, he didn’t want the job. He consulted with his family and, collectively, they agreed the timing wasn’t right. “A quality of life decision,” he deems it.
The thought of a head coaching position, though, has crossed Washington’s mind before.
“I would love to one day have the opportunity to be a head coach and run a program and do a lot of things that I’m doing now as an assistant in terms of influencing and making an impact on young men’s lives,” Washington said, a sly grin creeping across his face. “But just doing it from the first seat.”
It’s a role that anyone who has interacted with Washington knows he’s prepared for.
“That dude is a one-of-a-kind man,” Hamilton said. “I can’t wait until he leads his own team. I’m really excited to see a Saddi Washington-driven culture.”
In reality, though, Hamilton doesn’t have to wait to see a Washington-inspired culture.
All he has to do is look at Michigan.
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