The best coach in school history had just left only a year after signing an extension. Warde Manuel started his coaching search with an idea of where to go.
He’d been the sport administrator for Michigan hockey for some time in the early aughts, getting to know now-Michigan coach Mel Pearson well. Manuel knew, of course, that Red Berenson would be leaving after the 2016-17 season. He approached the interview process with a crisp professionalism, Pearson says — one interview, no conversations before or after until the job was offered. All things equal, he preferred someone with a Michigan connection, Berenson said. It wasn’t long before Pearson received an offer.
“I thought they were really thorough on the process, what they needed to know and who they talked to,” Pearson said.
The hire of Pearson was Manuel’s first high-profile personnel move as athletic director, and it paid immediate dividends. Pearson led Michigan to a Frozen Four in his first year coaching the program and has the Wolverines on pace for an NCAA Tournament berth this year after netting an NHL prospect-laden recruiting class.
Meanwhile, on Sunday in East Lansing, Juwan Howard — Manuel’s hire as men’s basketball coach — wrapped up a regular season that culminated in a Big Ten title and will likely yield a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Howard, in just his second year as a head coach, has made Manuel look like a savant. Between him and Kevin Ollie, who led UConn to a national title the year after Manuel hired him there before NCAA sanctions crippled the program, the man seems to have a way of finding basketball coaches.
To find out why, let’s start with a common description of Manuel. He’s direct and honest, the kind of boss who can be firm while letting you feel you were heard. The best way to say it comes from Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun:
“He’s not a bullshitter,” Calhoun said.
He tells a story to demonstrate. After Calhoun retired, Ollie was widely considered an easy pick to replace him. Initially, he didn’t want to do it.
“Warde said, ‘Tell him he’s got two hours,’ ” Calhoun recalled. “Within two hours, under my advice, he took the job.”
Manuel didn’t have time for bullshit then, and he didn’t have time for it in May 2019. He read the stories during an unusually long wait between Michigan hiring Howard and the school introducing him at a press conference. They described the hiring as a risk and a gamble, given Howard’s lack of head coaching experience.
When a reporter asked Manuel about that perception, he spoke for over five minutes straight, voice rising with inflection as he went. Softball coach Carol Hutchins started out as a part-time administrative assistant, he said, football coach Jim Harbaugh as a part-time assistant under his father in the offseason. He issued a plea — let Howard evolve.
“In the last two years, folks, 110 schools have changed basketball coaches. A lot of those people who change have great deals of experience,” he said, throwing his arms out. “Let him evolve, let him develop into a head coach of his own. That’s what I’m gonna do. Support him, answer questions, put people around him and let him evolve.
“All these things about, ‘He hasn’t coached a game’ and ‘What’s Warde doing, oh my god he’s taking a risk and a gamble’ and all these different things — I’m gonna gamble with people who love this place the way he does. That gets emotional when he looks at his family and he talks to those kids. I’m gonna take that risk, I’m gonna take that challenge. Put it on me.”
Manuel, through a spokesman, declined an interview request for this story. Suffice it to say, though, he should be happy to have the hire put on him.
It’s important to note that Manuel’s performance as athletic director has not been perfect. In early 2019, he green-lit the hire of Rhonda Faehn, a former USA Gymnastics official who had allegedly waited a week after being told of Larry Nassar’s abuse of athletes before reporting it to the FBI. Manuel admitted in a public statement that doing so was “the wrong decision,” firing Faehn just days after her initial hire and apologizing after a Michigan Daily story on Faehn sparked outrage. More recently, Manuel also failed to follow University policy with regard to the Robert Anderson investigation, forwarding a letter alleging sexual assault by former team doctor Robert Anderson to University lawyers instead of Title IX investigators.
Manuel’s performance as athletic director, in sum, includes all of those issues every bit as much as it includes who he’s hired. When all is said and done, the Anderson scandal could eclipse any good he or other University administrators have done.
Manuel, though, has telegraphed a desire for stability above all else through who he’s hired. He wants coaches he can trust and coaches who will stick with the program. It helps of course that there’s been no need to start firing anybody, but keeping everyone on board is an achievement of its own. Manuel wants to stay out of the public eye — since hiring Howard, he’s done just two formal press conferences — but among his most revealing public comments came in May 2018, when he said he wanted Harbaugh and John Beilein to retire at Michigan.
Soon after, it was reported that Beilein — in the midst of negotiating a contract extension — had interviewed for an NBA job with the Detroit Pistons. Beilein told Manuel he could take back the contract he offered, as he’d extended it without knowing there was discussion between Beilein and the Pistons. Manuel told him no. Beilein eventually returned to Michigan another year before leaving for the Cleveland Cavaliers the next summer.
“When (Manuel) likes the direction of your program,” Beilein said, “he’s gonna stick with you through thick and thin.”
Manuel’s persona fits the politics of Michigan well, his background as a football player in Ann Arbor tends to come up. More important to his success, though, is that in an environment where the University’s administration wants its high-profile athletics program to be anything but a headache, he is, for the most part, able to keep things above board.
That is what makes his decisions surrounding Harbaugh and the football program so compelling. After a Murphy’s Law-inspired, 2-4 pandemic season, Manuel extended Harbaugh, but did so on a University-friendly contract with a low buyout. “Following the completion of the season, we talked for many hours on what it will take for Jim to lead and get us back on the right trajectory,” Manuel said in a statement announcing the extension.
That unto itself represents a departure from the hands-off style Manuel usually employs. During one stretch early in his tenure, two basketball assistants both left the program, leading Beilein to meet with Manuel a handful of times to get new hires sorted.
“I think that in the future, you’ll find out I won’t be in your office unless you want me here, but a couple times a year,” Beilein recalled telling him.
This to say — big-picture conversations about the trajectory of the program aren’t the sort of thing Manuel’s having regularly with all his coaches.
Given the circumstance wrought by the pandemic, both financial and on the football field, where opt-outs and injuries helped the team’s misfortune spiral, Manuel took the easiest option in front of him. If things don’t work out with Harbaugh, he can move on at a low cost at a point where it’s more financially prudent to do so. If Michigan gets back to winning nine games next year, he can go back to ignoring the portion of the fan base that calls for a coaching change after every loss.
Ironically, it’s a third-way move — the opposite of a gamble. Different circumstances dictate a different approach, though Manuel might still dispute the notion that Howard was a gamble to begin with. Howard, who earlier this season aimed a diatribe at the doubters who questioned his hire, might as well.
“He will, in my opinion, evolve into a great coach, a great head coach,” Manuel said in 2019, “cause he’s already a great man as you all saw.”
On Thursday, when Michigan clinched the Big Ten title, Howard found Manuel in the stands and pointed amid the celebration. Socially distanced, they shared a moment before Howard returned to his team.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.
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