Twenty-three Division I men’s basketball teams made a coaching change this offseason. The number is a little more than one-third the amount of turnover the sport has in a normal year.
The coronavirus obviously levied big impact on the coaching carousel.
For those hired, what an unusual spring it’s been. CBS Sports caught up with five of those coaches in the past week to get an understanding of what it’s like to take over a program in the midst of a historic time in the history of this country — and the world. The coaches:
In a normal year, with an NCAA Tournament, most of these coaches would have attended the Final Four, fresh off being hired or potentially being interviewed for jobs there. In-person staff interviews would’ve taken place in Atlanta (site of the 2020 Final Four). By the end of April, roster situations would have become a lot more fluid, as many transfer decisions precede the end-of-April live period. Newly hired coaches would have flown or driven across the country to evaluate high school prospects in the classes of 2021, 2022 and 2023. Depending on if a coach had young children or not, May could’ve been moving month for the family, with plenty of other work travel mixed in. Then, the end of May and early June would have likely provided in-person fundraising events to glad-hand boosters and rally the local base.
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None of that happened. Yes, every staff in the country has been working while mostly pinned at home, but any coach will tell you the task is so much more when you take over a program. To do it in the time of a pandemic is an absorbing challenge.
“In 31 years of coaching — and I’ve been at every level — there’s no manual for this,” Forbes said. “It’s kind of like Groundhog Day. You wake up, do it again, but you don’t know how it’s going to be.”
Forbes had 437 unread texts on his phone. He hated that, because he said he’s not that kind of guy — to ignore people. Since being hired in the final week of April he’s not yet had a few uninterrupted hours to thank everyone who reached out. His communication has almost exclusively been with family, those connected to him at Wake Forest or East Tennessee State, or the media. Forbes called it his “overexposure tour.”
In the cases of Yaklich, Kennedy and Johnson, they were thrust into the hiring process at the start, or right before, the coronavirus shuttered much of the country. Yaklich interviewed in Illinois before the state went on lockdown and then got the job after that was the reality. He was at a gas station on Route 39 in Ogsleby, Illinois, with his 17-year-old son when the call from UIC’s AD came in.
“I will never forget it,” Yaklich said. “My son had this look: this is so exciting. I’m screaming outside the gas station. Griffin fist-pumping in the car, filming me on his phone doing all the yelling.”
Speaking out on racial injustice
The hirings coming in the midst of a pandemic was a challenge. But the everyday civic unrest and ongoing transformation of the United States due to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have provided opportunities for coaches to learn — and afforded extremely productive dialogues from their players as well.
Before he was an NBA champion alongside LeBron James, Alabama State coach Mo Williams grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. He said he was never unfairly attacked by police, but he hates the scare that came along with encounters with law enforcement throughout his life.
“Every time in my life a blue light has turned on behind me, I was definitely scared, I was definitely nervous,” Williams said. “There was definitely a tremble in my voice. I was definitely trying not to say all the wrong things and talking all the right things. Were you speeding? Yes, sir, I was speeding. I’m agreeing with everything. It’s a different way of communication. It’s almost like father-son. He’s the father, you’re the son and you’re just trying not to get in trouble. And it’s sad.”
Williams and other coaches have felt more than a tangible surge in the national conversation about race, police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Perhaps most importantly, it’s been about listening, having an open and new conversation. Coaches find themselves in the spot of wanting to lead as much as they can, but white coaches are also stepping back and understanding full well how much they don’t know. Because they can’t know.
“We wanted to make sure that they have a voice on our team and they have an opportunity to articulate their feelings, and we’ve done that with Zoom and we’ve had a couple of those meetings,” Yaklich said. “I wanted to make sure I made my statement to the players, so they heard it in my voice, the way I felt about this and feel about it. … The main thing is, I think it’s important in this time, that we always talk about family and you talk about unity and you talk about passion and whatever your core values are in your program. If they don’t stand up to difficult conversations, you really don’t have a family atmosphere and you don’t have unity.”
The conversations in the past two weeks have moved from some anxiety — a bit of the fear of the unknown and caution for health –and on to the kind of conversations that can help forge lifelong relationships between players and coaches. Williams is a father of five boys and said it hits hard for him all the more because of his children, who range in age from 7 to 21.
“It’s difficult because as a coach and a mentor you’re here to protect those guys and show them the way and get them to understand what’s right and wrong and how to walk the way of life,” Williams said. “But I ask myself, What do I tell them? You’re confused to a point where you don’t even know what to tell them. … I teach all those guys to have no fear. Attack life with no fear. Anything you can do, you can achieve. Don’t fear nothing. But in those cases if you get pulled over by an officer and you’re black and you’re white, what do I tell them? Those are things in today’s society that we shouldn’t have to fear that. We shouldn’t have to fear something like that. We shouldn’t have to teach our kids to fear that.”
Without the ability to meet in person as a team, coaches have held forums over Zoom as a group, but there’s also been plenty of one-on-one conversations as well. The nation has been protesting in the streets for almost two consecutive weeks, every day. Some players have taken to protests in recent days, as have coaches. There is now a movement within college basketball to not have any official team activity on Election Day in November.
“This is something that affects everybody,” Stan Johnson said. “It’s not a one-sided issue. It’s an everybody issue and it should be. I was telling my dad … he said, ‘I think it’s getting worse.’ I said, ‘Dad, I don’t think it’s getting worse, it’s just getting filmed.’ I had to sit down and explain last night to my 11-year old and my 9-year-old: as you get older, how you act, how you protect yourself if you’re pulled over and just to be careful.”
Kennedy has been keeping in touch with his team on a player-by-player basis in recent days to check on their mental well being, to hear of any possible frustrations but also to be a sounding board. Kennedy himself even brought up one of the low points of his life with some of his players, bringing up when he was arrested after getting into a fight with a cab driver in 2008.
“This affects each individual differently because everyone has a different perspective,” Kennedy said. “Many times as humans everybody thinks like we think the same, but that’s not true. Nobody thinks like you think. That’s the beauty of being a human being. Everyone’s perspective is different and what I’ve learned, be it with postgrads at 22 years old or a freshman at 18, they need to have their voice heard and they need to be reassured they have people standing beside them, with them.”
Coronavirus prompts a new recruiting model
Forbes — who understandably had to bail on our first interview because a recruit called him — joked that he’s scared the cleaning woman at the athletic offices a couple of times because he unexpectedly winds up sleeping overnight in his office. Forbes has only eaten out twice since the coronavirus hit and is at the office every day from 9 a.m. until about 11 p.m. There are no windows in his office. He goes to work and the sun is already heating the pavement. When he leaves it’s pitch black.
All of this has nebulous impacts on recruiting.
“The biggest advantage we have at Wake is a visit to Wake, in my opinion,” Forbes said. “You can’t come see it.”
Still, Forbes is getting it don. On Monday, coveted grad transfer Jalen Johnson announced his commitment to the Demon Deacons.
Kennedy’s watched lots of video of recruits. It’s strange to an extent, but at this point there’s not much else coaches can do in terms of the coaching approach. We have no grasp on when in-person evaluations will be allowed. It might not happen until right before college basketball season starts, if it can start on time in November.
Yaklich is at UIC, a school in the heart of Chicago, and located in a place that will never be thin on recruitable talent. But for the first phase of his tenure he was still living in Austin, Texas. His daughter eagerly made him breakfast on some days, while Yaklich’s wife made sure he drank more water than coffee. He didn’t leave the house for 11 straight days. Yaklich loves the efficiency of Zoom calls with recruits. There’s an absence of urgency and building-hopping that can sometimes become burdensome with in-person visits. This isn’t the desired permanent fix, but Yaklich said it’s been a refreshing change (other veterans coaches I’ve spoken with this spring have expressed similar sentiments).
“It’s casual, genuine conversations,” Yaklich said. “Kids are used to that, they’re using to FaceTime, they’re used to that environment of Snapchat. For me, I had to get over at looking at that little dot on my laptop.”
By the end of May, Yaklich had filled up his roster entirely. The same is true of Kennedy at UAB, who brought in eight new players. At LMU, Johnson and his staff have been relentlessly using their phones and computers to establish ground in the ever-competitive race amongst California schools. The state has 25 D-I programs, more than any other in the country.
Moving on, moving in
There’s no underselling just how much upheaval a new job brings — and moving one’s life and family is obviously major. Yaklich has made multiple 16-hour, all-in-one-day trips between Texas and Chicago. He’s left Texas on a Friday and returned to Texas on a Sunday. Williams squeezed in his interview for this story while he was house hunting in Alabama. He’s been holding down the Alabama State job while living in Los Angeles and is preparing for a move later this month.
“There’s no balance, it’s just a constant go,” he said. “I’ve been doing this all my life. It’s nothing new.”
Williams played for nine teams in his 14-year NBA career, then moved again a year after retirement, when he took an assistant job at Cal State Northridge with his college coach, Mark Gottfried. The Alabama State gig might afford Williams his first opportunity to live in the same spot for more than four years for the first time since he was in high school.
No coach had a longer or larger haul than Bryce Drew, who’d been living in Nashville the past year-plus after being fired from Vanderbilt in 2019. Drew was hired at Grand Canyon in mid-March, but he didn’t move to Arizona until the past week.
Johnson’s had to take four roundtrips from Milwaukee to Los Angeles. His first flight, right at the beginning of lockdown, had 11 people on it.
“It was so freaky, I was like, is there anyone even flying this thing, because you’ve never seen a commercial flight look like that,” Johnson said.
Whereas Johnson opted to live on campus for a short period of time — he monitored Zillow and found the family home — Forbes is still technically living in his Johnson City, Tennessee, home for a couple more weeks. He drives almost three hours back every Friday to sleep in his own bed. But now the house has sold and he’s got to find a home in North Carolina by the end of the month.
Hiring a staff, connecting with the team
“I seem to think I’m a pretty popular guy, but I never thought this many people had my cell phone number,” Williams told me. “A lot of people reached out to me and thought I had like 72 coaching spots.”
The majority of coaches will tell you the most stressful thing about getting a head job for the first time is determining which three people to appoint as assistants. In 2020 this applied to Williams, Yaklich and Johnson. It’s difficult for two reasons. First, you have to say no to friends who don’t even get the opportunity to interview. Then you have to say no to people who did get a shot, some of them likely your friends.
Johnson hired two former head coaches (Dave Carter and Allen Edwards), while one of Yaklich’s key hires was Dee Brown, the former Illinois star who should be crucial to recruiting his beloved city of Chicago.
Williams is closing in on making his hirings official, so he’s been running the program himself for more than three weeks. Meantime, Kennedy hasn’t been able to fill his entire staff yet due to budget freezes.
“I’ve been a coach 23 years, 13 as a head coach,” Kennedy said. “Everything I learned in those 23 years, you can’t really implement any of it under current situations. So we were forced to sit back and say, ‘OK, so what can we control?’ That’s where I put my focus.”
Getting the staff on board as soon as possible is big not just for recruiting high school players, but recruiting current players to stay with the program.
“I think when I got done with my press conference everyone was in the portal but two players,” Forbes said. “Now I gotta re-recruit the team and can’t leave the office. It’s difficult to build relationships, and I’m a relationship guy. With people, you can’t ever meet them and you’re trying to get on Zooms and WebEx and phone calls and build relationships with your players and it’s hard. I don’t blame them.”
Wake Forest was down to four scholarship players at one point, but much of the roster has been built back up and some players who initially planned on leaving decided to stay.
At LMU, Johnson’s only met half his team in person at this point. His entire staff was hired through Zoom and he’s yet to shake the hand of anyone in the program. Collectively they managed to sign three players in the class of 2020. He’s also yet to hold a press conference; Johnson wants to wait and do a proper one — or something fairly close to it — once it’s allowed.
“We haven’t had a chance to do it the way you dream of,” he said.
Juggling life, COVID-19 concerns
The coronavirus’ spotty inflammations across the country have made for a patchwork of gradual re-openings. Forbes doesn’t expect Wake Forest to allow students back on campus until mid-July at the earliest. But UAB opened last week — for some players to return — all of whom were tested for COVID-19 upon arrival.
“It’s been two months — sometimes it feels like two years, sometime it feels likes two days,” Kennedy said. “It’s surreal because of the lack of [in-person] human interaction.”
Life, in a great way, gets in the way, too. Williams is expecting his sixth son in July. In May, Yaklich became a grandfather one day before his birthday.
There have been unintentional headlines made outside of the hirings, too.
“I haven’t been able to go out in the community until really this week and go out and meet people,” Forbes said. “Talk about living in a bubble. You’re in here and working long days, then Nick Nurse calls me. ‘You’re the biggest story on PTI’ and tells me me the whole state of Kentucky is mad at me.”
In May, when former Wake Forest big man Olivier Sarr was contemplating transfer, Forbes downplayed the value of a degree at Kentucky vs. one at Wake Forest.
“I didn’t try to offend nobody on that deal,” he said. “It was me trying to sell the fact I wanted him to stay here and get his degree. But again, a lot of this has to do with we’re thirsty with something to talk about. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. … Kentucky’s a great institution, but I feel like Wake Forest is a great institution, and to come here for three years and not finish?”
Forbes supported Sarr’s decision and said he would never hold a player back.
Then there’s the scheduling component these coaches inherit or try to rearrange. UAB, for example, can sometimes get caught in no-man’s-land because it’s not in a power conference but it’s also a respectable school that’s worthy of earning home-and-homes with a few power-conference-level schools. Kennedy expectedly had to get creative. He’s actually taking a buy game or two, meaning UAB will go to play a one-off at a big school and be paid for it. He’s also buying smaller schools. Before the coronavirus, not many programs were both willing to be bought and able to buy-off teams. That’s going to be more typical in the upcoming season.
“We’re trying to get bought and trying to be as creative as possible and do home-for-homes, two-for-ones and do it that we limit some of our travel expenses,” Kennedy said. “Birmingham is a great location because you’re a bus ride in a five-hour radius of a lot of different schools, and we’ve explored that angle as well. I would much rather bus five hours than fly commercial and switch planes.”
He’s also been told he can’t get bought because certain schools need the $80,000 in their budget. UAB has four games left to fill on a 13-game nonconference slate. He’s managed to get a two-for-one with Georgia Tech and agreed to a home-and-home with East Tennessee State with Forbes before he left for Wake.
“It’s been a real challenge and no administrator’s fault ,but no administrator can give you a concrete answer with a clear picture going forward financially.”
The general instability with university economics is the big story going forward for these coaches and most others around the country. Many staffs have taken significant pay cuts and are waiting to learn when the recruiting calendar can return and in what form. When their teams return in full to campus, and what will the stalls be with the coronavirus, is still very much in the air.
This is a coaching class unlike any other, and none I spoke with have laments about their current situations. It’s full-on embrace of the unfamiliar. And though it’s been hard, they all believe their teams will wind up even better, their programs stronger, because of the unprecedented circumstances they walked into.