How Shaka Smart reeled in Luke Yaklich, and the new coach's role in Austin
Ask around about new Texas associate head coach Luke Yaklich, and you’d have a very tough time finding anything resembling a negative review on or off the court. Those that know the former Michigan assistant coach would probably bring up such topics as teacher, voice, defense, intensity, family, and… fishing.
“No, I haven’t,” responded Yaklich when asked if he’s been able to see if the fish are biting in Texas. “We've got a couple leads on some good largemouth spots and hopefully some Crappie. And if anybody out there wants to direct message me, reach out to me on Twitter about a good fishing spot for my wife and I to throw a couple plastic worms or twitch a couple of Rapala on the top of the water, I'm okay with that.”
Clearly, basketball and moving a family across the country have allowed some lucky fish to stay away from Yaklich’s boat, and eventually a dinner plate.
“Oh, I can fry fish now,” Yaklich excitedly said. “I have a great batter that my father-in-law handed down. And then yeah, we catch them, filet them, fry them, and eat them.”
Soon, Shaka Smart will get a true taste of how good of a fisherman and cook Yaklich is.
“He's not, but we are organizing a staff fishing trip in August,” responded Yaklich when asked if Smart is a fisherman. “We're taking eight or nine of the staff and we're going to one of the lakes up north, north of Austin and we're having a staff outing and then a fish fry at the Yaklich house.”
More importantly, though, Smart has already seen and heard what Yaklich is like as a basketball coach. So, while Smart isn’t much of a fisherman, he did reel in someone with the reputation as one of the top assistant coaches in college basketball. And at a program where landing big-time recruits hasn’t been the issue, maybe Smart reeled in his biggest, best catch to date this summer.
Often, timing is everything when it comes to riding the offseason coaching carousel in any sport. Smart, as he did during the 2018 offseason when he hired Neill Berry to replace UNC Asheville head coach Mike Morrell, took a calculated, patient approach when he needed to replace new Northern Kentucky head coach Darrin Horn. When John Beilein left Michigan to become the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Smart began to ask around about Yaklich.
Soon, the Texas head coach received a call from Yaklich’s former boss.
“I was talking to a bunch of different people, when that coaching change occurred… He actually called me one day, coach Beilein did. And he said, ‘I don't know exactly what you're looking for, but I would take a hard look at my guy.’ And a couple other friends of mine knew Luke relatively well," Smart recalled about the hiring process. “Jeremy Ballard had worked with him before. He's a good friend of mine. Neil knew him decently well from being on the road. Mike Rhodes knew him pretty well. So those guys highly recommended them. And we started talking; his background is one that's just extremely appealing because of the teaching.”
Teaching is definitely in Yaklich’s background. It wasn’t long ago he was at the high school level as a head coach. From 1999-2013, Yaklich made four head coach stops: La Salle-Peru High School (Girls team), Sterling High School, La Salle-Peru High School (Boys team), and Joilet West High School. Yaklich has a master’s degree in education, education administration, and in 2012, he became National Board Certified Teacher for Social Studies. A person doesn’t spend that much time as a high school coach, and doesn’t earn that many degrees if he isn’t a teacher.
But across all levels of basketball coaching, certain aspects are constants in the equation.
“My first AD that I ever had in high school, Brett Brown, he said, ‘Luke, however long you stay in coaching, you're going to look back at your season and what is your record in games decided by four points or less? It's going to either make your time in April good or you're going to look back and say, ‘Man, I got do a better job and then close games.’ So, it's been true of every year of coaching," Yaklich said. "So, you have to prepare for those moments both from a special situation standpoint, and then from an offensive standpoint.
“But defensively, those close games we take pride in that side of the ball that we got to find the one more rebound, the one less three, the one less foul and then that hopefully fuels the Matt Colemans and the Courtney Rameys and Jericho Simses and Royce and all those guys that have been part of those close losses that you can really make sense of that on the court. Like, ‘Guys, this mistake it may not get you now, but it could get you later.’ And that disciplined approach is a key part of how you get back to winning the close games.”
When Yaklich, after some convincing, made the jump from high school to college, the wins followed. During Yaklich’s time at Illinois State, the Redbirds finished with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 89th or better nationally each season, which included a No. 19 finish for a 28-7 team that lost just one conference game in 2017. The next year, Yaklich made the jump to Michigan, and the Redbirds went from No. 49 overall (KenPom.com) and No. 19 in defense to No. 140 and No. 139, respectively.
At Michigan, Yaklich was the chief architect of a defense that finished No. 3 and No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency the last two seasons. Prior to Yaklich’s arrival, Michigan had just two finishes (37th both times) as a top 60 defense or better. Beilein entrusted Yaklich to serve as his defensive coordinator.
“Coach B (Beilein) was the same way, and said, ‘You know, I think about offense during the game. I know who I am. I need you to be thinking about defense and your voice to be present in practice all the time and taking ideas,” said Yaklich also referencing Dan Muller at Illinois State encouraging him to be the talkative, defensive coach he is. “And then obviously when I got here, Coach said, ‘Hey, I'm going to sit off the side and evaluate our team this summer; look at it from a different perspective. And I want you and Neil to kind of plan out the summer workouts. And we kind of went from there. So immediately, it was we got between the lines, and we got to work right away."
While Yaklich arrived to Ann Arbor, Michigan with limited college coaching experience, Beilein, regarded as a terrific X’s and O’s coach himself, recognized the potential in Yaklich. At Texas, he’ll be asked to do the same.
“That's how it'll work,” responded Smart about Yaklich having a similar role to his time at Michigan. “He’s going to be our defensive coordinator, and Neill (Berry) is our offensive coordinator. For me, that allows me to have Jai (Lucas), work on a ton of different components of both ends of the floor, that I would kind of put all on the category of connective tissue; things that just make you better on offense or will make you better on defense. And then, you know, obviously, my job is to oversee all that stuff and just pay a lot of attention to detail.”
While that might seem like an understood transition, this isn’t how Texas has operated under Smart. In the past, the head coach, who will enter a pivotal fifth season this year, had a tendency to be hands-on during games in both offense and defense, and especially the latter. But hiring a coach the caliber of Yaklich and changing what he’s done best doesn’t make sense, and the new coaching addition has allowed the Texas head coach to take a different look at his program this offseason.
Of course, the topic of Yaklich’s role came up when the coaches met in Austin on May 16th.
“I just felt there was a connection between coach and I on a lot of different levels from you know, why we coach and philosophically, defensive-oriented. So, we just had a connection there. And when I came down here with my wife, Amy and I came down the Thursday after Coach Beilien had resigned. And it just… the school is an elite academic institution and has elite athletic programs. And then the support the passion, alumni. Everything was like, this is what college [is supposed to be]… from the academic side, and then from the athletic side, this is what it's all about.
“And then obviously, we had never been to Austin. I've been here recruiting one time, but then kind of fell in love with this and then sitting down and talking hoop with coach Smart… it was great. I left here and my wife left here with the feeling like, ‘Man, this is a place that would be an incredible place for our family to be, and for professional opportunity.”
Shortly after, Yaklich was reportedly interviewed for the Michigan head coach position. The Wolverines eventually hired Juwan Howard, and Yaklich had a decision to make. Why did Texas win out?
“It's two elite academic institutions with incredible athletics,” responded Yaklich about the similarities between Michigan and Texas and if that’s helped his transition. “And yes, Austin and Ann Arbor are two incredible college towns. Amy and I talked about one of the things that it did have, both schools have that feel where there's, you know, you go walk through an airport, and you're going to hear, ‘Go Blue.’ You walk through the airport, and you're going to say, ‘Hook ‘Em,’ from people all over the world. And in every part of the United States that you go to.
“And for one, it was like the culture aspect. As a high school coach that cares about having this culture and really, you walk in there, and you know what that logo stands for, with integrity and competitiveness, and all of those aspects of a program. That's what you felt, and I felt in talking with Coach (Smart), and then you came here, and he explained this is the culture of the program, and we had a strong coach culture at Michigan. They're very similar in how things are set up and what we value. It's basically, it was more than just coaching basketball. There's a life component to it; a family component too, a program component, and then at the essence of it a teaching component. And you want to make a positive impact on young people.
“So, all of those things in the first three to four hours that we were on the phone, talking, and then the time that we spent here was evident that there was a connection there on that level, all those levels. And then from the defensive side of the ball they needed somebody in the program to kind of be the defensive voice in practice, and take the lead and those type of things related to defense. And obviously, that's my wheelhouse.”
Yaklich arrives at a time when Texas needs to win more close basketball games, and simply needs to win more. Period. The Longhorns began the year as a top 10 adjusted defense, but slipped in the second half of the season. It ended up ranked No. 26. Could better defense have been the difference between making the NCAA Tournament or not?
When he arrived, Yaklich studied the roster, film, and statistics to find some ways Texas could be better in close basketball games.
“I think the one thing I looked at we can be a better rebounding team. And with size athleticism… so, we worked on rebounding technique, and physicality this summer with our breakdown. And then just not fouling on the ball. It's so important having techniques and really driving the point home of teaching guys how to guard the ball without fouling in today's game, and how it's called. Analyzing and looking at techniques how to do that. So, you eliminate, you know, two fouls a game, you can save yourself two points; eliminate an offensive rebound, become a top 25 rebounding team in the country. And then we're going to do a really good job of working hard to take away the opponent's threes. So, those three-point numbers… you eliminate a three a game, eliminate two fouls a game and you can eliminate an offensive rebound basket, you know, you're looking at seven points.
“And as I looked at it, the big thing was that - Brad Stevens had said this at a clinic that I was at probably 10 years ago - if you just take a look back at your season and say, ‘What if we would have got three more stops a game?’ And obviously, you look at three stops and that's manageable. You look at a kid say, ‘Can we get three more stops in a 40-minute game at 65 possessions?’ ‘Yes, coach.’ Okay, that moves the needle from, I think it would have been the low 50s… not sure where it was at. But at the end of it, we would be up to a top five defensive team field percentage-wise with just three more stops.
“So, you're just looking at ways that you can again, build in the accountability for the players, mix that in with technique, mix that in with a scheme in order to make the five guys on the floor function without thinking. And then function fundamentally without thinking, and the only way you do that is with disciplined reps, and a consistent game plan for how you're going to do things.”
When he examined his new program, did Yaklich see a program that was close to getting over the hump?
“Yes. No doubt. There’s no doubt,” he excitedly said.
Will his addition play a pivotal role in Texas getting to the NCAA Tournament, and staying there for a while? We’ll have to wait and see, but one thing is for sure: he’s fully confident he’ll help the Texas defense, and that he made the right decision trading maize and blue for burnt orange and white.
“I'm grateful for it and really excited I'm here,” Yaklich stated. “We're coming up on eight weeks of summer workouts. And I feel like I've been coaching these guys more than more than eight weeks. But I'm blessed and fortunate to be here. Absolutely love it.”