ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Dean Oliver got his first glimpse of Luke Yaklich’s quirky personality almost five years ago at a place, fittingly enough, named Meatheads Burgers and Fries in Normal, Illinois.
Oliver was in town to interview for an assistant coach position at Illinois State. Part of the process included a lunch meeting with Yaklich, who was already on staff.
At one point during their chat, Yaklich cleared space on the table and placed a ketchup bottle and other condiment containers in front of Oliver. They were the props for Oliver to use while answering the question Yaklich was about to deliver:
There are 10 seconds left in the game, what play would you run? Show it to me.
Oliver paused for a second and couldn’t help thinking the guy sitting across from him was a little different. But an interview is an interview, so Oliver went to work and, using salt and pepper shakers and whatever else he had at his disposal, drew up a play involving a hammer action.
“Oh,” Yaklich said, “I love that play.”
How much that exchange mattered in the grand scheme of things is unclear, but Oliver got the job. He spent three seasons alongside Yaklich on Dan Muller’s staff at Illinois State and a bond was formed through triumph and tragedy.
That friendship remained strong even after Oliver and Yaklich left Illinois State months apart in 2017, both climbing the coaching ladder to land at Big Ten Conference programs. On Saturday afternoon at Crisler Arena, they’ll be on opposite sidelines when the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team takes on Michigan.
By now, Oliver and Yaklich have become accustomed to putting aside their friendship for two hours once or twice a season during life in the Big Ten meat grinder. This will be their third meeting as rivals in less than a year, and the second in a span of exactly three weeks.
This particular matchup is huge: Yaklich and the No. 7 Wolverines (21-2, 10-2 Big Ten) are trying to hold on to first place while being chased by a group of teams that includes Oliver and the No. 19 Badgers (17-6, 9-3).
Just like they did on Jan. 19 at the Kohl Center, when the Badgers beat the previously unbeaten Wolverines 64-54, the former colleagues will exchange pleasantries in the pregame handshake line. Then Oliver and Yaklich will take a seat on their respective benches and spend the next 120 minutes doing whatever they can to earn a win.
Afterward, regardless of the outcome, there will be no hard feelings.
“We won a lot together,” Yaklich said, “and we learned a lot together.”
Oliver took the more conventional route to Greg Gard’s staff at UW. He played at Iowa and then in the professional ranks, including a stint in the NBA, before retiring and moving into coaching.
Yaklich, meanwhile, was a social studies teacher and coach at multiple high schools in Illinois before accepting a job offer from Muller, a standout at Illinois State in the late 1990s when Yaklich was serving there as a student-manager. When Yaklich expressed a desire to advance in his career, it was Muller who reached out to Michigan coach John Beilein to put in a good word for his longtime friend.
While at Illinois State, it didn’t take Oliver and Yaklich long to figure out there was a lot of knowledge to be gained from watching each other work.
For Yaklich, it was picking the brain of Oliver, a former point guard, about how players at that position think. For Oliver, it was picking up techniques from Yaklich, a teacher at heart, about how best to communicate with and educate players on the complexities of the game.
“They’re just really good people who deserve their success and work really hard,” Muller said of his former assistants. “And they’re mentoring their players at a high level — I can promise you that — on and off the court.”
Yaklich and Oliver exchange text messages about once a month during the season, mostly about random stuff. Sometimes, those exchanges are initiated because something has reminded one of them of Torrey Ward.
It’s been almost four years since Oliver got an early morning phone call on April 7, 2015. The message relayed was urgent but vague: Get to Illinois State’s Redbird Arena immediately for a meeting.
There, Muller addressed a group that included players and coaches. “I remember he couldn’t even get the words out,” said Oliver, who had just completed his first season with the program. “When he first said it, I didn’t even understand what he said. When I did understand, I couldn’t believe it. It was just unreal at the time.”
The shocking news delivered that morning: Ward, an associate head coach under Muller, had died in a plane crash only a few hours earlier.
The crash killed seven people: Ward and an Illinois State athletic department administrator; the pilot; and four area businessmen.
The group was on its way back from watching the 2015 national title game in Indianapolis, which happened to involve the program Oliver would end up joining two years later. Duke’s 68-63 victory over UW ended shortly before 10:30 p.m. in the Central time zone; at 12:06 a.m., the twin-engine Cessna carrying Ward and the others crashed into a soybean field about 2½ miles northeast of Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, where it was attempting to land in dense fog.
At 36, Ward was considered a rising star in the coaching profession. He was smart and funny. “There are stories for days on him,” Oliver said. Yaklich still incorporates daily motivational messages he often heard from Ward into his interactions with players at Michigan.
The tragedy rocked the Illinois State program and community. Coming off a 22-win season, the Redbirds went 18-14 in 2015-16 before winning a program-record 28 games the next season while going 17-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference to share the regular-season championship with Wichita State.
“That day is obviously a sad and just horrific tragedy, but our staff was close and obviously that made us even closer,” Yaklich said. “The amount of leadership that Dan and the Illinois State administration displayed during that time was absolutely incredible. You’re never going to forget how you felt in that moment, but the great thing about our staff was that we stayed together.”
During a recent phone conversation, Muller warned about the dangers of pigeon-holing a person.
Oliver, for example, is a former guard whose fingerprints are all over the growth of UW’s talented backcourt, sophomores D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison. “Dean’s best natural talent is not only working with guards but mentoring them, showing them film, teaching them,” Muller said. “But you could put him with bigs, too, and he’d be fine.”
Same goes for Yaklich, who has earned a reputation for his work on the defensive end of the court. “Luke’s not just some defensive coordinator. He’s not Romeo Crennel,” Muller said. “He’s not just a guy who coaches defense. He can recruit, he can relate to people, he can coach offense. He can really just do whatever is asked of him, because if he doesn’t know how to do it he can learn how to do it.”
The reason Yaklich has been branded a defensive guy is because of the impact he’s had at Michigan. Beilein was looking for help on that end of the court while filling his staff in July 2017 and, after a thorough interview process, settled on a man with whom he’d had no previous relationship.
The results have been, well, phenomenal. Beilein has led some great offenses at Michigan, but the Wolverines never had ranked higher than No. 37 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings in his first 10 seasons in Ann Arbor.
Michigan finished No. 3 in that category en route to the NCAA title game. This season, they’re No. 1, five spots above the Badgers.
Sure, Yaklich is a bit corny, but anyone who has worked with him understands how meticulous he is while preparing for an opponent. Beilein, in a story in the Chicago Tribune, said Yaklich has exceeded expectations and called him “a force.”
Oliver, meanwhile, notices Michigan’s attention to detail while scouting the Wolverines and attributes that to his friend, whose long, detail-filled text messages and emails to colleagues are legendary.
“You can see it in how they’re jumping passing lanes on certain plays that they know,” Oliver said. “They’re really on top of scouting reports to the point where they’re almost in passing lanes ahead of time.”
When Oliver was hired by UW, he was replaced at Illinois State by DeAndre Haynes. Two months later, Haynes was hired by Beilein to fill a vacancy. The next week, Yaklich accepted an offer from Beilein.
Watching assistant coaches get nabbed by Big Ten programs was the price of success for Muller after that 28-win season in 2016-17. Only Muller doesn’t view it through that lens.
“It’s awesome,” said Muller, who’s now in his seventh season at Illinois State. “I wouldn’t say pride because that says I had something to do with it. I love watching them. I’m rooting for them.”