The rise in the profession has been fast, furious and impressive, but it’s all come full circle for Luke Yaklich.
The Illinois native and former high school basketball coach is coming home to lead a local college basketball program. UIC officially named Yaklich its new head basketball coach on Thursday.
“I say this with as much passion and excitement as you can possibly have,” says Yaklich of the chance to lead the UIC basketball program. “This is an absolute dream come true in so many ways.”
The specific opportunity Yaklich has at UIC and how it matches his own background is part of that dream and unlikely story. There is familiarity and a belief he has when it comes to the university and the basketball program he’s taking over.
“To be a part of a school that values academics and has the type of culture that I want to be a part of is big,” says Yaklich. “I look at UIC as a special place, one where you can attract student-athletes for so many different reasons.”
It’s been a whirlwind of a college coaching career for Yaklich, who was the head coach at Joliet West as recently as the 2012-2013 season before jumping on Dan Muller’s coaching staff at Illinois State in 2013.
He spent four years as an assistant coach for Muller, who he has been great friends with since their days together at Illinois State in the 1990s.
Yaklich went on to spend two years working under coach John Beilein at Michigan. It’s at Michigan where Yaklich went from being an unknown assistant coach to a national name in a matter of months. He was quickly recognized as a defensive guru and fast-rising assistant coach.
Yaklich was an integral part of Michigan’s national runner-up team in 2018 and a Sweet Sixteen team the following season. In that second season, with Yaklich in full command of Beilein’s defense, the Wolverines were second nationally in scoring defense (57.7 ppg allowed) and led the Big Ten in scoring defense.
With Beilein’s abrupt move to the NBA and Cleveland Cavaliers last spring, Yaklich spent this past season as Shaka Smart’s associate head coach at Texas.
Yaklich says that first year on Muller’s staff at Illinois State was a bit of a blur. There was a new career path in front of him at the college level, but the idea of being a college head coach certainly wasn’t at the forefront.
“Those first days, I remember, I wondered what I was doing?” Yaklich admits of those first-year struggles. “Everything was flying at me so fast.”
He credits Muller, who he says gave him a ton of responsibility and allowed him to learn on the job, for helping him adapt to college coaching. He also appreciates the assistant coaches on that first Illinois State staff, Dana Ford, the current head coach at Missouri State, and the late Torrey Ward, who tragically passed away in a plane crash during their time together at Illinois State, for showing him the ropes in recruiting.
It was in that second season at ISU when things slowed down for Yaklich. He was able to start thinking a little more long-term –– or at least dream a little about what transpired Thursday afternoon after seven years in the trenches.
“You could just see him getting better and better as a coach and coming into his own,” says Muller. “By that third year he went from good to great. I remember telling him at that time, in our post-season evaluation meeting, ‘You’re one of the best college basketball assistant coaches in the country.’ I don’t think he knew or believed that at the time, but he was.”
At some point during his second season with the Redbirds, Yaklich started to keep an open file on his computer titled WIBAHC. He saw it every day when he turned on his computer. The acronym WIBAHC –– When I Become A Head Coach –– was not only a reminder of his professional goal but an actual working document that would hopefully help prepare him.
“I kept adding to that [file],” says Yaklich. “I dumped so many things in there that I hoped would be of value if I ever had the chance to be a head coach. Anything I could find that I thought would be of value went in there.”
While visiting with his parents in his hometown of LaSalle earlier this week, Yaklich took a break from what has been a busy and hectic schedule and opened that file. There are endless documents and notes to peruse through from the previous six years.
Yes, those six years of documents and notes will come in handy as he tries to restore the UIC basketball program. The Flames, who are coming off a 18-17 record, haven’t been to a NCAA Tournament since 2004.
But make no mistake about it, the job and program is attractive in the college basketball world due to its fertile recruiting ground and with resources that are among the best in a very winnable Horizon League.
Yaklich will hit the ground running as a familiar face for so many Illinois high school basketball coaches. He spent 14 years coaching in the state and the past seven years recruiting the state, so he’s developed personal relationships with many coaches and basketball “people” throughout the state.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to come back to a state I love to teach and coach,” says Yaklich, who started his coaching career as the girls basketball coach at LaSalle-Peru in 1999. “I have such pride in Illinois high school basketball, and to represent a college program in this state is surreal.”
While the coaching rise has been swift, Yaklich, a thoroughly organized workhorse and tactician, brings many different experiences that have shaped him. He’s developed new strengths and emerged as a better coach in a short amount of time. There are the ingredients that come naturally –– the communication, the building of relationships, connecting with kids and a tireless work ethic –– but there is also the high-level preparation and apprenticeship.
He’s coached at the mid-major level, studied and learned under the great Beilein and coached in the power conferences of the Big Ten and Big 12. He’s been a part of long NCAA Tournament runs and prepared for a Final Four, including a national title game against Villanova in 2018.
“He’s a teacher and coach, and he always wants to learn and is constantly working to get better,” says Muller of his good friend and former assistant. “Coaching starts with relationships, which are built on trust, and connecting well with kids and student-athletes. He excels in doing that while working so hard.
“I started yelling when he called me and told me he got the job. And for him to be able to do this in Illinois and everything that goes with that for him? I am so excited and fired up for him. He’s going to do a great job at UIC.”
Building his own program is the next phase and experience for Yaklich, and he can’t wait to get started on it at a place he truly believes in.
“There is such great basketball in the city and throughout the state,” says Yaklich. “The opportunity to combine that with the culture piece of it, I believe the program can take off. It will be our job as a coaching staff to grow and develop that culture. I can’t wait to get started.”