After a day of emotional phone calls, goodbyes and introductions, Saddi Washington finally walked into his house Wednesday night and told his two children he’d landed the job as an assistant basketball coach for John Beilein at the University of Michigan.
It was a big moment for Washington, a Lansing native, who spent the last decade as an assistant coach at Oakland University.
Leave it to an 8-year-old to put everything back in proper perspective.
Washington’s son Caleb grabbed Washington’s phone and threatened to call Washington’s father, Stan, who starred at Michigan State in the 1960s.
“Oh, I’m telling Poppa. He’s going to be mad at you,” Caleb cried out.
“They were shocked,” Washington said of Caleb and his 13-year-old daughter, Sidney. “They were more concerned about the move than anything else. Just because they know what I do. And I’m still Dad. Now, this is the first time we’ve had to move away from their friends and school and all that stuff. They were a little a shocked and saddened.
“It’s OK, it’s a good day. My wife was really fired up. It was an emotional day and an emotional night with the family. Everybody’s on board.”
That includes his parents, both MSU grads, both of whom Washington said were ecstatic during an “emotional and overwhelming” phone call.
“You would have thought we had just won a national championship the way they responded,” Washington said.
Washington, 40, is now at a place where that’s actually possible, and a place from which he, as a coach, can more realistically take the step into leading his own college basketball program — as departing U-M assistants Bacari Alexander (Detroit) and LaVall Jordan (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) have just done.
Washington interviewed with Beilein for the job in 2010, when Alexander and Jordan were hired, but was never brought to campus.
“One of the things I told (Beilein) six years ago — and I felt like I was ready then and I still believe that — but six years ago, I was hoping to get the Michigan job. Now I know that I belong and am ready to operate and function and coach at this level. So he is getting a more seasoned coach six years later.”
No one at Oakland would argue that. Washington, who Kampe plucked from an assistant coaching gig at Romulus High School (for Nate Oats, now the coach of Division-I Buffalo), has been a critical part of the sustained success for the Golden Grizzles. Oakland has won more of its conference games over the last 10 years — in both the Summit and Horizon leagues — than any other Division I program in the state. Twice in that span, they’ve reached the NCAA tournament and five times they’ve won 20 or more games, despite playing a merciless non-conference schedule.
Oakland did a lot of that with a roster heavy on Lansing-area kids. Washington, who starred at Sexton High School in the early 1990s, played a pivotal role in that pipeline.
“I want Lansing to know, just because he left doesn’t mean we don’t want you,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe quickly pointed out Wednesday. “I don’t want to lose that pipeline because he’s gone. I’ve still got Drew Valentine (on staff).”
Valentine, who also played at Sexton, knows Washington from several angles — as a recruit, as one of Washington’s players and, for the last year, as a colleague at Oakland.
“He’s just a genuine, real person. He’s incredibly caring to people in his inner circle,” Valentine said. “That involves players that play for him, former players, alumni, his old teammates, his old friends, players of the parents on that team.”
It’s small things that stand out — like texting Valentine’s mother “Happy Mother’s Day.” And some not-so small things — like when Valentine injured his knee playing football before his senior year in high school. Washington showed up for the surgery.
“All the other schools that were recruiting me said they didn’t want me anymore,” said Valentine, the older brother of former MSU star Denzel Valentine.
“I can’t tell you how good of a person he is,” Kampe said of Washington. “And he was a great fit for me, because I’m a very emotional, wear my heart out on my sleeve. And he’s a calming effect. We made a very good team. He was very calm, very under control. Just a great personality. We’re going to miss him. We’re really going to miss him. But I’m really happy for him.”
Washington’s move to Michigan is a necessary one and a no-brainer for a coach with designs on one day running his own program — perhaps taking over for Kampe or at his alma mater, Western Michigan, should Steve Hawkins retire at some point.
“You have two guys like LaVall and Bacari, who have done a tremendous job there — like we’re in this business to hopefully be a head coach. They paid their dues, and they had a phenomenal run during their stint at Michigan.
“I think there are a lot of similarities between Lavall and I in the way we go about our business and the way we approach our relationships with players. So I think that was an easy sell and transition for Coach Beilein.”
At Oakland, those relationships included getting a head start with recruits who would almost certainly go elsewhere first — some place bigger — but perhaps eventually want to come home.
Or players who others overlooked, like last year’s star, guard Kahlil Felder, who would have started anywhere in the Big Ten.
At Michigan, Washington will be “at the table from the jump,” he said, with every recruit.
His approach, however, can remain the same.
“Saddi to me is a guard guru,” said former Oakland walk-on Jordan Howenstine, also a Sexton alum, who now works as the basketball communications coordinator for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. “He related to us. He took a lot of pride in what we were doing. He’s one of the smartest coaches I’ve seen from a film standpoint. He just really cared.”
“Life is about relationships,” Washington said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to get along with people, you’ve got to be able to be vulnerable. And I think people connect with authentic personalities. I’m just me. I was raised to treat people right and to do things the right way and to work hard.”
Contact Graham Couch at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.