As a means to inspire, John Beilein told his Michigan team the slightly embellished historical account of a Spanish conquistador burning his fleet of ships so that his soldiers had no choice but to fight instead of flee as they descended upon Veracruz, Mexico, in the early 16th century.
Beilein, a former social studies teacher, was later corrected by a member of his staff: Luke Yaklich, another former teacher.
“He got me today because I had the wrong name of a Spanish explorer,” Beilein said. “I said it was (Francisco) Vazquez. He said it was (Hernan) Cortes.”
Yaklich’s passion for teaching is what influenced Beilein to bring the relatively unknown assistant onto his staff before last season. A 1994 LaSalle-Peru graduate, Yaklich had taught social studies and coached high school basketball in Illinois for more than a decade before serving four seasons as an assistant at his alma mater, Illinois State.
He applied for the Michigan job at the urging of Redbirds coach Dan Muller. The other reference who called Beilein to recommend Yaklich for the job was the Joliet West principal.
“It wasn’t like it was Bobby Knight or Mike Krzyzewski called me,” Beilein said. “But I listened and valued that because I was in that position. We got much more than I expected. He is a force. He’s tremendous.”
Only six years into his college coaching career, Yaklich is considered a defensive guru for undefeated, second-ranked Michigan, last season’s national runner-up.
The Wolverines, who defeated Illinois 79-69 on Thursday night at the State Farm Center, came into the game ranked fourth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, third nationally in scoring defense (55.6 points) and 20th in field-goal defense (38.9 percent).
The Illini performed better than most against the Wolverines, shooting 47.5 percent while scoring the second-most points Michigan has allowed this season.
Yaklich’s love of teaching almost prevented him from moving into the college ranks.
He spent 14 years as a high school coach and social studies teacher, starting as the girls coach at LaSalle-Peru. After boys coaching stints at Sterling, LaSalle-Peru, Joliet Township and Joliet West, he made the leap to college assistant in 2013 at Illinois State — where he had served as a student manager in the 1990s — before joining the Michigan staff last season.
The jump to college coaching took some convincing. Yaklich’s two-decade friendship with Muller gave him his break into the business.
“You know when you kind of get good at something?” Yaklich said. “That was kind of how I felt at Joliet. There was good leadership that allowed you to do your job. They let you take new ideas and run with them. It was something I planned on doing my entire career.”
As a student at ISU, Yaklich delved into his role as a manager. Muller, a star on the Redbirds teams that made the NCAA tournament in 1997 and ’98, and a few other players needed a roommate and asked Yaklich to move in.
“I remember that feeling: ‘Man, a manager living with players; I’m pretty cool,’ ” Yaklich said with a laugh.
Yaklich and Muller hit it off, and Muller said that if he ever became a head coach, he wanted Yaklich on his staff. Muller even became godfather to Yaklich’s oldest daughter, Olivia.
That made Yaklich’s response shocking when Muller offered him the ISU job. He turned Muller down.
“Surprised?” Muller said. “I think I cursed him out.”
Muller talked with Yaklich’s wife, Amy. They both knew deep down that Yaklich not only wanted the job, but also would thrive.
“I called Amy and said, ‘What the hell is Luke doing?’ ” Muller said. “We had a nice covert talk.”
Yaklich needed time to consider what a career jump like that would entail, including uprooting his family and the instability of college coaching. He lives by this motto: “Be where your feet are.”
“I never really had thought I needed (to coach) the college level to feel success,” Yaklich said. “I was really tied down to trying to build a great program wherever I was and be passionate in the classroom. That’s where my passion was.”
He had won awards for his students’ projects in the state history fair. He designed a tandem course in American studies with an English teacher. He found fulfillment in coaching high school kids.
“My wife said it was something I’d regret if I turned it down,” he said.
It took a season for Yaklich to adapt to aspects such as recruiting and scheduling. Muller said Yaklich was as knowledgeable about offense as defense, but his loud voice made him a good choice to stand under the basket at practices yelling out defensive plays.
“Luke is meticulous about feedback and taking notes and providing comments on practice,” Muller said. “He has a good voice in practice. He was energetic. He really developed his coaching and teaching presence.”
Muller said he meets with his assistants after every season to talk about their professional goals. Yaklich mentioned after the 2016-17 season that he might eventually want to move up the ranks. Muller advised him not to wait.
Yaklich didn’t have attachments to a renowned coaching tree or a lengthy college resume. But Muller put in a good word with Beilein for an opening before last season.
Yaklich and Beilein talked on the phone initially, mostly about baseball, family and teaching.
“I didn’t know if he was going to quiz me on ball-screen defense and transition defense,” Yaklich said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
They met in person for an interview in Atlanta and again talked more about family than basketball.
“It was a genuine connection,” Yaklich said.
And eventually a mutual one.
“I’m not going to hire the Yaklich guy,” Beilein recalled saying. “I want to hire somebody I know. I kept looking, and then I decided maybe I just have to hire someone I can trust.”
Yaklich, who holds two master’s degrees, thoroughly and obsessively researches opponents.
“The work that he goes through to prepare us for a game,” Beilein said, “it’s emails and text after text: ‘Here’s what we need to consider.’ He opens my mind to a whole bunch of things. His thoroughness is incredible.”
Yaklich saw Muller’s recommendation — in the middle of recruiting season — as a testament to their long friendship.
“I can never thank him enough for how much support he gave through that whole process,” Yaklich said. “It was a tough decision to leave one of your best friends and alma mater.”
Yaklich said he still reads education journals and emails former teaching colleagues. Sometimes he talks about history with Beilein.
The lessons from the classroom are applicable to the court, he said.
“Being a teacher and coach are one and the same,” Yaklich said. “Your best coaches are great teachers. At the college level, it’s about building personal relationships to get the most of out of them and guide them. If you add some fun and excitement, that’s where the magic happens.”
Not much has changed about Yaklich’s approach.
“I still consider myself a high school teacher and coach who gets to coach college basketball,” he said. “I have the same philosophy and mindset now when I enter the gym or film room every day as when I coached and taught in high school. It’s been a great journey.”
One that, really, is just getting started.