Dwayne “DJ” Stephens has had several opportunities to leave Michigan State to become head coach during his 19 seasons on the staff at East Lansing.
Often, when a job came up, he turned to fellow assistant Mike Garland.
“And he would tell me, ‘this is not for you,'” Stephens said. “This opportunity came, and he said, ‘It’s your time.’
“He gave me the thumbs up. It’s time.”
Stephens, 50, a Metro Detroit native, Michigan State alum and basketball lifer whose career has led him from Oakland to Marquette to Michigan State, was formally introduced as the 15th head of men’s basketball coach in Western Michigan history during a pep rally on campus in Kalamazoo on Wednesday.
Stephens spoke for nearly an hour, thanking a legion of colleagues who have helped him reach that point, including Michigan State Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo.
Izzo sat in the second round of the University Arena along with several Michigan State assistants. There were times when Stephens wiped the tears away, and so did Izzo.
At one point, Stephens was asked how he would be different from Izzo.
“I do not know I want to be different. I hope I am not,” said Stephens, who called Izzo the “best coach in college basketball.” I think we stand for the same things. I think that’s why we got out of it so well.
“We want to hold each other accountable and it’s hard … That’s one thing, coach Izzo, I think he did better than anyone else. He held players accountable every day.
“I do not mind not being the most popular guy in the building.”
For this day, Wednesday, Stephens was just that – a great man who received a great reception, complete with an introduction from the school band and numerous ovations.
Stephens takes over the program from Clayton Bates, who was released after two seasons. Bates was hired two years ago to replace longtime coach Steve Hawkins. Stephens interviewed two years ago, but the university had already installed a layoff early in the pandemic.
Stephens signed a $ 420,000 six-year contract with Western Michigan, tied for fourth highest in the Mid-American Conference. Full contract details, including bonuses, have not been released. But it’s a significant financial investment from Western Michigan, which paid Bates $ 220,000 a year, the lowest in MAC, and Hawkins’ $ 385,000. WMU Athletics recently received a $ 55 million grant as part of a major university donation.
One of new sports director Dan Bartholomae’s first phone calls in the coaching search was to Izzo, who was quickly followed up by an interview with Stephens. Stephens interviewed the same day as another top scorer, Michigan assistant Saddi Washington, a Broncos alum who turned down the job for the second time.
“We met DJ the first day,” Bartholomae said. “When we walked out of the room, we had our clear No. 1. In fact, it was not even close.”
Bartholomae interviewed several candidates, including several who had coached teams in the NCAA Tournament, some even this year. He continued the discussions at the Final Four before signing Stephens.
“What we originally understood was true,” Bartholomae said, “that this was the perfect fit for Bronco basketball.”
Stephens takes over a program that has not had a winning season since 2017-18 and that has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2014. The last four seasons were Western Michigan 34-82, including 13-39 in two years under Bates, who no services were rendered as he lost two star players to the transfer portal after being hired. Interest in WMU basketball has dropped to its lowest level, so it was no surprise that Wednesday’s press ended with a 2022-23 deposit offer (Izzo reportedly bought four season tickets).
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Stephens talked a lot about not just rebuilding the program, but also fans’ interest and game day mood. He mentioned two recent sports races as an ideal model – Saint Peter’s run in the NCAA Tournament, and WMU hockey’s, as well.
Western Michigan is the latest state school from the MAC, which is in the process of rebuilding early. Last year, Eastern Michigan hired Stan Heath ($ 375,000) and Central Michigan hired Tony Barbee ($ 420,000).
Central Michigan was the only state MAC school to qualify for this year’s MAC tournament.
“It’s great,” said Heath, another former Izzo assistant. “It will make my job harder.
“I’m really happy on his behalf. It’s something he probably could have done years ago.
“He’s been a big part of (MSU’s) success for years.”
Stephens grew up in Royal Oak Township and starred in Ferndale – along with a guy he considers a brother of Cornell Mann, another longtime assistant who also got his first head coaching job in Grand Valley State this week – before playing in Michigan State from 1989 -93. He was first recruited by a little-known Michigan assistant from the Upper Peninsula, Izzo.
After three years playing abroad in Europe, Stephens returned home ready to train. He had job offers from Grand Valley State and Oakland. One paid $ 20,000, Oakland paid nothing, but he took Oakland because it was Division I. Then he moved on to Marquette, after another MSU assistant, Tom Crean, got the job. Stephens thanked Greg Kampe, Crean and Izzo for a long time during Wednesday’s introductory press conference, among many others
That included Garland, who got Stephens to admit they want to play zone defense in Western Michigan. At least that’s a difference from Izzo.
During Western Michigan interviews, Bartholomae asked each candidate to draft a winning game.
“DJ,” said Bartholomae, “is the only one who has made a defensive set.”
Stephens made his mark in Michigan State in defense, as a player and coach. He is also widely recognized for being among the country’s best recruiters.
You can see why. His big frame can not be missed and his smile is big and magnetic.
That will be what dictates whether he’s successful in Western Michigan, of course – recruitment. WMU is ideally located close to Chicago, which should give it an advantage over state rivals EMU and CMU, although these two have facilities that far exceed what Western Michigan has. Stephens also said he is eager to recruit West Michigan, who he considers highly underrated in terms of hoops talent.
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He will also use college athletics’ latest tool, the transfer portal, which can help transform programs from one day to the next. (A notable portal entry on Wednesday was Michigan striker Brandon Johns Jr., a native of East Lansing; Stephens has a reputation for developing big men.) But at MSU, Izzo taught him the value of relationships, and for that reason, Stephens said that recruitment of the folk high schools will continue to be a priority.
“It’s going to be a family atmosphere,” Stephens said, wearing a gold tie and Bronco pin while the current basketball players sat in the front row (they all got hugs and handshakes from Izzo after the pressure).
Speaking of family, among the many times Stephens wept was when he spoke of his wife Sarah and children Taylor, Skylar and Noah, whom he thanked for the sacrifices they made over the years as he has been on the move regularly .
Then there was when Stephens raised his father, Dwayne Sr., to whom he gave the credit for having taught him his first lessons in leadership and the value of leadership.
Dwayne Sr. died in April 2020 of COVID early in the pandemic.
“I wish he could be here,” Stephens said, wiping the tears away.
Stephens can at least find solace in the fact that so many others, from his decades in college basketball, were there on Wednesday.
To his day. For its time.
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Twitter: @ tonypaul1984