Mat Ishbia is worth billions as coach of his business; he credits lessons learned from Tom Izzo at Michigan State

Mat Ishbia is worth billions as coach of his business; he credits lessons learned from Tom Izzo at Michigan State

It’s because Mat Ishbia wanted to coach that he did not become a coach. If that sound strange, it’s not nearly as curious as Ishbia choosing not to become rich and winding up a billionaire.

It was 21 years ago this weekend that Ishbia joined several more-talented basketball players, though perhaps none more driven, atop the freshly constructed podium on the floor at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis to celebrate the 2000 NCAA men’s basketball championship the Michigan State Spartans had won. The victory over Florida had been just decisive enough for coach Tom Izzo to send Ishbia into the game for one minute, the most glorious of the 40 he played that season.

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Ishbia was a sophomore, so there were two more seasons to follow, including a second Final Four. He got in for a minute that time, too, because the Spartans lost to Arizona in the national semifinals by 19 points. Then came a year spent as a graduate assistant on Izzo’s staff, which could have set him up beautifully for a future as a Division I head coach. Izzo had gotten a raise to more than $1 million a year after winning that title. Ishbia was aware of what his future as a coach might be worth, and he was getting offered the opportunity to work with MSU assistant Mike Garland as he moved to become head coach at Cleveland State.

“It was such a great experience with Coach Izzo for that year,” Ishbia told Sporting News. “I had the chance to go with Coach Garland, and that would have been an amazing experience. I ended up making the decision, rightly or wrongly, based on a couple things. One, Izzo saying to me, ‘Hey, maybe you could apply some of these things to business and do something really even bigger than being a head coach one day.’ Also, I’ve been very close to my parents my whole life, and I always remember my dad coaching my sports, being involved in my life, and thinking that one day I wanted to be involved in my kids’ lives.”

And so it is that Izzo’s influence on a player who scored just 28 points in four seasons as a Spartans guard lingers even decades after Ishbia’s college career ended. Ishbia listened to Izzo’s advice and went to work for a mortgage business his father had begun. There were 12 employees when Ishbia joined United Wholesale Mortgage. He took over daily control in 2013. There now are around 9,000 employees at UWM, which is headquartered in Pontiac, Mich. It went public in January through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) and is valued at more than $16 billion. Ishbia received the honor of ringing the bell on the New York Stock Exchange on the first day of trading.

Because it has meant so much to how he views business and runs his company, it can be said that Ishbia has made more money from basketball than just about anyone.

Ishbia works ridiculously long hours, like most college basketball coaches. Unlike most coaches, he has the control to be able to step away for a family event — he has three children, involved in basketball, flag football and other activities — when necessary.

“When I left Michigan State and decided not to go coach, I thought it was going to be less than a year before I was back,” Ishbia said. “Mortgages? Mortgages are boring. I was going to see if I could do it, and then I realized I could take my competitiveness, my passion to get better every day and apply to a business. And I kind of got so excited about it a couple months in and never left.”

Ishbia said he did not initially enter UWM with the vision to build it into the second-largest mortgage lender in the U.S., although the goal now is to take it to No. 1. It was a gradual process trying to improve the business incrementally, in various ways, facilitating its growth.

“Every time we’d get to what I thought was the mountaintop,” Ishbia said, “I’d realize there were about 20 more mountains.”

He claims he learned “everything” about leadership and coaching his employees from playing for Izzo and playing with point guard Mateen Cleaves, whom he hired to work for the company 30 months ago to be the “leadership coach.”

That Cleaves is referred to as a coach rather than manager or director or whatever is part of how Ishbia has intertwined sports terminology and tactics into the soul of the company. Employees are “team members.” Managers are “leaders” or “captains.” Meetings, indeed, are “huddles.”

The conference room from which Ishbia and Cleaves called by Zoom honestly looked as though it was located in Michigan State basketball offices.

“It applies to business more than people realize,” Ishbia said. “One thing I learned from Coach Izzo: No matter what was going on, he was in the weeds of his business. For Michigan State basketball . . . I’d talk to players from other schools and they’d be like, ‘Does Coach Izzo run the practices?’ Does he run the practices? He does the practice plan, he’s blowing the whistle, he’s screaming at this guy, he knows everything about what’s going on.

“Same thing here. I’m the CEO of a large company, but there’s no detail too small. I know exactly what the sales team is doing … If you start to outsource the little things, the big things don’t get taken care of. So we focus on every detail of the business.

“Another one is to outwork everybody. When I coached for a year with Izzo and saw the meticulous attention to detail and the focus he had on outworking everybody — we’d work until 1 in the morning and come back at 7 in the morning. I don’t have our people work like that, but I’m here at 4 in the morning and out at 6:30 at night. Izzo used to say this: “I’m not the best X-and-Os coach, but I’m going to outwork everyone.’ I’m not as smart as Jamie Dimon. I don’t have as much money as Dan Gilbert. Whatever it may be. But I can work three hours more a day than them, and if I do that for 18 years, I’m going to eventually catch them. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

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You won’t see television commercials for UWM because it does not operate in the retail mortgage space. The company exclusively works with mortgage brokers to provide loans, ideally to provide more reasonable rates and fees.

When the 2008 financial crisis struck, as dreadful as it was, it actually helped the company to grow because it had not written the sub-prime mortgages that were problematic for so many other lenders. “It didn’t affect us because we were so small back then, no one would have known if it affected us,” Ishbia said, with a tiny chuckle. “What I always think about — the integrity, the way we do loans, back then it validated the way we do loans.

“From my father, his perspective was: Don’t lend money to people that can’t pay you back . . . you do the right thing all the time, good things happen. Back then, it didn’t feel like it was right to not do those loans. It felt like we were missing on a lot of opportunity.  We had a lot of people leave our company because they could make more money elsewhere.

“When the crash hit and everybody else had all their problems . . . We were sitting there, and all of a sudden 2009 was our best year ever. We really took it to the next level. To me, it was a validation of the belief system.”

Cleaves, a two-time first-team All-American and a first-round NBA Draft pick, played six seasons in the NBA. He joined UWM when Ishbia conceived the idea to have one of college basketball’s great leaders ever “come in and lead his leaders,” Cleaves told Sporting News. He was unsure of both his suitability for the mortgage business and for working daily in an office, but Ishbia sold him.

“At Michigan State, we were able to have success because we had a group of guys that loved each other, cared for each other, that was willing to go over and beyond for each other,” Cleaves said. “It’s the same thing here at UWM. The person that’s to your right or left: That’s your brother. That’s your sister. We don’t do the co-worker thing here. We’re family members.

“It is from sports. Everything we learned from Coach Izzo, we’re doing the same thing in business. And we’re having a lot of fun doing it.

“It’s the care factor. When I led, that was my big thing. I cared about everybody on the team. And that made it easy for me to go over and beyond for my guys. That’s what I try to instill in our leaders now.”

Cleaves is not the only former Spartan at the company. Christopher Hill, the top shooter on the 2005 Final Four team, was the first to join. He works as pricing strategy leader. Adam Wolfe, who played for the 2001 Final Four team, is chief legal officer. Antonio Smith, the rugged center on the 1999 Final Four team, works as building support specialist. Charlie Bell, Cleaves’ backcourt partner for the 2000 champions, works as success track trainer.

Not only is UWM climbing the mortgage charts, but in a corporate basketball league, it would be doggone close to unfair.

Because of Ishbia’s success and obvious inclination toward sports, the natural question is whether he wishes to go into professional sports ownership. “That’s definitely something I would look at . . . at some point in my lifetime. Would I like to own an NBA team? Yes. Would it be in the next week? No. But sometime in the next five, 10, 15 years, that’s definitely something that would be fun for me.”

Ishbia has made major donations to the Michigan State athletic department, including $32 million to help renovate the football facilities, endow two funds and to rename the football facility and basketball court in Izzo’s honor.

“Think about this: I’m a walk-on who barely played, and I could call Coach Izzo in 2009, seven years later, and he picks up my call, helps me with what I need,” Ishbia said. “We all go back to his house twice a year — we have a reunion, basketball games and football games.

“Was he surprised? I’m sure he thought I could do good things, but obviously we’ve done great . . . He’s been around. He came and spoke to our company in 2014, when we were only at about 1,300 people. He brought the team out here one time and Mateen talked to them, and I got a chance to speak with the players.

“I know he was appreciative. I was more appreciative of all the work he put in and the loyalty and love he showed to players like myself. Just to be able to be part of that team and that family, I’ll never forget it.”