'Only one job': Juwan Howard's heart belonged to Michigan
Ann Arbor — The last time Juwan Howard held a news conference at Crisler Center, it was a bittersweet moment.
It was 1994 and Howard was announcing he was leaving Michigan to head to the NBA.
“I felt like I was letting down my teammates because I didn't do what I came here to do and that was to bring a championship to this university,” Howard said Thursday. “A university that I care so much about.”
Twenty-five years later, Howard made his return — this time leaving the NBA for Michigan — and will get a chance to once again bring a title to Ann Arbor as the basketball program’s head coach.
“I'm back,” Howard said during his introductory news conference where he was overcome with emotion and cried self-described tears of joy. “I’m back to help continue the Michigan tradition. I'm back to help continue this beautiful culture that has been instilled here before me and, whenever that day comes, after me.
“I never thought that this day would ever come, but more importantly I'm overjoyed for this new opportunity.”
When Howard walked off the Crisler Center court for the last time after his junior season, he was unsure if he would ever come back, and he certainly never thought he would ever become the head coach at his alma mater.
Howard, 46, admitted he didn’t like coaching at first, even though he was always a coach of sorts on the floor. But over the course of his 19-year career in the NBA, Howard said he grew to embrace teaching and was always humbled by learning.
During his 17th season in the pros, Howard said he started to “get the itch” and NBA people he respected told him he’d be a great coach someday. Howard listened and, following his retirement in 2013, spent six seasons as an assistant with the Miami Heat learning, preparing and soaking up everything before Michigan came calling.
“Now I come back to coach my alma mater and I'm so proud to have the opportunity to embrace this moment and lead some young men not just on the court, but off the court," said Howard, who called his new position a "dream job" and ranked it the second biggest accomplishment in his life behind getting his degree at Michigan.
"It's a special day. It's a special day for me and my family. I'm so proud."
Howard's homecoming was set in motion two weeks ago when former coach John Beilein accepted the head-coaching job with the Cleveland Cavaliers on May 13.
Howard woke up to over 20 text messages alerting him of the news that morning and, like many, was surprised by Beilein's departure. The announcement stuck with Howard all day and was even in the back of his mind all week as he was preparing to interview for the head job with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“I've always been asked by friends and by family would I ever coach college basketball?" Howard said. "My answer has always been there's only one job, there's only one school that I would look back and pursue at the collegiate level. That's the University of Michigan.”
When the time eventually came for Howard to meet with the Timberwolves, all he could think about was, “Michigan, Michigan, Michigan.”
And when the Timberwolves offered him the associate head coaching position, Howard appreciated the offer but turned it down because “my heart is with Michigan and it will always be that way.”
The next week when athletic director Warde Manuel flew to Miami to interview Howard for the vacancy, Manuel made sure to sit Howard with his back to the beach. Little did Manuel know, the strategic seating arrangement wasn't necessary.
“It was a beautiful day and not a cloud in the sky,” Manuel said. “I didn't want him thinking about what he might be leaving if he left. And I said to him, 'Is (wife) Jenine ready to do this?' He looked at me and said, 'If she wasn't, I wouldn't be here.' That told me a lot about him.”
But there’s still a lot to find out. Howard met with his team for the first time on Thursday morning and is still in the process of filling out his coaching staff. Michigan still has three available scholarships for 2019-20 and Howard didn't shed much light on how he's approaching that situation.
He also didn’t get into any specifics regarding X’s and O’s, didn’t give any insights into what style of play he plans to put in place and said his coaching philosophy “still remains to be seen.”
Howard knows there will be questions and “outside voices” swirling as he’s handed the keys to a fine-tuned program — one with five Sweet 16s and two national title game appearances in the last seven seasons — despite having no previous head coaching experience.
Same goes for Manuel, who made it clear Howard was "my choice" and didn't think the outcome of coaching search would've changed even if the timing was different.
But after analyzing numerous coaches and looking at a "broad scope" of candidates, Manuel said it was an "easy choice to make" given Howard’s resume, pedigree and, above all, his love for Michigan.
“When I get into something, I'm all in,” Howard said. “I try to learn, I try to grow with it, and I try to give it my best and my all. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there that are doubting the fact that I'm a first-time head coach. Well, you've got to start somewhere, don't you?”
And what better place than home.