Bacon: Manuel had imperfect candidate pool, but Howard a smart bet for Michigan

By John U. Bacon
Special to The Detroit News

When John Beilein announced he was leaving Michigan for the Cleveland Cavaliers, I was as shocked as anyone. But once the dust settled, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel had to make the most important decision of his four-year tenure.

Warde Manuel introduces Juwan Howard as Michigan's new basketball coach.

In 2014, after interim athletic director Jim Hackett fired football coach Brady Hoke, Jim Harbaugh was Michigan fans’ first, second and third choice – a unicorn who checked every box: a former Michigan quarterback, Big Ten MVP and NFL star who went on to great success coaching college and the pros. The question was if Hackett could pull Harbaugh in. When he did so, against considerable odds, the fanbase went crazy.

Manuel faced completely different circumstances. Unlike the football program, which had bottomed out, the basketball program has never been healthier. That’s thanks to Beilein, whose peers named him the cleanest coach in the country, and Bill Martin, the athletic director who hired him and upgraded the facilities to keep him. Further, basketball had no unicorn candidate out there, just a bunch of guys who checked some boxes, but not all.

Manuel looked at candidates at the top of the college and pro ranks. But getting them would require a fortune in salary, plus expensive buyouts for some, and they still might not fit Michigan’s culture – if they decided to come at all.

On the other hand, Manuel considered candidates who got the culture, but didn’t have the experience. LaVall Jordan, Beilein’s former assistant, had just completed his second season at Butler, but finished last in his league. You also had Beilein’s great assistant coaches, Saddi Washington and Luke Yaklich, but they have never been head coaches.

Then there was Juwan Howard, a member of the Fab Five, which captured the nation’s imagination when all five started as freshman on their way to the NCAA championship game. A great defensive player, Howard played 19 years in the NBA, before putting in six years as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Miami Heat.

This impressed me, because Howard already had piles of money. He didn’t need the time-consuming, pressure-packed, and largely thankless job of carrying a clipboard on the bench for 82 games a year. But he paid his dues and is now considered a top defensive coach.

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Some fans fear Howard won’t maintain Beilein’s high ethical standards. After all, Michigan’s program lost years to an NCAA investigation and probation because some Michigan players broke the rules – including Howard’s teammate Chris Webber, who admitted under oath to accepting cash from booster Ed Martin.

Former FBI special agent Greg Stejskal led the investigation into Martin. He told me the FBI turned up no evidence that Howard took any money.

Stejskal also spoke to the Michigan basketball team before every season. Although his warnings were not very well received by many of Howard’s teammates, Howard was the only starter who always thanked him. Howard has always been considered a class act.

Any way you sliced it, Manuel was going to have to take a chance. Given his options, it looks like Howard could well be the safest bet on the table.

Only time will tell if Howard can compete while keeping it clean. But that was true of John Beilein 12 years ago – and that worked out pretty well.

John U. Bacon, a former Detroit News sports writer, is the author of six national bestsellers. His next book, “Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football,” comes out Sept. 3.