Rosemont, Ill. — Juwan Howard’s return to Michigan comes with the unenviable task of following John Beilein.
It’s a daunting challenge — replacing the program’s all-time winningest coach who was revered for the way he revived the Wolverines — but one that’s not uncommon for several coaches throughout the Big Ten.
Maryland’s Mark Turgeon, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann, Purdue’s Matt Painter and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard all succeeded the wins leader at their respective programs — Gary Williams, Jud Heathcote, Thad Matta, Gene Keady and Bo Ryan, respectively — and have a sense of what Howard is walking into.
As Howard readies to fill Beilein’s shoes, those fellow conference coaches offered some sage advice and shared their thoughts at last week’s Big Ten basketball media day.
“There were two things I was told. One, be yourself, be comfortable in your own skin,” said Gard, who took over for Ryan following his abrupt retirement during the middle of the 2015-16 season. “Obviously Juwan is not coming off John's staff so there's a little different twist to that than what I went through with replacing Coach Ryan. Most of my college coaching experience was with Bo, so my ideology and my philosophy were all derived around what made us successful at Platteville, Milwaukee and then in Madison. But I understood that I needed to be myself and I can't replicate, duplicate or emulate Bo. I had to do it in my own words.
“I think the second thing is make it about your players. It's not about you. It wasn't about me replacing Bo. It was how can I make this experience for our guys better, how can I help them have a great experience, and I was coming into an interim role … so helping that group grow, find their identity and figure some things out was the primary focus.”
Gard said looking back it helped he took over Ryan’s place in mid-December rather than in the offseason because he “didn’t have time to stew over it and worry myself about things there were irrelevant,” like listening to the outside world.
Howard, though, has had to hit the ground running after signing a five-year deal in late May, nine days after Beilein accepted the head coaching job with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Turgeon said he was caught off-guard by Beilein’s departure and thought he was “100 percent coming back.” But with Beilein gone, Turgeon advised Howard to simply believe in himself.
“Juwan has been around great coaches his whole life,” Turgeon said. “He's played and coached at the highest level, played in Final Fours, so just be himself and he'll be great.”
When Turgeon replaced Williams, who departed with 461 wins, two Final Four appearances and a national title, he received his support from Day 1. Similarly, Beilein endorsed his successor and gave his seal of approval on Twitter, tweeting Howard is a “great fit” and his selection was “a fabulous one.”
“(Williams) told the fan base to trust in me and believe in me, so that really helped,” Turgeon said. “The difference is I wasn't a star at Maryland. I played at Kansas. Juwan is a star at Michigan, so people love him already going in. He'll get the benefit of the doubt.
“I've always been a guy that's never shied away from challenges, so it is what it is. … But Juwan is his own man. If he's his own man, he'll be successful there. He's had a lot of good coaches he's learned from through his career and I'm sure the fan base loves him.”
Turgeon added Howard will have an advantage in the early going as teams adjust to his coaching style while also having a core of experienced leaders in senior guard Zavier Simpson, senior center Jon Teske and junior forward Isaiah Livers.
“Those guys have to been to Maryland and won at Maryland. They've been to Michigan State and won at Michigan State,” Turgeon said. “They'll give him a sense of a security blanket because they've been so successful in our league. It should be a good mix.”
Painter said playing at Purdue gave him a “pulse on the Big Ten” and being an assistant on Keady’s staff for a full year helped him “digest things” before he became head coach.
He also painted a picture about the importance of inheriting players like Simpson and Teske, who have an 89-27 record, three trips to the Sweet 16 and two Big Ten tournament titles under their belt.
“Any time you follow a quality coach, it helps you,” Painter said. “Those guys are trained in a certain way that have led to NCAA Tournaments, so that's invaluable. You cannot replace experience that has had success.
“A lot of people look at experience like it's a blanket. But if you get someone who has experience getting their ass kicked, they'll probably end up keep getting their ass kicked. You get somebody who has experienced winning, they're probably going to keep winning. The best predictor of the future is the past.”
Predicting whether Howard will make a seamless transition from the NBA, where he has spent the past 25 years, to college is another challenge, and something even Izzo wondered aloud.
“I talked to him a little about, ‘What do you think it’s harder to go from, college to pro or pro to college?’ I’m convinced it’s harder to go from pro to college because we have so many different things,” Izzo said. “In pro ball, everything is not his fault. A guy leaves his garbage in the hallway, it’s my fault. So those things are going to be different and there are a lot more people tugging at you.
“It was fun to go the Pistons practice (at Breslin Center last week) and see them talk before, talk after just basketball. We're talking recruiting, talking problems, talking this, talking that. They don't do that. It’ll be interesting to see how Juwan handles that, but I think he’s good enough to handle it. He worked in a system that is about as college-y a system with Pat Riley as you can get, but it's still a big difference.”
Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg can relate to what Howard will experience in his first year, perhaps as well as anyone. Hoiberg was a former star at Iowa State and received his first head-coaching job at his alma mater. However, Hoiberg only had NBA front office experience when he returned to Iowa State in 2010, whereas Howard spent the past six seasons as an assistant on Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat staff.
Hoiberg said it took time to get a handle on all the off-the-court duties — recruiting, compliance and academics — and the biggest key was hiring the right staff. He leaned on Bobby Lutz at Iowa State and brought him to Nebraska as a special assistant. Hoiberg believes Howard has his own Lutz in assistant Phil Martelli, the former longtime Saint Joseph’s head coach.
"I think the world of Juwan,” said Hoiberg, who tried to hire Howard on his staff when he became head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 2015. “Obviously he's going to be himself and he's played this game at a much higher level than I ever did as far as being an All-Star. I'm excited to be coming into the league at the same time as Juwan. I think he's going to do an excellent job."
Ultimately, time will tell the story. But Howard has made it clear he’s not going to try to be like Beilein, and he will have his own way of doing things with the Wolverines.
“I'm not going to always keep that (Beilein comparisons) in the back of my mind. I'm not going to focus on it,” Howard said. “I'm just going to continue to coach my team. That's going to be my main focus.”