Phil Martelli prepared to lead UM basketball down stretch: 'I'm going to be me'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — As Phil Martelli stepped up to the podium inside the Crisler Center media room, he wasted little time getting to the point.

One day after Juwan Howard was handed a five-game suspension for his role in Sunday’s postgame scuffle at Wisconsin and Martelli was elevated to acting head coach for the rest of the regular season, Martelli made one thing clear.

He’s taking his boss’ place, but he’s not replacing him.

Phil Martelli, Michigan assistant men's basketball coach, answers questions about head coach, Juwan Howard, and how he will coach the team during Howard's suspension during a press conference Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI

“I am not Juwan Howard,” Martelli said at the start of Tuesday’s press conference. “I'm going to be me.”

After serving as Howard’s top assistant since the start of the 2019-20 season, Martelli, 67, will guide the Michigan basketball team during a crucial stretch run and will aim to bolster the Wolverines' chances at an NCAA Tournament bid, starting with Wednesday’s home game against Rutgers.

Martelli admitted he doesn’t have the offensive mind Howard has. What he does have, though, is an extensive coaching career, highlighted by a 24-year run at Saint Joseph’s where he won 444 games as head coach, and experience leading a team through late-season pressure.

“I'm not going to mimic him,” Martelli said. “I told the players (Monday)…what we have in place is the way that we're going to play.”

More: Niyo: Juwan Howard's actions left Michigan, Big Ten no choice

Martelli, of course, is confident in his ability to manage a game and lead a program. None of that is new to him. Yet, he finds himself in a situation he has never been in before during his lengthy coaching career — taking over duties after his head coach struck an opposing assistant in the face and started a punch-filled skirmish in the handshake line.

According to Martelli, Howard hasn’t addressed his players in-person since the incident at the Kohl Center, but he had a “heartfelt text exchange” with everybody in the program late Sunday night.

“He will and has expressed his love for everybody and everybody in the program has expressed their love for him,” said Martelli, who added he will remain in contact with Howard during his absence.

“Juwan is very remorseful and today is a little better than yesterday.”

Howard became upset when Wisconsin coach Greg Gard called a timeout with 15 seconds left and his team leading by 15 points. Gard took the late timeout to reset the 10-second backcourt count and organize his backups against Michigan, which was playing pressure defense and still had multiple starters on the floor.

Martelli didn’t see anything wrong with the late-game management from either side — “I think that it was ebb and flow,” he said — but noted end-of-game situations like that can be “really sensitive.”

“Escalations like that have no place in the game,” Martelli said. “Everybody involved — not the three people suspended or not just our players — everybody involved has now learned a hard lesson. …I'll raise my hand. Juwan went one way in the (handshake line) and I didn't think to go with him. Everybody learned a hard lesson.”

Wisconsin and Michigan players and coaches are involved in a scuffle with Michigan head coach Juwan Howard during the waning moments of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022, in Madison, Wis.

Martelli said athletic director Warde Manuel addressed the team Monday afternoon and praised him for delivering what he described as a “masterclass in leadership.” Manuel was blunt and made it clear that an incident like Sunday’s could never happen again.

“In all walks of life, there are moments when you,” Martelli said, snapping his fingers, “and when that happens, you can go one way or you can go the other. Everybody went in the wrong direction on this one. So whatever needs to happen when this happens, let's each grow from it.”

Howard isn’t allowed to attend any games, practices or any team related activities during his suspension, which was imposed jointly by Michigan and the Big Ten. His absence also creates some logistical changes when it comes to the coaching staff.

Martelli will take on more responsibilities and run practices. Director of operations Chris Hunter will move into an assistant coaching role and will work with the big men in practice, like Howard did. Assistant Howard Eisley will serve as the team’s offensive coordinator and will call sets from the “effective and massive" playbook he and Howard have put together.

During games, Martelli will stand on the sideline — "There will be a chair there, but it will be for (Howard). It will not be for me," he said — and will keep the show running as smoothly as possible. However, Martelli noted the team will lose some of its offensive touch without Howard and it’ll take a collective effort to make up for his genius.

“The guy is a mastermind with ATOs (after timeout plays) and it has blown my mind for three years,” Martelli said. “That's not who I am.

“I think that forward together, that's what this has to be. And I'm a part of it. I'm no more or less a part of it than Howard Eisley or Saddi Washington. We're doing this together moving forward.”

As the Wolverines forge ahead, they will be shorthanded against the Scarlet Knights, who won the first meeting this season. Freshman forward Moussa Diabate and sophomore forward Terrance Williams II will each be serving a one-game suspension for throwing punches in Sunday’s incident. It’s an obstacle that Martelli will have to navigate, and one that adds a layer of difficulty for a team that needs to finish strong to keep its postseason hopes afloat.

But as Martelli tossed and turned in his sleep on Sunday night, it wasn’t Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances that weighed on him. It was knowing that he was going to have to step in and fill Howard’s shoes.

At least, that was until he woke up Monday morning with a moment of clarity.

"He's a big presence," Martelli said. “But they didn't ask me to be Juwan Howard. They asked me to be me. And you know what? I'm confident in that.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Rutgers at Michigan

► Tip-off: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

► TV/radio: BTN/950

► Records: Rutgers 16-10, 10-6 Big Ten; Michigan 14-11, 8-7

► Outlook: Michigan holds a 14-1 lead in the series and lost the first meeting between the teams this season, 75-67, on Jan. 4 at Rutgers. This is the start of a four-game homestand for the Wolverines. …The Scarlet Knights are led by senior Ron Harper Jr. (15.5 points) and are coming off an 84-72 loss at Purdue. Before that, Rutgers became the first unranked program to defeat four straight ranked teams, with wins over No. 13 Michigan State, No. 16 Ohio State, No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 12 Illinois.