Wojo: Michigan basketball coaching search packed with risk

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel has a big hire in front of him, for men's basketball.

Ann Arbor — After a successful 12-year run under John Beilein, Michigan can afford to pay for a top-notch coach, and it absolutely should. That doesn’t mean it can afford to gamble. That also doesn’t mean, at this late date, there’s a wide selection of candidates.

This is the pressure-soaked conundrum Warde Manuel now faces, his first signature moment in three years as Michigan’s AD. The problem is, there’s no perfect candidate, at least not one attainable, and it’s far from perfect timing. As Manuel interviews coaches this week, factions will tug him in different directions, and his difficult task is to choose wisely and delicately in a short period of time.

There are relatively safe picks, which don’t make them the wrong picks. There’s Providence’s Ed Cooley, 49, who’s 162-110 with five NCAA Tournament appearances in eight seasons there, and Butler’s LaVall Jordan. Cooley interviewed with Manuel Monday, according to a source with knowledge of the search. From a long shot, he may be emerging as a favorite, unless Michigan is inclined to keep looking. The search could be concluded by the end of the week.

More: 'Basketball savant' LaVall Jordan helped fuel Michigan's rise under John Beilein

Juwan Howard, 46, is the risky pick, scheduled to meet with Manuel Tuesday in Miami. Howard checks a lot of boxes — name recognition, Michigan connection, deep basketball ties in 24 years as an NBA player and assistant — but not a key one. He’s never been a head coach, or even an assistant in college, and that’s worrisome, despite fervent support from his fellow Fab Fivers.

As the only two outside candidates known to be interviewing, Cooley and Howard should be considered the frontrunners, for now.

That won’t wow people, and the harsh truth is, the coaching carousel ended a few weeks ago, and Michigan is stuck in a tough spot.

Former Michigan star Juwan Howard, left, has been an assistant coach with the Miami Heat since 2013.

A familiar name

Jordan, 40, worked six seasons as Beilein’s top assistant in Ann Arbor and was credited with helping develop guards such as Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. He has struggled, record-wise, at Milwaukee (11-24) and in two seasons at Butler (37-31). If he was coming off an NCAA run with Butler, he might be a no-brainer. He’s coming off a 16-17 record, so there’s pause.

There also are experienced options, such as Shaka Smart, 42, who has been underwhelming in four seasons at Texas (71-66), after six sterling seasons at VCU (163-56, one Final Four), and is considered a premier recruiter. Smart and Jordan would require potentially expensive buyouts, while Howard would require none.

But Michigan is in position to pay — Beilein was in the top 10 nationally at about $3.8 million per season. This is not the desperate, barely relevant program that Beilein inherited, then turned into a perennial contender. The question is, do Smart’s and Jordan’s records justify the healthy expense?

More: Providence’s Ed Cooley interviews for UM hoops job; Juwan Howard next

Neither has interviewed, according to a source. Two other candidates — Michigan assistants Luke Yaklich and Saddi Washington — have spoken with Manuel.

Talk to Michigan people and they’ll say the most important trait for the next coach is the integrity to run a clean program. That’s a given. That’s why there’s no mention of Rick Pitino. There would be more mention of Brad Stevens, Billy Donovan and Chris Beard if they were interested, but there’s no indication they are.

John Beilein, left, and Shaka Smart.

Manuel is staying quiet during the process, but did lay out some criteria last week.

 “If I can get a proven coach, someone with a track record as a head coach, that’s what I’d like to see,” Manuel said. “And then I want somebody who can coach, who can develop talent.”

Again, no ideal candidate, and fewer coaches are willing to leave programs now. But if it’s truly down to a few — Cooley, Howard, Jordan, Smart — the biggest factor, in my opinion, is stability. Michigan basketball doesn’t need a culture shift. Beilein was a unique coach with a unique system, and it’s impossible to replicate that. But it makes no sense to blow it up with a radical move. This is no time for a basketball Rich Rod.

That’s why, unless a mystery candidate emerges, I’d lean toward a safe pick, Jordan, who’s most likely to maintain continuity. Do not underestimate the importance of keeping much of the staff intact — Washington, Yaklich, DeAndre Haynes, strength coach Jon Sanderson. In fact, if it’s Cooley, Howard or Smart, I think it’s imperative they retain assistants. Smart already reportedly interviewed Yaklich for a position at Texas, and the defensive whiz is a key component of Michigan’s success.

LaVall Jordan

The sentimental pick

The appeal with Howard is the name and the basketball connections, but it has to be about more than that. The thought is, he’d be a great recruiter, but we have no idea. He’s been an assistant with the Miami Heat since 2013 and has worked under excellent people in Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra.

Jalen Rose and Chris Webber adamantly support him, as you would expect. So does Jimmy King, and they make passionate arguments. If you put a highly respected basketball person at the top of an established program, he could lift the ceiling. Rose touts the recruiting aspect, and Howard was the first of the Fab Five to sign and bring the rest of the group together.

“He recruited all of us, me, Ray (Jackson), Jalen and Chris,” King said. “He called us, he wrote us, he did everything, he really was the catalyst. That’s not just a feel-good fluff story. He’s relentless in that sense, and if he was doing that as a 17-year-old kid, now with the experience he has, it’s seamless. If they identify Juwan as their guy, they should make it worth his while. I think if that’s met, Juwan Howard will be the next Michigan men’s basketball coach."

More:‘Oh, yes’: Ex-Wolverine Wagner can’t wait to talk NBA smack with Beilein

Theoretically, you could pay Howard well because you wouldn’t be paying a buyout. He’s considered a rising talent in the NBA and has interviewed for several head-coaching positions there the past two seasons. But Michigan just lost its winningest basketball coach to the NBA, and perhaps doesn’t desire such a strong link.

Rose and Webber are influential speakers with wide TV audiences, and their opinions certainly are relevant, to a degree. But they haven’t been closely connected to college basketball for a long time, and like it or not, a stain lingers on the Fab Five era.

Howard might be a fine head coach, but so much is unknown. Some cite the example of Penny Hardaway, who returned to Memphis with no head-coaching experience and has thrust the Tigers back in the spotlight. But Hardaway has a talent-rich base in Memphis and deep AAU connections, and for every Hardaway, there are plenty of counter-arguments. Patrick Ewing has had modest success in two seasons at alma mater Georgetown. Sidney Lowe had little success back at North Carolina State, and Chris Mullin recently resigned after four rough seasons at St. John’s.

No easy answers here, no easy choices. This is a seminal moment for Manuel, and he’ll have to display strong leadership to make it work. He doesn’t have to make a decision to please a faction, or stir the masses, or dramatically alter directions.

Beilein shaped Michigan basketball into a power, and that shape naturally will evolve. The program can be enhanced, sure, but Manuel shouldn’t feel compelled to take a risk or make a statement. Something has been built here, and as difficult as it will be, it should be maintained.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski