Wojo: With Juwan Howard, Michigan leaps boldly into the unknown

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

It’s a leap and a splash, a dive into a deep unknown. Everyone knows about Juwan Howard, the Michigan player of Fab Five fame, an NBA stalwart for 19 seasons, an NBA assistant for six more seasons, a man with a quarter-century of experience at the highest level.

It’s what we don’t know that makes his hiring a huge, tantalizing risk by Michigan. A basketball program led to great heights by John Beilein — who was here 12 seasons and coached 1,297 college games in 41 years — is being turned over to a guy whose coaching record on any level is 0-0.

Juwan Howard

It’s a bold move by athletic director Warde Manuel, and due to the timing of Beilein’s departure, he didn’t have a lot of options. When he began his search 10 days ago, Manuel probably didn’t plan to pick a first-time head coach — with no college coaching experience of any kind — and that’s the risk. It’s also the allure, that Howard’s name and NBA connections will pay dividends in recruiting, while he finds his way as a day-to-day coach. Matching Beilein’s tactical acumen is highly unlikely, but collecting top players can be an antidote.

For Michigan fans, the news Wednesday probably was half-exciting and half-nerve-racking. For Howard, 46, it’s a chance to return to his alma mater and prove himself in a job he coveted. For the program, it’s a test of the power of its brand, and the strength of Howard’s connections.

It didn’t come at great cost either, as Howard signed a five-year contract starting at a modest $2 million annual salary. Beilein was making $3.8 million. Although head-coaching experience was Manuel’s stated preference, few candidates appeared willing to move at this late date. Only three coaches are known to have interviewed — Providence’s Ed Cooley and Michigan assistants Saddi Washington and Luke Yaklich.

So in the stunning space of 10 days, Beilein jumped to a job he’d never held before — NBA head coach with the Cavaliers — and Howard leapt the other way. He'll be introduced at a news conference next week.

“I know in my heart this is the right place and the right time,” Howard said in a statement. “As a 'Michigan Man,' I know the place our program has in college basketball and I embrace the chance to build onto that history and lead us to championships both in the Big Ten and national level.”

This will be fascinating, to say the least. And it certainly will put the “Michigan Man” thesis to the test. Michigan is the only major school in the country with alums leading the football (Jim Harbaugh) and basketball teams, and Manuel is a Michigan grad, too. That’s a lot of faith in homegrown talent.

Michigan's Juwan Howard answers questions during Michigan's annual media day on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1993, in Ann Arbor.

Also not lost is the social relevance. Howard becomes the only African American men’s basketball head coach in the 14-team Big Ten. Let’s also be clear on this — it isn’t about a Fab Five reunion, even though passionate endorsements from Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson gained plenty of attention.

This has a bit of a boom-or-bust feel to it, but patience will be required. It should be a priority for Howard to retain some of the current staff among Yaklich, Washington, DeAndre Haynes and strength coach Jon Sanderson. The Wolverines already lost plenty from their 30-7 team, including three early entrants to the NBA — Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews. Ironically, the NBA pipeline that helped drive Beilein out of the college game, helped push Howard into the college game.

His ties to all sorts of NBA stars, from LeBron James to the recently retired Dwyane Wade, from legendary coach Pat Riley to current Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, could resonate with recruits. Already, top-50 player Jalen Wilson, who decommitted from Michigan and is named after Jalen Rose, could be interested in recommitting with Howard aboard.

It’s been 25 years since the Fab Five shook up college basketball, reaching back-to-back championship games, and young recruits didn’t grow up watching them. But their parents did. And the story has endured partly because of the controversy. The Final Four banners from 1992 and 1993 haven’t hung in the Crisler Center for a long time, since the Ed Martin booster scandal landed Michigan on probation.

Howard wasn’t implicated in the scandal, but perceptions of that era are something he’ll have to hurdle. By all accounts, he’s a relentless worker, beloved by Heat players and respected around the league. When it was learned he’d interview with Manuel on Tuesday in Miami, support came from multiple corners.

“Absolutely the right choice and I hope it becomes a done deal ASAP!!” James tweeted. “One of my favorite people I’ve ever met at the age of 16 and been around since then.”

Heat coach Spoelstra said in a statement, “Juwan is an absolute star as a person, player and coach. I feel he is more than ready.”

There’s a reason so many in basketball pushed hard for Howard, beyond their personal feelings and respect for his reputation. The absence of an actual track record made the move by Michigan an unconventional gamble, and probably necessitated strong endorsements.

Howard was a three-year star at Michigan, left early for the NBA and returned to earn his degree. He grew from humble beginnings in Chicago, raised by his grandmother, and as the first of the Fab Five to sign with Michigan, he basically recruited the others.

He was the business-like member of the Fab Five, an understated leader, and carried that approach as a player for 19 years in the NBA, winning a championship with Miami. Great assets, great traits, and yet still one great unknown. Not only has he never been a head coach, he’s never been on a college staff. He’s never stood in a recruit’s living room and explained why the kid should play for him, not Tom Izzo, not anyone else.

For this to work, it has to be driven by Howard’s passion, not necessarily his expertise.

“I know there's no other job in the world he would want more than (Michigan),” Webber said on the “Rich Eisen Show.” “I know there is nothing he would put his soul into more than his wife and his kids than that job. He's been waiting for this opportunity.”

In the best-case scenario, Howard unifies the program during a tumultuous transition and recruits want to play for him. In the scary scenario, it takes him a while to navigate the intricacies of the college game. In any scenario, Michigan basketball just took a gigantic leap, and where it lands, nobody knows.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski