Wojo: Juwan Howard will try to turn passion into power

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Sincerity. Gratitude. Passion. Those were the feel-good emotions of the day, and when Juwan Howard stepped to the podium and began to cry, you understood how he got here.

If determination and school pride automatically translate to success, Michigan basketball will keep humming along. Of course, it’s not that simple. Howard’s joyful tears Thursday were unambiguous; he never believed he’d return to his alma mater as head coach, 25 years after leaving as a player.

Juwan Howard

Now comes the hard part for Howard, who must turn disbelief into belief. This was the culmination of a whirlwind three weeks, with Michigan losing its longtime leader, John Beilein, and replacing him with someone who brings more nostalgia than actual plans. Howard wasn’t going to prove anything in his opening news conference, and didn’t try to convince anybody with empty bluster. What he lacked in polish, he made up with passion, and he handled it fine.

More important than the tears and snippets of humor was his low-key self-awareness: Howard knows he doesn’t know the intricacies of what he’s taking on. He knows people wonder how he can lead a major program without ever having been a head coach, or even an assistant in college.

Howard seems to grasp the enormity of the transition, which is good, because it is enormous, and he’ll need to hire experienced assistants. Howard and athletic director Warde Manuel both acknowledged the question of risk, even if they didn’t agree with the depth of it.

 “I’ll tell you this, I’m very humbled,” Howard said on the floor of the Crisler Center. “I’m sure there are a lot of people that are doubters, that I’m a first-time head coach. Well, you gotta start somewhere, don’t you? And there’s gonna be some moments where you’re not always gonna get it right. But I have that growth mindset, that I always look to find the answer.”

'Let him evolve'

As a member of the fabled Fab Five, Howard once declared the Wolverines would “shock the world.” He’s 46 now with specks of gray, and he brushed off suggestions he was shocking it again.

Although Howard has deep NBA connections from 19 years as a player and six years as a Miami Heat assistant, the college game is a different beast, with a rulebook much thicker than a playbook. Putting together a sharp staff will be key, and will help define his philosophy. If longtime head coach Phil Martelli, who led St. Joseph’s for 24 seasons, indeed comes aboard, that’s a solid start. Keeping Saddi Washington is important too. Losing Luke Yaklich, reportedly to Texas, could hurt, but this transition was going to be jarring no matter what.

Manuel knows it as well as anyone, saying he was “very surprised” when Beilein told him he was taking the Cavaliers job. There was a terseness in Manuel’s tone suggesting the timing was bothersome. Beilein had given clues of his NBA ambition the previous summer when he talked to the Pistons, but the Cleveland situation evolved rapidly, and it’s unlikely Michigan could’ve done anything to keep him.

So Manuel took the biggest leap in his three years here and went backward to go forward, back to a recognizable Michigan person — Michigan Man, you might have heard — and he accepts the scrutiny for it. In fact, he’d prefer the scrutiny be trained on him, not on Howard.

“Let him evolve, let him develop into a head coach of his own,” Manuel said. “That’s what I’m gonna do, support him, put people around him. All these things — ‘he hasn’t coached a game, what’s Warde doing, oh my God he’s taking a risk and a gamble!’ I’m gonna gamble with people who love this place the way he does, someone I think is a great person and will be a great head coach on day one. I’m gonna take that challenge. Put it on me.”

Manuel is betting on himself as much as he is on Howard, and is unwavering in his confidence. With Howard’s engaging personality, studious nature and coaching ethic developed in Miami under Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, he may find plenty of support from the outside too. Manuel relied on strong endorsements from many in the NBA, and Howard canceled talks with the Minnesota Timberwolves to meet with Michigan.

Recruiting will be the biggest transition, and that’s where Howard will have to lean heavily on his assistants. He’ll also have to deal with the powerful behemoth at Michigan State, where Tom Izzo likely has the No. 1 team in the country to start next season.

Ask Howard about the blueprint for his program and he’s short on substance and specifics, at least for now. Beilein’s offensive system of position-less, interchangeable shooters was innovative, but now it’s everywhere in the NBA. Asked what his system would look like, Howard was vague.

“It still remains to be seen, right?” he said. “(Our team) will be a group that fights together, a well-connected group, a group that’s all about family. Brotherhood is everything with me.”

Not about the past

Michigan put on a well-connected front Thursday, with several of the school’s head coaches in attendance, including Jim Harbaugh. Jimmy King was there too, and he reiterated what Manuel and Howard said, that this was not about reuniting the Fab Five or reliving the past, with all its dramatic highs and lows. Manuel said he’d love to have Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson back in the building this year, but that’s not what this was about.

That’s good, because reminiscence doesn’t work as effectively 25 years later. Michigan player Isaiah Livers said his dad had to fill him on the Fab Five’s exploits, but the more-intriguing trait is Howard’s NBA background.

“If I was a recruit, that’d definitely catch my eye, playing in the NBA, coaching in the NBA,” said Livers, who will be a leader on a team that lost three starters. “He’s a real down-to-earth guy. I mean you got a head coach crying before he goes up to the podium, that shows how hard he’s gonna work and how much he cares about being here.”

That part was fully evident. As he walked slowly to the podium to start the news conference, Howard looked like a kid on graduation day, culminating a journey that stirred the deepest emotions. By the time he reached Manuel on the dais, Howard was choking back sobs, putting a hand over his eyes and wiping away the tears with a handkerchief.

Later, Howard called this the second-greatest accomplishment of his life. The first was getting his degree from Michigan, which he worked hard to earn after leaving early for the NBA.

“Last time I had a press conference in this building was 1994 when I declared for the NBA, and I felt like I was letting down my teammates because I didn’t do what I came here to do, to bring a championship to this university,” Howard said. “Let’s fast-forward 25 years later, I’m back. I’m back to help continue this Michigan tradition. I’m back to help continue this beautiful culture that has been instilled here. I never thought this day would come.”

I’m sure he isn’t the only one. This is the feel-good element of the story, when the prodigal son returns and churns heartfelt nostalgia. Getting here was the shocking part for Howard, but the daunting part has just begun.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski