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Niyo: Michigan's Juwan Howard finds coaching compass in his staff

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Juwan Howard has a mix of different minds — from the NBA and college ranks — on his coaching staff.

Ann Arbor — They need to figure each other out before they can figure out the rest. Or before we can figure out what kind of head coach Juwan Howard will be at Michigan, for that matter.

But all that really matters now, according to Howard and his newly assembled staff, is that they’ve figured out the most important thing already: The pieces seem to fit, and so do the personalities.

And it starts, by all accounts, with Howard’s “ego-less” return to Ann Arbor, where the former Fab Five star and longtime NBA fixture quickly surrounded himself with a group he’s convinced is just the right mix.

There are holdovers from John Beilein’s staff, including assistant coach Saddi Washington, strength coach Jon Sanderson and director of basketball operations Chris Hunter. There’s a fellow former NBA player and assistant in Howard Eisley. And there are a couple of former head coaches in Phil Martelli and Jay Smith, who have a combined 75 years of college coaching experience between them.

Specific duties and roles are still being defined, and while Howard has spelled out some of the assistants’ responsibilities with the Wolverines back on the court for summer workouts, “we’ve all been in the game for a long time in various capacities,” Washington said, “so you just do what you do.”

And together, what you do is you figure things out. That’s something Howard says he took from his nearly two decades in the NBA, and specifically the last six years collaborating as an assistant under Eric Spoelstra with the Miami Heat.

“I watched how he utilized and trusted his coaching staff,” Howard said Monday in his first informal media session since being introduced as Michigan’s new coach back in May. “(Spoelstra) was never the type of guy that felt like (he) had to do it alone. You’ll kill yourself that way.

“That’s why I tried to hire the right people — that are smarter than me, that I know I can lean on and trust and grow with and learn from.”

And if we’ve learned anything about Howard in his first couple months on the job, it’s that he won’t pretend to be something he’s not.

He knows what others are saying about him in the college game — “I’ve got a lot of competition that’s basically saying, ‘Hey, this guy has never coached before,’” Howard said — but he’s smart enough to acknowledge the truth behind it.

Likewise, while he’s about as interested in self-promotion as he is with social media, he knows both are part of his job description these days, especially when it comes to recruiting.

“I go in and I introduce myself as Juwan Howard, and sometimes I have to correct myself, like, ‘It’s Juwan Howard, head basketball coach at the University of Michigan,’” he said. "Because it’s so uncomfortable to me. But that’s who I am, and I have to embrace that.”

Martelli, a coaching lifer whom Howard affectionately calls “The Godfather,” says he picked up on all of that immediately.

He and Howard barely knew each other, but when the Michigan job came open in May — after John Beilein left abruptly for the Cleveland Cavaliers — and Howard emerged as a top candidate to fill the vacancy, Martelli’s name was the one that kept coming up as Howard called around seeking advice. Everyone from Steve Fisher to Jeff Van Gundy to John Calipari suggested it, and when Howard finally phoned Martelli — the day before Howard interviewed for the Michigan job with athletic director Warde Manuel — the doubts on both ends were put to rest.

Phil Martelli

“I’m not a cliché kind of guy, but the first sentence out of his mouth, I was like, ‘Nah, this is legit. This is a legit guy,’” said Martelli, who spent the last 24 years coaching Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10. “He talked about knowing what he didn’t know. He talked about how he had a love for this university. And he had a love for coaching. And I could just sense from the first conversation that this was a relationship thing.”

That’s a thing Martelli understands as well as anyone as a basketball lifer, right up through his firing at St. Joe’s this spring. He’s a coach’s coach, but he’s also the same guy who told me Monday, “To be honest with you, I think coaches are overrated.”

“People on TV saying, ‘He’s a genius.’ What does that mean?” Martelli added. “I think what you have to be is a relationship genius.”

And that’s what he thinks Howard has, above all else. An ability to connect with players that’s already on display in the short time NCAA rules allow for offseason workouts with coaches.

“It’s genuine,” Martelli said. “It’s not like a honeymoon thing where, ‘OK, we can be like this for the first six weeks.’ They’re like that every day.”

As for the coaches, they’re all chipping in wherever needed. Martelli and Washington have given Howard a crash course in the recruiting game, “helping him understand the consistency and the persistent way that you have to keep up with it, because it’s so fluid and it’s always moving and changing.”

There’s also scheduling advice, whether it’s lining up a preseason scrimmage instead of an exhibition game or figuring out how to best manage Howard’s time on a week like this, between practice time, the limited recruiting calendar and a trip to Greece to watch incoming freshman Franz Wagner play for Germany at the Under-18 European Championships this weekend.

But mostly, there's that “brotherhood” Howard keeps talking about, his coaching staff included.

“He is an unbelievable listener — he hears everything that I’m saying,” Martelli said. “He doesn’t have to do everything, because I don’t have all the answers. But I think the job description for me is to put my back to Juwan’s back and to do it through loyalty and work ethic.” @JohnNiyo