Juwan Howard knew that the track record of NBA players and coaches attempting to succeed in running college programs was not exceptional. However, he believed he was in line to eventually become the league’s head coach, and that was always the plan.
He also understood that there was a particular university that he would not turn down if his position were available. But there didn’t seem to be any particular reason for the Michigan job to open anytime soon.
And then he did, and they called, and everything changed with Howard’s career path.
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He became a college head coach, boldly going where few with his experience – an impressive NBA playing career, extensive experience as a professional assistant, little to no college game work other than playing it – had excelled before.
In his second season, Howard became a Big Ten Conference champion, head of an alleged NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed, and Sporting News College Basketball Coach of the Year for the 2020-21 season. He joins past winners such as Mark Few from Gonzaga, John Calipari from Kentucky, Bill Self from Kansas and Mike Krzyzewski from Duke.
“It’s a big surprise. A big surprise. But I’m very grateful for the award, ”Howard told Sporting News, acknowledging that no coach wins such an award without extraordinary work from his assistant coaches, administrative staff and, of course, the players who finished the regular season 19-3. record.
Howard played twice in the NCAA championship game as a star center in Michigan from 1991 to 1994, then went on to 19 NBA seasons that included 16,159 career points, an All-Star pick and NBA titles at 2012 and 2013, its end. two years in the league, with the Miami Heat. He joined the Heat as an assistant coach under Erik Spoelstra the next season and was mentioned as a potential NBA head coach candidate when John Beilein landed one of those jobs, creating the vacancy that Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel gave him. asked Howard to occupy.
“I always told our guys, ‘I want to earn their trust.’ I think they had the opportunity to meet me, see how I did a practice, how passionate I am about teaching and what I had to offer in terms of my experience in the world of basketball and my knowledge for the game, “said Howard. SN. “I think I earned his trust because of that. Buying has been easy on both levels: players with coaches, coaches with players. “
There were reasons to be skeptical about whether Howard was the ideal choice. The period immediately before his hiring saw a string of NBA alumni touring the college game with moderate or no success. Avery Johnson lasted four seasons in Alabama and finished just 13 games above .500, with one NCAA Tournament appearance. Chris Mullin spent the same time at St. John’s and was 14 games short of breaking even. From 2016 to 2019, Mike Dunleavy Sr. compiled a .258 winning percentage at Tulane. With his fourth season in Georgetown soon to be over, Patrick Ewing is exactly a .500 coach.
All of these men made serious contributions to the greatest basketball competition on the planet, but they all found it difficult to conquer the college game. Working at the college game is a different deal; one is both a general manager, a salesperson, a fundraiser, and a mentor as a coach. The NBA has others to fill those roles, leaving the people in charge of training to do just that. Handling such a wide variety of tasks seems to be one of the reasons why those trying to make the leap from professionals fail so often.
But Howard immediately proved that he was different.
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His first season in Michigan could have been disastrous. Howard was not hired until May 22, 2019, nearly two months after the Wolverines ended their season with a loss in the NCAA Tournament to Texas Tech. With less preparation time than would have been ideal, with a veteran team used to Beilein’s approach and mannerisms, with key forward Isaiah Livers injured not once but twice and missing a total of 11 games in which the Wolverines finished 5-6 – with all of that against him, Howard managed guide them to a 19-12 finish.
They were on the court warming up for a Big Ten Tournament second round game against Rutgers when the championship was canceled, followed shortly after by the cancellation of March Madness. Of that team, Michigan lost nearly half of its scoring and senior starters at point guard and center.
Howard, who had essentially no recruiting experience prior to his hiring at Michigan, brought in freshman center Hunter Dickinson, ranked the No. 43 player in his class based on the 247Sports composite rankings. He played his way to Sporting News’ All-America second team. Howard got graduate transfer Mike Smith from Columbia University, a 5-11 point guard who averaged 22.8 points in his final Ivy League season, but has voluntarily morphed into a passing first point guard. And Howard added the transfer Chaundee Brown, who played 28 minutes a game for an unsuccessful Wake Forest team but has agreed to play 18 for a Big Ten champion.
“Xavier Simpson was a senior and he wasn’t coming back, so he knew he needed to find a point guard,” Howard told SN. “I went in and saw a movie about Mike and I saw him compete; people always questioned his size, but I saw it as one of Mike’s strengths. A guy who’s always being dismissed because of how small he is has that chip on his shoulder.
“With Hunter, Jon Teske was leaving and we needed a center. I really loved Hunter’s IQ for the game, and it has always been successful – at the high school level at DeMatha (Catholic High School in Virginia), where he won so many games, and was also with Team Takeover at AAU. He has always had the pleasure of winning. But his IQ sold it. He’s such a willing passer and he’s got fire in his eyes.
“I went out and got Terrance Williams, another kid from the DMV area, to play Hunter at AAU, a competitive winner. And Chaundee Brown has been fantastic to us. He was a starter at ACC for three years and I told him, ‘Your role will be very different for us.’ But we needed his shot, his toughness, his defense. And he believed in the vision. He accepted the role of being the sixth man and has been a star in his role. “
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Howard has always affirmed his love for the University of Michigan and cited that connection as the reason he would leave behind the opportunity to become an NBA head coach. He was a Chicago teenager when he decided to join the Wolverines in the fall of 1990, and by the end of his freshman year on campus, he was one-fifth of a phenomenon.
Being part of the Fab Five of college basketball – himself, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson – is still linked to Howard. And it’s okay with that, in the same way that Paul McCartney embraces his past as one of the Beatles. They came into the 1992 title game as five freshmen starters and did so again as sophomores. They never won it all, but they are more remembered than many of those who did.
“I think it’s a great thing that I was part of a youth group that had a huge impact on college basketball, was very successful and was seen by the public as a special group,” Howard said. “If I had to do it all over again, I sure would.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.