New Michigan basketball coach Juwan Howard didn’t need to use words in his introductory press conference Thursday to show how much returning to his alma mater – where he was an All-American in the 1990s – means to him.
Those words were said, sure, but first came the tears.
“Wow. Tears of joy,” Howard said in his opening statement, after he became visibly choked up as Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel introduced him at the Crisler Center with his maize “25” jersey.
Howard stepped up to the podium, then needed a handkerchief to wipe away the tears before he reflected on his playing career, his relationship with his fellow members of the Fab Five and the since-removed Final Four banners that Howard and his teammates were responsible for hanging.
“Last time I had a press conference in this building was 1994, I declared that I was going to go to the NBA,” Howard said. “It felt like I was letting down my teammates because I didn’t do what I came here to do, and that was bring a championship to this university. Now let’s fast forward 25 years later, I’m back.”
But Howard was primarily focused on the future. That’s why he was hired.
“I don’t look back, I look forward,” he said.
Manuel later affirmed this wasn’t some feel-good hire with hopes of reuniting the Fab Five.
“First of all, let me be clear,” Manuel said. “Juwan Howard was hired to coach our basketball team and lead us to tremendous success.”
Former Michigan coach John Beilein’s decision to leave for the Cleveland Cavaliers on May 13 started a series of events that ultimately led to Howard’s hiring. Beilein’s decision was a surprise – it not only came well after the college basketball coaching carousel had stopped, but the carousel’s power was turned off and the front gate was locked.
For the record, Manuel and Howard – then an assistant coach for the Miami Heat – were just as surprised as everyone else outside of Beilein’s immediate family and members of the Cavaliers’ front office.
“I was very surprised,” Manuel said. “He called and he told me he accepted the job so there was nothing for me to offer, to discuss, to talk, so the surprise was there.”
Howard, like many basketball fans, heard the news when he woke up Monday and checked his phone.
“It had to be about 6:45 a.m.,” he said. “Like some, picked up my cell phone first and I looked and my phone had 20-something text messages that coach Beilein had decided to move on and accept a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“At that time, I was going to interview for a Minnesota Timberwolves position. I laid back on my pillow and I said, ‘Coach Beilein just left Michigan.’ I’ve always been asked by my friends and my family, ‘Would you ever coach college basketball?’ There’s only one school I would pursue on the collegiate level and that’s the University of Michigan.”
Manuel said his checklist for Beilein’s replacement included factors such as having high integrity, great character and being a proven winner.
Howard spent the last six seasons in Miami, where he served as the Heat’s defensive coordinator and helped instruct the team’s big men after his 19-year playing career concluded.
That’s why, multiple times in a tongue-in-cheek tone, Manuel addressed the “risk” and “gamble” of him hiring Howard during Thursday’s press conference, referencing some media commentary about the hire.
History isn’t on Howard’s side, when you look at other first-time college head coaches who spent most, if not all, of their professional careers in the NBA.
“All these things about, ‘He hasn’t coached a game,’ ‘What is Warde doing?'” Manuel said, “I’m (going to) take that risk, I’m (going to) take that challenge.”
Manuel pointed out two other Michigan head coaches in attendance – Michigan Head Softball Coach Carol Hutchins, who got her start working as a part-time administrative assistant, and Michigan Head Football Coach Jim Harbaugh, who got his start in coaching working part-time in the offseason with his father – as proof that successful coaches often come from diverse backgrounds.
“In other words, folks, we all have a place to start,” Manuel said. “He started six years ago with two of the best minds in basketball in Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra… I know it’s long-winded, but I was waiting for that question because, for me, I’ll take it, but let him evolve because he will, in my opinion, evolve into a great coach, a great head coach.”
That’s where the questions remain about Howard.
There’s no questioning his love for Michigan and his former teammates, or his desire to help student-athletes grow on and off the court.
When asked what he hopes a Juwan Howard-coached team looks like, Howard responded, “A group that fights together, that’s all about team, a well-connected group, a group that enjoys each other’s success, a group that’s all about family.”
That’s an admirable vision, but also one that’s tough to quantify in May.
He has three open scholarships and he highlighted recruiting as one of the biggest challenges he’ll face as a first-time coach. “To my understanding, there are a lot of rules out there,” he said, half-joking.
Howard hasn’t made decisions about his coaching staff yet.
Former Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli reportedly has an offer to join Howard’s staff.
Howard admitted he’s exploring having a former head coach on his staff to help him in his transition to the college ranks.
Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington was in attendance for Howard’s press conference, while former assistant DeAndre Haynes announced on Twitter that he won’t remain at the school.
Former Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich, a defensive guru, is reportedly leaving for Texas.
So it remains to be seen what Howard’s coaching style, his roster, his coaching staff or style of play will look like, and if you take Manuel’s appeal to heart, those elements will likely change in the next few years as Howard grows into the role. He agreed to a five-year deal that runs through 2024.
But Howard appears to have the right mindset as someone who knows what he doesn’t know and is willing to learn, which makes the next half-decade in Ann Arbor extremely intriguing.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people out there that are doubting,” Howard said. “I’m a first-time head coach.
“Well, you got to start somewhere, don’t you?”