This all began with a serious blow at the worst time.
John Beilein’s sudden departure from Michigan’s basketball program May 13 was a foundation-shaking moment not just for the team on the floor, but for the university at large.
Major athletics are often viewed as a window into a university. And with Beilein, Michigan’s window was unblemished. Administrators never lost sleep with his program. Not from a fan satisfaction standpoint, not from an ethical standpoint, not from a success standpoint.
When he left, the ground moved.
The timing was a nightmare. Had this happened around the Final Four, Michigan would have been in a better spot with a deeper pool of prospects. Had it happened days before the season started, you could’ve reasonably moved forward with an interim and conducted a more thorough search. But this is mid-May. This is no-man’s land.
So, when things are shaking, you’re forced to get creative.
In this case, creative’s name is Juwan Howard, who was hired as Michigan’s basketball coach on Wednesday, after agreeing to a five-year deal with a starting salary of $2 million per year.
Was Howard the first choice for this job? Probably depends on who you ask. Over the course of the last week and a half, he became the people’s choice. Former Michigan players, including a few of Howard’s famous teammates and owners of big-time platforms, pounded the table for him. Jalen Rose said he’d make it a topic every day until Michigan offered him the job. That noise was no different behind the scenes, as Michigan officials heard from several big shooters offering their endorsement of Howard for the job.
He was on the list from the start, yes. But he was firmly in the high-risk, possibly high-reward category the entire time. Howard was probably always going to get an interview with Michigan. But there were no guarantees of an offer when the search began.
There were no guarantees of an offer when this week began.
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel moved through the first week of what became the biggest task of his tenure and quite possibly his career, mainly on fact-finding missions. Michigan poked around to see who was interested, who wasn’t and where the pieces fit. Was Michigan overly assertive with some of the bigger-named established coaches during that process? That’s unclear. Also, frankly, it’s not that possible given the timing. Manuel didn’t have a week to put a full-court press on a major name only to run the risk of being rejected in what was already an incredibly tight hiring window.
After speaking with assistants Saddi Washington and Luke Yaklich about the job, Manuel began this week with a plan of attack. That started with interviewing Providence’s Ed Cooley, who was absolutely viewed as an option on Michigan’s list. Cooley was never formally offered the job. But he didn’t wait around for one either, as he re-upped with the Friars on Tuesday.
Which left Michigan with Howard, a guy who had been there all along. At every stop in this search, Howard’s name was there in some capacity. He was the most unique blend of an unknown commodity whose reputation in basketball circles as a beloved former teammate and trusted basketball mind created an almost unanimous consensus from his peers.
This wasn’t a normal coaching search. And this isn’t a normal hire.
But it’s a big one.
Howard’s time at Michigan during his playing days were memorable, of course, as he was part of the famed Fab Five recruiting class. He was a star on the floor who took correspondence classes during his rookie season in the NBA to graduate on time with his class, fulfilling a promise he made to his late grandmother.
He was also at Michigan during an era that was ultimately stained due to the Ed Martin recruiting scandal that led to sanctions and a disassociation of players, including ex-Fab Fiver Chris Webber, for 10 years. Howard wasn’t implicated in the Martin situation at the time. Off the floor in the NBA, a 23-year-old Howard was arrested on a DWI charge in 1996. In 1998, Howard won a defamation suit after a woman accused him and Webber of sexually assaulting her during a party at Howard’s home. A grand jury opted to never criminally charge him. He sued the woman for $1 in damages to restore his reputation and was awarded $100,000.
He’s also been heavily involved in charity. The Juwan Howard Foundation has been around for 17 years, helping clothe and support at-risk inner-city youths. The foundation has provided scholarships for students in Washington D.C. and Chicago. In 2010, he won the NBA’s Community Cares Assist Award for his charitable efforts.
Howard’s integrity is lauded by his peers in coaching and on the floor. In nearly every instance.
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“He is going back to a school and a conference in which he is revered,” said Heat president Pat Riley in a statement (Riley first put Howard on Miami’s bench as an assistant in 2013). “I wish him nothing but the best, because that’s what he’s given us.”
The biggest question is impossible to answer.
Can he succeed at everything involved with being a great college head coach? Can he recruit the right people the right way? Can he adapt and adjust to the ebbs and flows of young student-athletes and win at a high level? Can he deal with their families and support systems and all the unique needs and challenges brought about by those situations? Can he do all this within the confines of a strict NCAA rule system that severely limits how much you can actually work with players?
We have no idea. Because we’ve never seen it.
This whole thing started with a thunderclap and ended with a family reunion. What’s this mean for Michigan basketball? Not sure.
But it probably won’t be boring.
Contact Nick Baumgardner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.