Michigan’s hiring of Juwan Howard not about former glory

by | May 23, 2019 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

People make this mistake about the Fab Five. They were not all the same guy. Not even close. Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, inseparable back then, were, personality wise, miles apart. Jimmy King and Ray Jackson were both from Texas, but the sameness ended there.

And Juwan Howard was always his own man.

Despite louder stories of hardship from some of the others, Juwan grew up under the toughest circumstances. His mother was a Chicago high school junior when she gave birth to him. The first few days of his life, he slept on a blanket in a chest drawer, so unprepared were the young parents for his upbringing. Very quickly, his grandmother, Jannie Mae Howard, took over raising her grandson. She raised him with love and discipline and rules and commitments.

Juwan’s final promise to her was that he would graduate college.

She died the day he committed to Michigan.

So Juwan Howard could not help but be serious, because life around him was serious, and a seriousness draped over him like a net. There is a reason that Steve Fisher used to call Howard “My Rock of Gibraltar.” There is a reason that, of all the Fab Five players, he is the only one who persevered long enough to actually win an NBA ring, when he was 39.

And there’s a reason he’s the only one who became a coach.

Because he was the most serious student of the game.

So, judged against the most famous band he ever belonged to, Juwan Howard, now 46, is easily the most logical choice to lead his alma mater’s basketball team.

Judged against the rest of the world?

That’s something else.

The road that led to Howard

Michigan knows this. Warde Manuel, the athletic director who just hired him, knows this. He knows that Howard has no head coaching experience, not in the NBA, not in college. He knows Howard, who has sat on Miami’s bench as an assistant since 2013, has never been inside a recruit’s home, trying to convince a grandmother to send her grandson to a certain college the way countless coaches tried to woo Howard to come to theirs.

Michigan knows this. And they hired him anyhow. For several reasons.

1) Because John Beilein left them at one of the worst possible times.

2) Because they didn’t have a lot of other choices, given that previously desirable and available coaches had been snapped up, and the most lucrative ones (read: Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens) didn’t want to jump back to college from the pros.

And 3) Because Juwan Howard can make you believe in him, or at least make you want to believe in him.

That, I contend, is what convinced Manuel to close the deal.

Manuel saw a guy who obviously was coveted enough to be interviewed for numerous head coaching jobs in the NBA, both this year and last. Pro franchises don’t bother interviewing people they wouldn’t at least consider hiring.

Manuel saw a guy whose job with the Miami Heat included developing young players — and “young” in today’s NBA is indistinguishable from college age.

Manuel saw a guy whose two sons are in AAU ball, which keeps Howard in that loop, and around that world, which, like it or not, is part of the college universe.

Manuel saw a guy endorsed by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, with whom he played many years. A guy who was strong and confident, but humble enough to, reportedly, come into the interviews saying — before Michigan could suggest it — that he wanted to hire ex-head coaches on his staff for guidance, something a new guy can often be afraid to do.

In short, Manuel saw what most people see and have often seen over the years with Juwan Howard: a respectful, intelligent, self-effacing man with a baritone voice and a serious demeanor.

You almost can’t help it. You want Juwan Howard to do well.

Which isn’t the same as saying he will.

A move toward glory?

Perhaps it seems as if I’m riding both sides of the teeter-totter. That’s because I am. On paper, Howard is nowhere near experienced enough to be taking over a program like Michigan’s. It’s a whole different world when you are the guy blowing the whistle, you are the guy determining the starting lineups, you are the guy arguing with the refs, you are the guy calling the timeouts, you are the guy offering a scholarship, and you are the guy responsible for the on- and off-court actions of a group of boundless 18- and 19-year-olds.

Howard has done none of that.

And so this is a leap. An educated leap — and a leap of education. Manuel no doubt feels that he and the culture at Michigan can help fast track Howard in the ins-and-outs of the rules, requirements, academic issues and recruiting operations.

It’s up to Howard to do the rest.

Will he pull it off? Impossible to know. I spent a lot of time with Howard during his years at Michigan and no time with him during his years as a Miami assistant. But I can tell you when I watch him being interviewed these days, he is much the same guy: thoughtful, rarely cocky, at times a bit uneasy in the spotlight.

But sure of himself. As he was always sure of himself. As I believe he is sure he can make this work in Ann Arbor.

He should at least be given the chance. Not because the other Fab Five players said so. Honestly, that era is so far off the radar screen, it’s viewed by kids today the way we once viewed black and white footage. Of course, Rose and Webber are going to endorse Howard. What did you expect? They should. But their votes shouldn’t mean a thing in this process, and they didn’t.

Michigan didn’t hire Howard for former glory. It hired him for future glory. That doesn’t come with baggy shorts and high black socks. It comes with knowing the X’s and O’s, knowing how to get them across to very young kids, knowing how to recruit and reload at the same time, and knowing how to survive the loss of departing freshmen and get the most out of players who deign to stay two years.

Here’s the simple truth: The very same things that led Beilein to leave the college game are the things that will most challenge his replacement.

And the only memory from the Fab Five years that may prove helpful is from 1992, when Howard, then a freshman, stomped down a tunnel after his team made the Final Four and yelled “I told you! We’re gonna shock the world!”

The Fab Five fell just short of that promise. Michigan is hoping Howard takes it one step further. And surprises — maybe even shocks — everybody.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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