Why Juwan Howard has excelled as college coach when so many former NBA stars have failed

Jeff Eisenberg
·13-min read

Ask those around the Michigan basketball program why the Wolverines play so hard, so disciplined or so selflessly, and the answer is always the same.

The qualities that have propelled Michigan to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament are direct reflections of the coach whose hire some dismissed as a marketing ploy.

Juwan Howard likes recruiting. He has a passion for teaching. He has a playbook the size of a Charles Dickens novel. When the coaching staff holds a scouting meeting, he arrives with pages and pages of handwritten notes, not just on Michigan’s upcoming opponent but on the Wolverines’ practice film. Howard is always available when players want to talk. He personally delivered meals to them when they were quarantined. If a big man asks for an extra workout day or night, Howard finds a way to carve out time.

Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli once made the mistake of standing up to exit when the team bus arrived at its destination. Howard motioned for Martelli to stay seated to allow the players to leave first.

“I don’t know if the players even notice because it’s a very small thing, but to me it speaks to who Juwan is,” Martelli told Yahoo Sports. “In this program, Juwan’s not first. I’m not first. The players always come first.”

Howard’s work ethic, humility and eagerness to learn are exceptional qualities in a high-major college basketball coach. They’re practically unfathomable from a former member of the Fab Five who played 19 seasons in the NBA and earned more than $150 million in salary.

The knee-jerk reaction when Michigan hired Howard 22 months ago was to point out that history was not on the Wolverines’ side. Ex-NBA stars with no college coaching experience have fallen on their faces more often than they have flourished.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan head coach Juwan Howard watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

In 1998, Clyde Drexler hoped to restore Houston to its former Phi Slama Jama prominence. He quit with a 19-39 record two years later, saying that the demands of the job left him too little time with his family.

In 2009, Isiah Thomas went to Florida International to revive his tarnished coaching reputation. He went 26-65 in three seasons most notable for his attempts to re-establish a foothold with the New York Knicks.

More recently, Chris Mullin flopped at St. John’s, as did Terry Porter at Portland and Mark Price at Charlotte. The juries are even still out on Penny Hardaway, who has recruited well but has yet to make his first NCAA tournament at Memphis, and Patrick Ewing, who needed an unlikely Big East tournament run last week to nab Georgetown’s first NCAA bid in six years.

Why has Howard’s transition to coaching college basketball been so much smoother than his famous peers? His story is a reminder that the right person in the right situation can succeed where others have failed.

From humble beginnings

Deep on Chicago’s South Side, in an area littered with vacant lots and long-shuttered commercial buildings, sits a series of aging two-story brick housing units. This is Lowden Homes, the World War II-era public housing complex where Juwan Howard lived with his beloved grandmother from age 10 until he left for college.

Jannie Mae Howard was her grandson’s guiding light, the woman who inspired him to focus on his game and his schoolwork, to come home by sundown each day and to reject the temptation of street life. In those days, Juwan had to venture a few blocks outside the complex’s black iron fences to find a real basketball court. As a result, he and his friends would often improvise.

“We used to shoot on crates, on the monkey bars,” Howard told reporters last year. “We used to try to figure out ways to just have fun and be a kid.”

From those humble beginnings, Howard blossomed into one of the nation’s best high school prospects. Coaches from DePaul, Illinois, Michigan, Arizona and other top colleges visited Unit 262 at Lowden Homes to have a home-cooked meal from Jannie Mae and to make a pitch to her goateed 6-foot-10 grandson.

Jannie Mae died of a massive heart attack the day Howard signed his Michigan letter of intent, but ex-Wolverines coach Steve Fisher says she lived on through her influence on her grandson. Fisher recalls Howard always being neatly dressed and meticulously organized, never talking down to anyone and relentlessly pursuing the bachelor’s degree he promised Jannie Mae he would earn.

“In the back of the bus, on planes, at hotels, he was doing work to finish that degree on time,” Fisher told Yahoo Sports. “It was as proud a moment as he has had when he marched into Michigan Stadium with his classmates after four years.”

While the Fab Five is synonymous with baggy shorts, black socks, trash talk and showmanship, being part of that celebrated recruiting class sometimes obscured what set Howard apart as a basketball player. He was more fundamentals than flash, more grit than glitz. Seldom did a Michigan teammate finish a conditioning sprint before him or put in more hours in the gym.

“Juwan worked so hard on his footwork and stance — all the little things people sometimes take for granted,” Fisher said. “He was not the most athletic guy in the room, but he was the most technique-oriented, fundamentally sound player I ever coached.”

Days after his junior season ended one win shy of a third straight appearance in the Final Four, Howard announced that he was entering the 1994 NBA draft. At that time, he would never have guessed he’d be holding another news conference in Crisler Arena a quarter century later.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard talks with Franz Wagner (21) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Ball State in Ann Arbor, Mich., Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Michigan head coach Juwan Howard talks with Franz Wagner (21) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Ball State in Ann Arbor, Mich., Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

‘My heart is with Michigan’

On the morning of May 13, 2019, the day that John Beilein made his ill-fated decision to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers, Howard awoke to the buzzing of his phone.

Within minutes, he had 20-something text messages about the Michigan vacancy.

“I’ve always been asked by friends and also by family would I ever coach college basketball?” Howard later said. “My answer has always been there is only one job, only one school that I would pursue on the collegiate level and that’s the University of Michigan.”

Until that moment, Howard aspired to be an NBA head coach. After retiring in 2013, he spent six years as an assistant with the Miami Heat, soaking up knowledge from Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra while also earning praise for his professionalism, player development skills and contributions to the team’s defensive scheme.

In 2018 and 2019, Howard’s success mentoring big men Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo landed him his first NBA head coaching interviews. He had another interview set up with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the day after the Michigan job opened.

In the hours leading up to his interview with Minnesota, Howard admits that all he thought about was, “Michigan, Michigan, Michigan.” He says he turned down an offer to become the Timberwolves’ associate head coach by telling the team, “You know what, I appreciate it. But my heart is with Michigan.”

That passion for his alma mater was as big a factor as any in him landing the Michigan job. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel offered Howard a five-year contract, then braced for the backlash that often comes with hiring a first-time head coach.

At Howard’s introductory news conference, a cascade of emotions washed over him. “Tears of joy,” Howard said, dabbing at his eyes and taking a deep breath to collect himself. “I said I wasn't going to cry. I guess that never happens when you're excited about something so special to you, that means so much,”

Minutes later, Manuel returned to the podium and took exception with media coverage depicting Howard’s hiring as a risk or gamble. Confidence bordering on defiance, Manuel insisted, “I’mma gamble with people who love this place like he does.”

Leaning on others

The first pivotal moment in Howard’s bid to prove Manuel right actually came two months before he landed the Michigan job.

In March 2019, St. Josephs made the baffling decision to fire Phil Martelli, college basketball’s 2004 national coach of the year, a Philadelphia institution who had led the Hawks to the NCAA tournament seven times.

By the time March gave way to April, Martelli regained the urge to coach. The 64-year-old asked friends in the industry to spread the word that he wasn’t retiring, that he’d return to the bench if a job opened that allowed him to chase a championship.

When Howard was preparing for his interview with Michigan, he sought John Calipari’s advice on how to build his staff. Minutes later, Martelli received a call from the Kentucky coach saying, “Juwan Howard would like to speak to you.”

That introduction paved the way for what has been a beneficial partnership. Howard had the self awareness to want a longtime head coach beside him and the confidence to shrug off the wholly unfair whispers that Martelli would do the coaching. And Martelli came away reinvigorated by a fresh opportunity and his instant connection with Howard.

“I had this confidence in the person he was,” Martelli said. “He valued what Michigan provided for him and the path it put him on and he wanted to give back.”

Between hiring Martelli and ex-NBA point guard Howard Eisley and retaining Saddi Washington as a link to the Beilein era, Howard had assembled an elite staff that complemented each other. From there, he turned his attention to retaining and developing the players that Beilein had left behind and recruiting some talented newcomers.

Three of the four best players from Beilein’s 30-win 2019 team already planned to turn pro, but enough holdovers returned to maintain the culture he established. Howard also retained two of Michigan’s three previously committed 2019 recruits, most notably forward Franz Wagner, who had visited from Germany on the day that Beilein left for the NBA.

Among Howard’s top priorities in the 2020 class was a promising 7-foot-1, 255-pound center from just outside Washington D.C. Hunter Dickinson briefly dropped Michigan from his list of options after Beilein’s departure but reconsidered when Howard made him a priority within a couple weeks of being hired.

FILE - Michigan coach Juwan Howard holds a championship sign after the team's win over Michigan State in an NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., in this Thursday, March 4, 2021, file photo. Michigan’s Juwan Howard is coach of the year in the Big Ten, announced Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
FILE - Michigan coach Juwan Howard holds a championship sign after the team's win over Michigan State in an NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., in this Thursday, March 4, 2021, file photo. Michigan’s Juwan Howard is coach of the year in the Big Ten, announced Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

To land Dickinson, Michigan had to fend off fellow finalists Notre Dame, Duke and Florida State. In the end, the possibility of playing right away and the opportunity to be mentored by Howard persuaded Dickinson to commit to the Wolverines in December 2020.

“I was committed to each school for like a week in my head, but eventually I saw myself playing at Michigan and being taught by Coach Howard,” Dickinson told Yahoo Sports. “I felt like he was the best person to help me get where I want to go. I felt a lot of confidence putting my career in his hands.”

Michigan swung and missed on five-star wing Josh Christopher and lost five-star forward Isaiah Todd to the G-League development program, but Howard pivoted quickly, landing transfers Mike Smith from Columbia and Chaundee Brown from Wake Forest. In the 2021 class, Michigan has already signed six Rivals 150 prospects, success that Martelli attributes to Howard’s passion for his alma mater.

“When he would speak on Zoom to a recruit, it came out of his pores,” Martelli said. “The way he talked, it wasn’t a sales pitch. It was a truth, emotional and deep like it was from his heart.”

‘He takes no shortcuts’

Michigan’s path toward exceeding expectations this season began before the whole team could even gather together for the first time.

Howard organized weekly team-wide zoom calls during the spring and summer, giving players a way to get to know each other and a forum to discuss some of the social unrest in the country at that time.

Once the players finally did get permission to arrive on campus, Howard’s emphasis on player development kicked into overdrive. It was common to find him feeding the post, demonstrating low-post moves or even inserting himself into a drill to help Dickinson and the rest of Michigan’s big men improve.

“It does not escape the players’ notice when here he is, Mr. Fab Five, $100 million, holding a practice dummy and bumping into the big guys,” Martelli said. “I’m not into clichés but this guy is a player’s coach. He’s committed to player development and he takes no shortcuts.”

Behind a balanced offense featuring five players averaging at least nine points, Michigan reeled off 11 straight wins to start the season. Brown, a starter at Wake Forest, accepted coming off the bench. Smith, a 22.8-point-per-game scorer at Columbia, embraced a pass-first role. Even four-star prospect Terrance Williams II didn’t complain about not getting off the bench at all some nights.

Fisher was watching a Michigan game midway through the season when his wife made an astute observation. She pointed out, “Look at how engaged and excited every player on the bench is.”

“That doesn’t happen everywhere,” Fisher said. Most of the time they’re clapping a little bit because they have to and saying I should be in there. He has a family atmosphere that permeates from the top all the way down.”

Adversity struck in the form of a teamwide COVID-19 pause in late January and early February, but Howard again found a way to keep his players engaged and motivated. They sent each other videos of their individual workouts each day, from boxing, to jumping rope, to yoga, to Martelli reading the Philadelphia newspapers while walking on the treadmill.

Aside from a bad first half against Wisconsin and a nightmare performance against Illinois, Michigan returned from its hiatus stronger than before. Only forward Isaiah Livers’ stress fracture in his right foot is reason to question if Michigan is a legitimate national title threat.

A few weeks ago, during a Zoom call with reporters, Howard smirked at a question asking if he paid attention to the criticism of his hiring, the notion that he would be a figurehead or that his lack of previous head coaching experience was a risk.

Calling the question “cute,” Howard said, “Of course, I heard it.” Howard said that he wasn’t “here to make this a big issue,” but he acknowledged it did motivate him.

“I’m not going to sit here and act like I didn't hear the noise before I got hired,” he said. “To this day, I hear the backhanded compliments. Am I competitive? Of course I am. But I’m also about improving and having a growth mindset on how I can be the best version of myself. That’s my No. 1 goal. That’s what drives me.”

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