Michigan is hiring Juwan Howard to coach its basketball team. Athletic director Warde Manuel was in a tough spot when John Beilein, the winningest coach in program history, abruptly left earlier this month to explore an opportunity with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The carousel of candidates had been spinning for a long time and many matches had already been made.
Ed Cooley didn’t pan out. Nate Oats didn’t want to flee Alabama before coaching a game. The pickings were relatively slim.
In the end the Wolverines settled on Howard, a former member of the Fab 5 and 19-year NBA veteran. They picked a guy who has never coached college basketball, but spent six years on the Miami Heat bench.
This is not a formula many programs have followed to achieve success.
Chris Mullin, Avery Johnson, Mark Price, Mike Dunleavy, Michael Curry, Isiah Thomas, and Clyde Drexler all fell short of expectations. Danny Manning parlayed the Tulsa gig into a Wake Forest spot, but that hasn’t gone well.
The NBA-to-college pipeline isn’t entirely impressive, though Kevin Ollie has done pretty damn well at UConn. The same for Tony Bennett at Virginia. Penny Hardaway appears poised to do big things at Memphis.
Does that mean Howard won’t be good for Michigan? Do others’ failures mean he’s doomed?
Of course not.
In fact, the only prudent thing to say about the hire and its merits is that it’s far too early to tell anything for certain. We’ve never seen Howard be a college basketball coach so how the hell could we know what he’ll be like?
He obviously knows the game. He has strong ties to Chicago for recruiting. He has LeBron James’ seal of approval. He’s a big, splashy name for a school that loves big, splashy things. He and Jim Harbaugh are the only basketball-football combo who are alums at the place they coach.
Michigan largely sells itself. It’s in a far better place now than when Beilein took over. The cupboard this year will be bit bare, but reinforcements are on the way. Howard can’t be realistically held to his predecessor’s standard and if he is, it will be trouble.
Wolverines fans, who have been through plenty of lumps before — the era between the Fab 5 and Beilein wasn’t too great — will have to again learn to be patient. The most interesting thing over the next few years is how they view Howard versus how they view Harbaugh.
Though the two aren’t completely congruent, there’s some commonality. Will Howard be afforded the seemingly infinite slack afforded to the khaki-ed one? Will the same relative success be as celebrated?
Time will tell but I have my doubts. Howard isn’t chasing a basketball version of Lloyd Carr. He’s chasing a basketball version of peak Bo Schembechler. He’ll have huge shoes to fill and a fanbase grown accustomed to winning.
The learning curve will be steep. Will it also be unforgiving?
Howard has taken on challenges before. This one, though, will arguably be his toughest.