Juwan Howard knew the track record of NBA players and coaches who attempted to succeed in running college programs wasn’t exceptional. He believed he was in line eventually to become a head coach in the league, though, and that always was the plan.
He also understood there was one particular university he would not decline if its position became available. But there seemed to be no particular reason for the Michigan job to open anytime soon.
And then it did, and they called, and everything changed with Howard’s career path.
He became a college head coach, boldly going where few with his background — an impressive NBA playing career, extensive experience as a pro assistant, little to no work in the college game, save for playing it — had excelled before.
In his second season, Howard became a Big Ten Conference champion, the boss of a presumptive No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed — and the Sporting News College Basketball Coach of the Year for the 2020-21 season. He joins past winners such as Mark Few of Gonzaga, John Calipari of Kentucky, Bill Self of Kansas and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.
“This is a big surprise. A huge surprise. But I’m very appreciative of the award,” Howard told Sporting News, acknowledging that no coach earns such an award without extraordinary work from his assistant coaches, administrative staff and, of course, the players who finished the regular season with a 19-3 record.
Howard played twice in the NCAA championship game as a star center at Michigan from 1991 to 1994, then went on to 19 seasons in the NBA that included 16,159 career points, an All-Star Game selection and NBA titles in 2012 and 2013 — his final two years in the league — with the Miami Heat. He joined the Heat as an assistant coach under Erik Spoelstra the next season and was mentioned as a possible head NBA coaching candidate when John Beilein got one of those jobs, creating the vacancy Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel asked Howard to fill.
“I always told our guys: ‘I want to earn your trust.’ I think they got the chance to get to know me, see how I ran a practice, how passionate I am about teaching and what I had to offer as far as my experience in the basketball world and my knowledge for the game,” Howard told SN. “I think I earned their trust from that. The buy-in has been easy on both levels: players with coaches, coaches with players.”
There was cause to be skeptical of whether Howard was the ideal choice. The immediate period before he was hired saw a series of NBA alum cycle through the college game with moderate to no success. Avery Johnson lasted four seasons at Alabama and finished just 13 games over .500, with one NCAA Tournament appearance. Chris Mullin spent just as long at St. John’s and was 14 games short of breaking even. From 2016 through 2019, Mike Dunleavy Sr. compiled a .258 winning percentage at Tulane. With his fourth season at Georgetown soon to end, Patrick Ewing is exactly a .500 coach.
All of these men made serious contributions to the greatest basketball competition on the planet, but each found conquering the college game elusive. Working in the college game is a different deal; one is as much a general manager, a salesperson, a fundraiser and a mentor as a coach. The NBA has others to fill those roles, leaving the people in charge of coaching to do only that. Handling that wide variety of duties appears to be one reason those who attempt to make the jump from the pros so often fail.
But Howard immediately demonstrated he was different.
His first season at Michigan could have been calamitous. Howard was not hired until May 22, 2019 — nearly two months after the Wolverines finished their season with an NCAA Tournament loss to Texas Tech. With less preparation time than would have been ideal, with a veteran team accustomed to Beilein’s approach and mannerisms, with key forward Isaiah Livers injured not once, but twice and missing a total of 11 games in which the Wolverines went 5-6 — with all of that against him, Howard managed to guide them to a 19-12 finish.
They were on the court warming up for a second-round Big Ten Tournament game against Rutgers when the championship was called off, followed soon after by the cancellation of March Madness. From that team, Michigan lost nearly half its scoring and senior starters at point guard and center.
Howard, who had essentially no experience recruiting before his hiring at Michigan, brought in freshman center Hunter Dickinson, ranked as the No. 43 player in his class according to 247Sports’ Composite rankings. He played his way onto Sporting News’ All-America second team. Howard landed graduate transfer Mike Smith from Columbia University, a 5-11 guard who averaged 22.8 points in his final Ivy League season but willingly has transformed himself into a pass-first point guard. And Howard added transfer Chaundee Brown, who played 28 minutes a game for an unsuccessful Wake Forest team but has embraced playing 18 for a Big Ten champion.
“Xavier Simpson was a senior and he was not returning, so I knew I needed to find a point guard,” Howard told SN. “I went in and watched film on Mike and I saw him competing; people always questioned his size, but I looked at that as being a strength of Mike’s. A guy who’s always being counted out because of how small he is, he has that chip on his shoulder.
“With Hunter, Jon Teske was leaving and we needed a center. I really loved Hunter’s IQ for the game, and he’s always had success: on the high school level at DeMatha (Catholic High School in Virginia), where he won so many games, and also being with Team Takeover in AAU. He’s always had a taste of winning. But his IQ sold it. He’s such a willing passer, and he has a fire in his eyes.
“I went out and got Terrance Williams, another kid from the DMV area, played with Hunter in AAU, a competitive winner. And Chaundee Brown has been fantastic for us. He was a starter in the ACC for three years, and I shared with him, ‘Your role is going to be a lot different for us.’ But we needed his shooting, his toughness, his defense. And he believed in the vision. He accepted the role of being the sixth man, and he’s been a star in his role.”
Howard always has asserted his love for the University of Michigan and cited that connection as the reason he would leave behind an opportunity to become an NBA head coach. He was a teenager from Chicago when he chose to join the Wolverines in the fall of 1990, and by the end of his first year on campus, he was one fifth of a phenomenon.
Being a part of college basketball’s Fab Five — himself, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson — remains affixed to Howard. And he is fine with that, in much the same way Paul McCartney embraces his past as one of the Beatles. They reached the 1992 title game as five freshman starters and did it again as sophomores. They never won it all, but are better remembered than many who did.
“I think it’s a great thing that I am a part of a group of young men that had a huge impact on college basketball, had a ton of success and was viewed by the public as a special group,” Howard said. “If I had to do it all over again, I sure the hell would.”