A lot of people are going to like Juwan Howard. We can say this with confidence because a lot of people always have. He was always one of the nicest, hardest-working members of Michigan’s Fab Five—the one, looking back, who was most likely to be a coach, though that was hard to see at the time. Now Howard will be the Wolverines' next head coach, and this is a wonderful story in a lot of ways. It is also a huge risk.
Howard has never been a head coach on any level. He has never worked for a college program. He has connections on the AAU circuit, largely through his sons, and he has NBA credibility, thanks to his lengthy career and friendships with former teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But he hasn’t actually recruited. He hasn’t had to cajole teenagers and sweet-talk parents. He hasn’t had to ingratiate himself to hangers-on and handlers while still maintaining his dignity. He hasn’t had to evaluate high school talent, or deal with academics, or comply with NCAA rules, or give up his summers. He doesn’t really know what it feels like to do that job on a daily basis. He can’t possibly know.
Can he still succeed? Absolutely. Howard was a candidate for head coaching jobs in the NBA. He played in the league for a long time. Coaching basketball does not require as much on-the-job experience as coaching football. Steve Kerr, Jason Kidd and Avery Johnson became head coaches with only limited experience, and each had some success. (Kerr, obviously, has had a lot.)
Howard’s hire is part of a trend of NBA players taking college jobs. Jerry Stackhouse is at Vanderbilt. Penny Hardaway is having a ton of recruiting success at Memphis. The point here is not that hiring Howard is crazy or that he will fail. It’s just that Michigan athletic director Warde Manual took a big leap he did not have to take.
The idea that Howard will be the Jim Harbaugh of Michigan basketball is flawed on several levels. Harbaugh took over a program that needed a jolt. Howard doesn’t. But more importantly: Harbaugh had been a highly successful college and pro head coach before going to Michigan. He won the Orange Bowl with Stanford. He took the 49ers to three straight NFC championship games and within a few yards of winning the Super Bowl.
Whatever you think of Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan so far, most people in the sport agree on this: when Michigan hired him, he would have been the top available candidate for virtually any school that had an opening. Texas, USC, Florida—they all would have had interest in Harbaugh. You can’t say the same about Howard.
The Harbaughs of this recruiting cycle were never coming to Michigan. Brad Stevens, Jay Wright, Billy Donovan—there was never a chance. And after those guys, everybody came with risk. Some of the risks with Howard are obvious, and some are harder to see but they’re still there. The man he replaces, John Beilein, did a magnificent job of recruiting students who belonged at Michigan and winning with them. Beilein generally only lost players in the middle of their college careers for two reasons: they left early for the NBA, or they weren’t good enough to play for him. His players almost all succeeded academically and socially. Howard is supposed to maintain all of that while learning on the job. It’s a big ask.
If I were the Michigan athletic director (and mercifully for all involved, I am not) I would have hired Butler’s LaVall Jordan, a former assistant of Beilein. He has the smarts, the understanding of the university and the familiarity with how Beilein ran his program. Jordan has the ability to relate to a variety of players and is competitive enough to push them, and to make the tough decisions a head coach needs to make. Jordan’s résumé is undeniably thin. He has been to one NCAA tournament in three years as a head coach (two at Butler). The risk in hiring him is that he would not quickly grow into the job.
Howard is a bigger name and a more exciting hire. But he also comes with a lot more risk. If you trust that Howard will bring the integrity and public image that Michigan values, two factors will probably determine his success.
The first is that Howard needs to hire the right staff. Beilein assistants Saddi Washington, Luke Yaklich and DeAndre Haynes are all excellent coaches, and Howard would be wise to try to keep at least one or two of them. The bigger the transition, the more important the staff—and this transition is huge.
The other factor is this: Howard needs to really love being a college basketball coach. He knows he loves basketball. He knows he loves coaching. But he does not yet know for sure that he loves being a head college basketball coach. He doesn’t know because he hasn’t done it.
There are a lot of people who want Howard to succeed. That will be determined, in part, by how it feels when he wakes up every morning, looks at the clock, and realizes it’s time to get to work.