I had considerable doubts when I heard Juwan Howard was emerging as the frontrunner to replace John Beilein last spring.
Beilein was a proven head coach, 37 years of experience on the sideline. A gentleman that had won the right way, leading Michigan to success we hadn't seen in two decades: two Final Four appearances (both runner-up finishes), four Big Ten titles (two regular and two conference tournament championships), nine NCAA Tournament appearances, including four straight upon his departure.
Howard was a coaching novice. A man that had spent six years an assistant with the Miami Heat but had never before stepped into a high school recruit's living room. He had never had to establish a program philosophy, an offensive game plan and a defensive identity. He had never had to even decide when to take a timeout to stop an opponent's scoring run.
Howard had a name. He had an NBA resume. He had passion and flair, and he had the support of some big-name superstars, like Dwayne Wade and LeBron James, but after what Beilein had done at Michigan, U-M was no longer a proving ground for first-time coaches. It demanded more. It felt like it should have been a destination job for high-profile coaches, not a sandbox for a rookie learning how to coach.
From the moment he signed on the dotted line, however, Howard has done everything I could have asked for as a fan:
• He won the press conference with an emotional, tear-filled speech in which he discussed how badly he wanted to be Michigan's head coach.
• He retained assistant Saddi Washington, a key link to the returning team and a strong recruiter.
• He hired long-time St. Joe's boss Phil Martelli to be his righthand man, his experienced, savvy bench coach that Howard could lean on as he created a program in his own likeness and, more importantly, could offer real-time feedback in-game as Howard learned the nuances of strategy.
• He reaffirmed a commitment from four-star point guard Zeb Jackson and landed a commitment from five-star Isaiah Todd.
• He won his first four games, including a tricky home matchup with Creighton.
• He turned his senior point guard, Zavier Simpson, loose, instilled even more confidence in senior big man Jon Teske and junior wing Isaiah Livers, and has created a system, style of play and motivational energy that has allowed junior guard Eli Brooks and sophomore guard David DeJulius to flourish.
He's also developing the games, often with a trial-by-fire approach, of sophomore bigs Brandon Johns Jr. and Colin Castleton.
• In the Battle for Atlantis, he made his first big lineup decision when he decided to insert freshman Franz Wagner in at the three for sophomore Adrien Nunez, maybe not a controversial decision, but still he was adding a new mix to a starting five that had found its groove.
• He pushed all the right buttons to lead Michigan to a win over Iowa State in the opening game of this weekend's Thanksgiving tournament, an unexpected upset of No. 6 North Carolina in the semifinals in a game in which the Wolverines thoroughly dominated the Tar Heels (holding at one time holding a 24-point lead).
And then when everything was gravy, he didn't settle for second, held his team to a higher standard and led U-M to an 82-64 victory over No. 8 Gonzaga in the finals, capturing the first hardware for the Maize and Blue this year.
After the game, being interviewed, emotion flowing - and being told he would coach on a Monday in April (the weekday of the national title game) - Howard won again, expressing his love for Michigan fans and his players and the job he has. Any unsigned recruit in the Class of 2020 couldn't watch that and not want to play for Howard.
Howard is winning with class. He's winning with energy. He's winning games he wasn't supposed to win, by margins that raise eyebrows. He's beating really good teams sooner than anyone thought possible. And he's doing it his way.
He's doing it with an up-tempo, high-scoring offense (82.4 points per game) that ranks second nationally in effective field-goal percentage (61.4) per KenPom.com and is 11th nationally in making 42.4 percent of their threes. He's also winning with defense, Michigan ranking ninth in the country per KenPom in adjusted defensive efficiency.
He's winning and he's winning and he's winning, 7-0 to start the season, three wins over Top 50 teams and a fourth over a Top 100 team. He should be rewarded with the Maize and Blue in the Top 10 when polls come out Monday (just in time for a matchup with No. 2 Louisville on Tuesday).
Everyone expected that Howard could recruit, and that Howard would be a great ambassador for the Michigan program. No one knew if he could coach.
Over the last three days, he's outcoached a trio - Iowa State's Steve Prohm, North Carolina's Roy Williams, and Gonzaga's Mark Few -- that have 62 combined seasons as head coaches, have 53 NCAA Tournament appearances, made 29 Sweet 16s, qualified for 10 Final Fours, won three NCAA titles and have a combined 1,645 wins.
Important goals this season remain, and all Michigan fans would love to see this level of success continue, with victories over Michigan State, Maryland and Ohio State, a conference banner of some sort going up, a second weekend of NCAA Tournament action. Wolverines everywhere are dreaming big. Thanks to Howard.
I was skeptical May 22 when he took to the podium for the first time in maize and blue, but in six months, he's already won me over.