Why Juwan Howard's Hiring Signals a New Identity for Michigan Basketball

Caleb Friedman

It’s not all that often that a top-tier college basketball program flips its identity in late May, but here we are. Michigan will transition from John Beilein to Juwan Howard, marking a shift from a coach with 40 years of college coaching experience to someone who hasn’t ever coached in college and hasn’t been a head coach at any level (no, NBA Summer League doesn’t count.)

The decision to hire Howard, made by fourth-year AD Warde Manuel, signals a profound shift for a Michigan program that’s been winning at an elite level. In choosing Howard, Manuel—who originally said he wanted to hire someone with experience as a head coach—has made a culture choice as much as an X’s and O’s one. Howard, you may have heard, was part of the Fab Five, an iconic collection of talent that’s had a tenuous relationship with the university—and, to a degree, with each other—ever since recruiting violations and NCAA sanctions stained the program. By hiring Howard, Manuel is embracing the Fab Five and betting on Howard to reinvigorate Michigan with the lessons he learned under Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra with the NBA's Miami Heat. He’s also betting on Howard to turn Michigan into the next Memphis when it comes to recruiting.

In the same way Penny Hardaway has plundered the recruiting trail with Memphis this cycle, Howard will speak to recruits with NBA cachet and the genuineness that comes with coaching at your alma mater. In the past few days alone, Howard’s ex-NBA teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have championed his head-coaching candidacy. At some point, James and Wade’s sons will be coveted prospects. Howard may not have any direct recruiting experience, but he’s been around AAU for years through his sons. ESPN’s Jalen Rose, Howard’s Fab Five teammate, expects Howard’s grassroots ties and NBA relationships to elevate Michigan from good to great on the recruiting trail.

“The one thing [Beilein] did not do, and it was a different style of recruiting, is recruit McDonald’s All-Americans,” Rose said on ESPN’s Get Up! while advocating for Howard to get the job. “In [Beilein’s] entire tenure there, we had a grand total of zero get recruited to the University of Michigan. I think Juwan Howard is the guy who could bring that back, who would be a terrific head coach, who would be terrific at developing young talent. He wouldn’t take no mess off of the players. He would own the Michigan market.”

There have been plenty of coaches with NBA backgrounds that haven’t made the same recruiting waves Hardaway has this offseason—and Hardaway hasn’t even proved his on-court coaching chops yet. Chris Mullin and Avery Johnson flamed out at St. John’s and Alabama, and Georgetown is still a work in progress under Patrick Ewing. The difference with Howard, though, is that Michigan is in a class above those other programs in terms of recent success. Howard takes over for a program coming off two national championship appearances, an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s in the past seven years under Beilein. Howard comes into the job with win-now expectations, but also with the infrastructure and some of the roster pieces that will make winning easier in the near-future.

To be sure, Howard is qualified for the job beyond just his legendary alumni status, having spent the past seven seasons as a Heat assistant. He’s been on the cusp of getting NBA jobs. His lack of college credentials means he’ll need to build a capable staff of assistants to fill his experience gaps in the college game, which will be more difficult to do if defensive ace and Beilein assistant Luke Yaklich leaves to join Shaka Smart’s staff at Texas (like some expect him to). Saddi Washington and DeAndre Haynes, who also served as assistants on Beilein’s staff, would reportedly be open to returning if offered assistant jobs under Howard.

The basketball minutia of assistant coach hiring, game-planning and scouting will determine a major chunk of Howard’s on-court success, and those things will sort themselves out in the future. Right now, there’s no way to know how good a coach Howard will be. What we do know is Howard will chart a path that diverges from Beilein’s, and that shift is particularly notable because it comes at a top-20 program. New coaching hires talk about “culture” so much it’s laughable, but for Howard, the word truly applies.

Michigan, as both a school and a basketball program, distanced itself from the Fab Five after the Ed Martin recruiting scandal prompted sanctions and formal disassociations, notably from Howard’s star teammate Chris Webber. Jalen Rose said the hiring of Howard will mend the broken relationship between the Fab Five and the school, as well as strained friendships within the Fab Five, chiefly between Rose and Webber. Rose also said a “tsunami” of former players will return to campus and support the program, which hasn’t really happened under Beilein. Alumni support won’t win Michigan games, but it could help to an extent in recruiting. It certainly won’t hurt.

Replacing the winningest coach in school history was always going to be a highly difficult proposition for Michigan, especially this late in the process when most coaching hires have already been made. Manuel opted for a high-risk, high-reward swing on a first-time head coach, bypassing the potential continuity that would’ve come with promoting one of Beilein’s assistants. Time will tell whether Howard will validate Rose’s praise and Manuel’s decision, and ultimately winning will tell.

For now, just let this sink in: one of the Big Ten’s premier programs just replaced a 66-year-old career college coach with a 46-year-old with an NBA-only résumé. Maybe more notably, someone from the Fab Five will coach Michigan next season.

So much for “We sleep in May.”