Juwan Howard, a former member of the prized Fab Five edition of the Michigan Wolverines, had been linked to the program’s head coach opening since the moment John Beilein bolted for the Cleveland Cavaliers. On the surface, it appeared as though it would be a name-brand hire for the sake of familiarity, but it goes beyond that.
It’s late May. Most hot mid-major coaches have been scooped up, promising assistants poached, and there were few options for the Wolverines to replace one of the best minds in all of the sport. Those circumstances aren’t why Howard’s name emerged as a serious candidate, though it adds context to a muddied picture.
In a perfect world, Beilein would never leave the program for a poorly run NBA franchise. Then again, life isn’t perfect. Still, at the very least, Michigan could have — theoretically, at worst — benefited from a better timed exit. People will forever argue if there’s an actual correct time for a person to leave one place of employment for another, but it’s difficult to ignore the logistics presented given Beilein left after a large collection of potential candidates all found new homes.
That’s a symptom of the current problem the Michigan Wolverines face. The solution was within arm’s length.
Nepotism, familiarity, consistency, however you’d prefer to describe it, is usually the wrong way to go about deciding head coaches. College basketball isn’t the perfect meritocracy, although it’d be nice to believe schools first look to merit instead of brethren while making such an important decision such as hiring a new head coach.
Regardless how you feel about that, the results of asking a former legend to come home are mixed.
Chris Mullin is a name that immediately jumps to mind. A St. John’s Red Storm living legend who was asked to do the impossible, without experience, inevitably shown the door for failing to live up to a new regime’s standards that had no reason to be as loyal to him as he was to the university.
To be fair, it would be negligent not to mention the successes, even if they’re appearing in real-time and aren’t yet fully formed. Nevertheless, Penny Hardaway pops out as someone who returned to his former stomping grounds, using his roots and accolades to earn tremendous success — at least on the recruiting trail.
Howard is neither of those legends. He’s closer to Patrick Ewing, another former collegiate great who returned to his former school, as the two bring legitimate coaching experience to the table. The value of being an assistant in the NBA, relative to overseeing a college basketball program, is impossible to define. There are others, but we’re still working from minuscule sample sizes.
That’s not where Howard’s inherent value comes from, however. His experience in the NBA needs to be coupled with his name, association to Michigan basketball, as well as the idea the man hired to replace Beilein isn’t only being asked to continue previous greatness, but to stabilize the program by acting as one of the school’s own.
There is sincere value in that.
Beilein is whoever you want him to be at this point. He’s either college basketball’s martyr or the man who left a school without much notice, shoehorning it into a nearly impossible spot. Fans, alum and future players, with the latter being more important than the rest, need to believe whoever is next in charge of the Michigan Wolverines has their best interests at heart.
Trust should be gained, not given, but it would be futile to ignore how the hiring “one of their own” is being perceived. Maybe not a shot across the bow at non-Michigan coaches, or specifically the one who just left the Wolverines, yet the impact should be felt by those on the recruiting trail as much as people hurt by Beilein’s exit in the first place.
Juwan Howard, experience and all, is the Michigan Wolverines. Truly, the best of it, bringing with him the ringing endorsements of former teammates who are as important to the brand as he is. A shining example of the school’s greatest, most infamous time in college basketball.
There’s the daunting task of landing a man who seems destined to be a head coach in the NBA. Then, if/when the time comes, preventing the loss of yet another head coach to the professional ranks following success. But those are first-class problems to have. The sort 99 percent of the programs in college basketball would love to have.
College basketball is changing. For every micromanaged program in the country, there’s as player-friendly alternative available for top high school talents. Under Beilein, who evolved with the times, Michigan adapted and adjusted each time the sport morphed into something different. Now, the Wolverines need pivot themselves.
Other names rumored for the job were all solid, if not spectacular candidates. Hiring any of them wouldn’t mean certain failure loomed around the corner. Sometimes, however, there’s no reason to overthink the obvious.
The risk of hiring a new head coach is about the wins and losses that follow, regardless if s/he is one of your own or not. The reward with Howard, though, could be something special. A continued growth of greatness with one of their own, making the transition from a program contingent upon outsiders for success, to one with a brand larger than the one person running it.
Program brand is what differentiates the Kansas Jayhawks from one such as the Connecticut Huskies. In the short view, it doesn’t matter the reason for the success as long as it’s there. As time goes on, and as we’re still trying to figure out exactly what UConn is in 2019, those schools bigger than the coaches overseeing their programs will remain competitive forever even if they make mistakes along the way.
Juwan Howard is as much the Michigan Wolverines as anyone who has belonged to the program, but he’s not bigger than it. He wouldn’t want to be. It’s a large reason why, coupled with everything previously mentioned, he’s the right choice by the program.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared on Forbes, but has been republished under the original author’s name at CBBToday thanks to the publisher-contributor agreement. Small edits were made to reflect the hiring of Juwan Howard by the Michigan Wolverines.
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade at various outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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