The news was as shocking as it was sudden. John Beilien, who last year signed what was described by some as a lifetime contract to remain at the University of Michigan, was out as head coach, leaving the Wolverines for the not-so-greener pastures of the NBA. With Beilein’s departure, Athletic Director Warde Manuel was suddenly faced with his biggest challenge to date: Replacing the best basketball coach ever to call Ann Arbor home.
The Detroit Free Press reported that Manuel had a “short list” of potential candidates for just such an emergency. But who was on that short list? Fans and pundits alike speculated. One name that wasn’t prominently mentioned, at least not in the immediate aftermath, was former Wolverine and 19-year NBA veteran Juwan Howard. But as the days passed, Howard’s name came up with more and more frequency, until it became clear it was Howard’s job to lose (or turn down). By the time Howard was officially named Michigan’s coach, it was a surprise to nobody.
But was it a good hire? Coming off a ten-year run that included multiple Big Ten championships and Final Four appearances, shouldn’t Michigan have been in a position to hire someone with a proven record of success? Didn’t Yahoo Sports’s Dan Wetzel say just last week that Michigan is one of the most desirable coaching jobs in all of basketball and that there would be no lack of qualified candidates from which to select? Surely, Michigan should have been able to hire an established coach?
It’s not that Howard isn’t qualified to lead the Wolverines. By all accounts, Howard is a highly respected NBA assistant and has been a person of interest in several NBA coaching searches over the past two off-seasons. But he’s also never been a head coach. Nor has he ever coached at the college level. It was Manuel himself who said during the early stages of the search that he preferred a proven coach, “someone with a track record as a head coach.” Why then, did Manuel settle on someone with no head coaching experience?
According to reports, Manuel explored several high-profile coaches, but when the smoke cleared, other than Howard, the only serious candidates appeared to be current and former Beilien assistants, and depending on who you believe, Providence’s Ed Cooley and Texas’s Shaka Smart. Given these options, even fresh off what was arguably the best ten-year run in Michigan basketball history, Michigan’s best move was to roll the dice on Howard, first time head coach or not.
That’s because despite Howard’s lack of head coaching experience, he’s not inexperienced. Howard has been compared to a number of former NCAA stars who recently took over college basketball programs, most of whom have struggled. The thought being that greatness on the court does not necessarily translate to greatness on the bench. Howard’s situation is different, however. He has the coaching chops that most of those he’s compared to lacked.
Howard spent the last six years as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, where he has ascended rapidly, quickly become one of the most respected assistants in the league. During his time with the Heat, Howard has been lauded for his ability to connect with and develop players. He’s also been credited with serving as the Heat’s de facto defensive coordinator. All qualities that translate well to the college game.
That’s not to say there aren’t significant risks. What is Howard’s offensive philosophy? How will he be at game planning? Can he recruit? These unanswered questions - critical questions - make Howard a risky choice, to be sure. But it would be a gamble with any coach, even one with head coaching experience.
Howard can mitigate some of this risk by assembling a strong team of assistant coaches. The Athletic’s Brandon Quinn reported that Howard is exploring the possibility of adding an experienced coach to his staff, possibly one with head coaching experience. There’s also the possibility that Howard retains at least some of Beilein’s staff, to maintain continuity. Both moves would serve him well.
While much of the Michigan fan base is excitedly welcoming Howard’s return to Ann Arbor, there is a faction that’s bemoaning the decision, disappointed that a “home run” hire never materialized. But a “home run” hire was always a long shot, and even that wouldn’t have been a guarantee of future success. The simple fact is, Howard was the best candidate available.
Only time will tell if Manuel’s and Michigan’s gamble will be pay off, but there are many reasons to believe it will.