Though he’d never coached college basketball before, Howard Eisley’s decision to join the Michigan men’s basketball program as an assistant coach this summer was a homecoming of sorts.
Thirty years ago, Eisley attended high school at Detroit Southwestern, less than 40 miles from his new office at Crisler Center. He competed in a regional AAU tournament during his junior year in 1989, where he played alongside a fellow 17-year-old by the name of Juwan Howard.
They remained friends after the tournament but went their separate ways for college, as Howard joined the historic Fab Five at Michigan and Eisley landed on the East Coast with Boston College.
Eisley and Howard maintained a close relationship over the next three decades as their NBA playing and coaching careers blossomed, and even spent a season together on the Dallas Mavericks in 2000-01.
“Our lives have always been intertwined,” Eisley said. “… We’ve always been close. I don’t even know how we’ve always been that way, it just has been. We always got along seamlessly, it was very easy. It wasn’t like anything forced, we just stayed in contact and communicated.”
So when Howard offered Eisley a position on his staff over the summer, there wasn’t much hesitation before a formal acceptance. Eisley, who works with the team’s guards, called the choice “easy,” adding that they’d previously discussed the idea of coaching together. Eisley recalled that whenever the conversation shifted towards college, Howard reminded him there was only one job in the nation he’d ever consider.
Now, that job is his. And his longtime friend is on board.
Eisley and Howard bring a combined 46 years of NBA experience to the Wolverines’ staff, 15 of which came in coaching. After a 12-year professional playing career, Eisley spent four years as a player development assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers and five years as an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks, while Howard played 19 seasons before joining the Miami Heat’s staff for another six.
“(Eisley is a) very knowledgeable guy who’s embraced the opportunity of the college level, who’s been on the NBA level for a very long time,” Howard said. “Our guys have taken to him very well, this staff has learned a lot from his philosophy. Our group (of assistants) is very dynamic and very diverse in many ways.”
But for all that professional experience, neither coach has been around the college game since they were players in the early 1990s. When Eisley was tested on recruiting regulations after his hiring, he joked it was the first exam he’d taken in 30 years.
“It’s almost like I’m going back to college,” Eisley said. “Being here in this environment, talking about school … I’m embracing being back in college almost, so it’s good.”
If Eisley thought taking an exam on the recruiting handbook was like going back to college, he has a lot to learn from first-year associate head coach Phil Martelli. After spending the last 34 years coaching at St. Joseph’s, Martelli has the necessary experience to mentor his own staff.
If anything, the discrepancy in college coaching experience on the Wolverines’ staff adds perspective. With no college experience yet, there’s a good chance Eisley and Howard may instinctively see things through an NBA lens.
Given the climate of today’s one-and-done era and the caliber of prospects Howard has recruited so far, perhaps a wealth of NBA experience is the perfect complement to the philosophies of purely college minds like Martelli and Saddi Washington — the lone holdover from John Beilein’s tenure, who has 15 years of college coaching experience himself.
For Eisley and Howard’s reunion — and this staff as a whole — to succeed, it’s a marriage that must work out.