What is Juwan Howard’s head coaching philosophy?
Surely, the answer he gave at his introduction as the head coach of the Michigan men’s basketball team — “it remains to be seen” — couldn’t have inspired confidence among Wolverine fans. How can someone taking over for the greatest coach in school history not know his own coaching philosophy?
Paradoxically, what might reassure those fans is that the man who hired Howard doesn’t know, either.
Warde Manuel is Michigan’s athletic director, not a coach. He said it verbatim during Thursday’s press conference. To Manuel, the X’s and O’s of winning basketball games are foreign.
“But what I do know is people,” Manuel said.
“What I wanted to hear is what I heard. I care about (players) as people first. I want them to be great students and great athletes. (Howard’s) competitive. He wants to win because they want to win.”
Thursday, that conviction allowed Manuel to shoot down all concerns about Howard’s inexperience — six years as a NBA assistant, and with no head or college coaching experience at all — and lack of a true coaching style.
This isn’t to say that Manuel denied the existence of those concerns. To him, they aren’t concerns at all.
“In my mind, it wasn’t a risk I’m taking,” Manuel said. “ … Doesn’t have the experience, but … I’m going to gamble with people who love this place the way he does.”
Howard’s love for his alma mater, which brought him to tears during his introduction, dominated not only the presser, but the scene in Michigan’s locker room beforehand. He expounded upon the tradition of Wolverine basketball and hugged each of his players, according to sophomore guard Adrien Nunez.
“He’s just really personable,” Nunez said. “He talks the way we talk. He’s been a player here, so he knows South Quad, West Quad, State Street, he’s hip to our everyday life.”
That relatability is a coaching philosophy itself. Some coaches fashion themselves as disciplinarians, molding boys into men. Others have a more down-to-earth, accomodating persona. Already, it’s clear that Howard — born and raised in inner-city Chicago — is the latter: someone with tremendous insight into not just basketball, but the off-the-court challenges of a college athlete.
“We didn’t really talk about Xs and Os,” said junior forward Isaiah Livers. “I’m curious, we’re all curious … but I’m not worried.”
Neither is anyone else who spoke Thursday.
In his opening remarks, Howard admitted he once didn’t like coaching, but as an intelligent and hardworking player, he “always was a coach on the floor.” As a result, he soon realized coaching was his calling, and became an assistant coach with the Miami Heat the second he retired.
Howard grew a reputation as one of the NBA’s brightest defensive minds in his six years with the Heat, an organization and culture regarded as one of the best in the league. He coached and received ringing endorsements from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and learned from Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra. His name constantly found its way onto shortlists for available NBA jobs.
Howard may not have a ready-made direction or strategic philosophy. His background does nothing to suggest he won’t develop one.
“You gotta start somewhere, don’t you?” Howard said. “There are gonna be some moments where you’re not gonna always get it right. I have that growth mindset where I always look to find the answers to help grow.”
Added Manuel: “Let him develop into a head coach of his own. That’s what I’m gonna do. Support him, answer questions, put people around him and let him evolve.”
Obviously, Michigan’s previous coach needed no such evolution when he arrived. John Beilein rose up the coaching ranks from junior varsity to Division I and came to Ann Arbor with a Ph.D in basketball and a style all his own.
It’s easy to look at the last 12 years of Wolverine basketball and take a legendary coaching mind for granted. But Beilein, of course, once had the same level of experience Howard has now. The obvious difference being that his evolution into a future Hall-of-Famer took place in rural New York, not the Big Ten.
Howard will make rookie mistakes. Those mistakes will be on display for a nation to see. And his coaching style will evolve for the nation to see as well.
He and his players are prepared for that.
“We’re gonna try to figure out solutions together,” Howard said. “My staff, the players have to be active participants in finding the solutions. We will create this identity together, and we will have fun doing it.”