On Monday, Michigan coach Juwan Howard sat at the front of four rectangular tables, pieced together to form a square. He invited Michigan basketball beat writers from around the area for lunch, his first interaction with media since his introductory press conference a month ago, hoping to break the ice well ahead of the season. Taking only a couple bites from his sandwich the entire time, he fielded questions, slightly reserved at first but opening up about his kids, favorite sports, and first impressions. Some questions he struggled to address during his introduction came back into light, and this time, he gave more concrete answers.
After giving a somewhat ambiguous answer regarding his recruiting philosophy in May, claiming that he had no strategy planned out then, Howard has made a splash in the recruiting scene — of his nine offers thus far, seven have been to five-star recruits. And for the most part, they haven’t stepped foot onto campus yet, a stark contrast from John Beilein, who never offered players until they visited Ann Arbor.
But with no head coaching experience and little to show on tape as a result, Howard is keeping his sales pitch close to the vest.
“I don’t wanna give everybody out there our style of play,” Howard said. “You guys have a job to do and one thing I say is going to go running. And I have a lot of competition out there and I got a lot of competition that’s basically saying, ‘Hey, this guy has never coached before’ or ‘This is their style so do you wanna go there?’ I’d rather bring them to campus, show them the film, and maybe see a practice or workout, and then we’ll go from there.”
His name and pedigree as a player and assistant coach with the Miami Heat have gotten the Wolverines in the doors with recruits Beilein might have never even considered.
His greatest selling point? Family.
Howard often described his teammates from his Fab Five times as his brothers. Overwhelmed by emotion at his introduction, reminiscing over his days as an athlete, he emphasized bringing that same love and brotherhood back to Michigan basketball.
He’s already showing his commitment to the concept of family with his incoming freshmen, guard Franz Wagner and wing Cole Bajema.
Wagner committed to Michigan earlier in July without ever having met Howard. Representing Germany in the FIBA Under-18 European Championship, he’s been missing team workouts. But this weekend, Howard is finally getting a chance to meet his coveted freshman.
“(I’ve met him) via Facetime,” Howard said. “Flying there to go watch him play on the 27th. So I’ll be there the 27th, 28th, 29th to watch him in person just to let him know that family is coming to support him. Because we’re family, he’s a part of my family.”
Not only is he traveling to Greece to watch Wagner but the team’s workouts this summer are centered around Bajema’s schedule, who’s currently part of the Summer Bridge Scholars Program at Michigan, which allows him to enroll in and complete three classes for credit before the fall of his freshman year.
“I do not want Cole to be isolated, where we workout in the morning and then Cole is busy with the Bridge Program and he doesn’t get a chance to work out and interact with his teammates or coaches,” Howard said. “We could work him out individually and the players can have their own workout in the afternoon, but it’s unfair to an incoming freshman.
“We’re talking about brotherhood, family and building a connection. I do it when Cole is available and we all can be participating.”
The veterans are starting to buy into Howard’s culture as well — an adjustment for players like Zavier Simpson, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske who were very comfortable with the way Beilein operated. But just like the players are learning Howard, he is also learning them.
“(Simpson’s) been an extension of the coaching staff and why I say that is because his leadership, his work ethic is off the charts,” Howard said. “I do not know how the message delivered but I heard he was doing three-a-days which I respect to him. That shows that he’s committed, he wants to get better… So this summer, I had a meeting with him about ‘You have the best work ethic. You can work hard, but the key is to work smart. Three-a-days is not what we’re looking for, it’s not good for your body.’
“You know, I looked at him and he gave me that look, thought he was about to chew my head off. But he’s been phenomenal, man. Wish I had him more than one year, he’s a coach’s dream.”
This is just the beginning for Howard, who continues to get acclimated to his new job while putting his methods up for trial-and-error as a first-year head coach. But for how much Howard has been doing in his first two months, he doesn’t just have a start.
He’s hit the ground running.