Ethan Sears: Warde Manuel gambled on Juwan Howard. Thursday proved why it was the right move

Thursday, May 30, 2019 - 9:52pm

Athletic director Warde Manuel is confident in Juwan Howard's pedigree.

Athletic director Warde Manuel is confident in Juwan Howard's pedigree. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Warde Manuel spoke directly, with certainty and confidence.

“We looked at many,” Manuel said. “Broad scope. I stand here today with my choice.”

Before Juwan Howard had stepped to the podium as Michigan’s new basketball coach and before a question had been asked, Manuel answered the day’s biggest one. Since John Beilein left, a coaching search unfolded and ended last week with Howard, there has been a not-so subtle implication of nepotism that has come with the discussion of Howard.

Howard has the requisite qualifications, it starts, but would he be in this position if not for his association with the Fab Five? Manuel, who has never had a hiring of this magnitude in his hands completely, must be under pressure from donors. From regents. From Jalen Rose and Chris Webber; LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

The athletic director acknowledged as much seconds later, noting Howard’s resonance with the university, its fans and its donors.

But, outside pressures being as they may, this decision was Manuel’s to make. His choice. His gamble.

“There’s a whole lot of bunch of adjectives like that, that have already been used, and that’s fine,” Manuel said. “If I’m gonna take a risk for somebody, they’ll see why I took the risk and the gamble — and all the things you all say about what could possibly happen — with Juwan Howard.”

To be clear, it is a gamble and it does run a risk of failure. So would any other. That is beside the point.

Beilein left the Wolverines with little warning in mid-May — when the coaching carousel had already slowed. The candidate pool, inherently, was thinner than it might have been a month or two earlier. And, even if Manuel had his pick of the lot, it would be impossible to hire another Beilein.

The best coach in the history of the program doesn’t come around often. Particularly not when that coach is Beilein, who ran things in a way unique throughout college basketball.

Howard hasn’t been in college basketball. He isn’t familiar with a world where a slip of the tongue can be a recruiting violation, and admitted as much on Thursday. Even without his ties to the Fab Five, the likelihood that he recruits programs like Mac Irvin Fire, the way his name alone makes heads turn — that makes him inherently antithetical to Beilein.

And that is fine.

Juwan Howard isn’t here to build on John Beilein’s legacy. He’s here to make his own. There are no shortage of basketball reasons to think he can.

Howard comes with endorsements from Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, two names that should carry more weight than his former teammates. He succeeded as an assistant in Miami, unequivocally so. The Heat won titles when they had the requisite talent, and outperformed expectation anyway when they didn’t. Howard was a repeated candidate for NBA job openings for a reason — he’s developed a well-earned reputation as a good basketball mind, and someone who connects with players.

There’s also the intangible — which was on full display Thursday when Howard stepped to the podium and wiped tears from his eyes, needing to gather himself before he started speaking.

Yes, it’s concerning that it may take some time for Howard to get a grasp on the NCAA’s rulebook. And yes, it should raise eyebrows that he answered a question about his basketball philosophy with, “Well, it remains to be seen, fellas, right?”

The rest of his answer, though, speaks to the qualities that got him hired.

“But I can tell you this,” Howard said. “One thing about me, I’m humble. And I don’t have all the answers. We’re gonna try to figure out solutions together. … Players have to be active participants in finding solutions. We will create this identity together. And we will have fun doing it, too.”

All that — the emotion and the attitude, the acknowledgements that he isn’t perfect and the willingness to work on it — makes it believable that Howard will put in the hours to fill the gaps. This is no reunion tour or nostalgia trip, nice as those side benefits may be. Howard was hired because Warde Manuel thinks he can win basketball games, first and foremost.

But don’t get it wrong. This is Manuel’s gamble. The right gamble.