Teddy Gutkin: Juwan Howard is built for this. Just ask the people that have been in his shoes.
During media availability on Nov. 18, Michigan men’s basketball assistant coach Phil Martelli made a prediction about head coach Juwan Howard:
“He will coach a national champion before he leaves Michigan.”
Lofty expectations, undoubtedly. But entering his second season at the helm for the Wolverines, Howard has made his presence felt. After leading Michigan to a 19-12 regular season finish in his first campaign before COVID-19 hit and bringing in the Big Ten’s top incoming freshman class in 2020, Howard’s quick ascent has come as a surprise to many.
His predecessor John Beilein, however, is not in that group. He and Howard had chatted on several occasions over the past five or six years about basketball and Michigan’s team culture — long before Beilein left Ann Arbor to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers and Howard filled his place. When Beilein accepted the position, Howard flew down to Cleveland to speak with the program’s all-time wins leader for guidance.
“His personality is just outstanding,” Beilein told The Daily. “He instantly forms good relationships with people, and he also gets it. He understands the dynamic of a team, and that’s what he’s putting together here at Michigan. I follow the recruiting somewhat, but I do know the guys he has here now, and the guys he’s bringing in, we have similar values on what’s best for the Michigan basketball program.”
Once Howard officially began his tenure as Michigan’s head coach, he hit the ground running, winning the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament with victories over top-ten teams North Carolina and Gonzaga. While the team found itself in rough patches throughout the season after then-junior forward Isaiah Livers missed time with an injury, Howard served as a calming and stabilizing figure for his players. To Howard, being a head coach wasn’t simply about building a team on the court, it was about building a family off of it as well.
When they met for the first time, Martelli asked Howard what he wanted his recruiting philosophy to be. Would they search for the top names or try to find diamonds in the rough?
“This will be about family," Howard responded. “We will study the players’ families, we will study the players, we will study the fit.”
“I think knowing what he is about and therefore knowing what Michigan is about and what Michigan provided Juwan, that has stayed true in the recruiting,” Martelli said.
Howard’s care for everyone in his program is evident any time he interacts with his players. Martelli, who has 444 career head coaching wins of his own at St. Joseph’s, recalls that he once saw Howard spending five minutes going over defensive maneuvers with two of his walk-ons.
“I told him, ‘That kind of attention and that kind of care is what leaves me with no doubt that you’re going to be extraordinary at this,’ ” Martelli said.
While looking for players who fit his image and culture to join his basketball family, Howard has, at the same time, managed to bring in some of the top prospects in the nation. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson was the 42nd-ranked recruit in 2020, per 247Sports. Next year, Howard will welcome the top-ranked 2021 recruiting class headlined by five-star forwards Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate. And yet, despite the glamorous appeal of star ratings, Howard’s emphasis on character remains constant.
“He understands what it takes,” Beilein said. “He gets this part of it where people who just go off rankings, and that’s how they recruit, will be very disappointed. You look at the Duncan Robinsons and the Caris LeVerts, that should tell everybody what ratings mean to you, what ratings are all about. Juwan understands that, and I think both of us had the same philosophy. “We’re not not gonna recruit high level guys, but again we don’t care who we don’t get, we care who we get. And so you just find guys that want Michigan and are all about the team.”
As his second season commences, Howard has lofty goals and expectations for himself and his team, looking to win a Big Ten championship — something that eluded him during his playing career — and compete for a national championship. Whether or not either will happen this year, Beilein believes that Howard is equipped in every way to accomplish his goals and lead the Wolverines back to the promised land once again.
It takes cunning salesmanship to recruit the nation’s top athletes. It takes an even better basketball mind to cultivate that talent into wins on the court. But with both, Howard has everything that a program could want in its leader. The faces who make up his team are all of equal importance, whether it be a star player like sophomore forward Franz Wagner or a student manager.
“There’s no question that Michigan will compete for Big Ten championships, and when you’re competing for Big Ten championships you’re competing for a national championship,” Beilein said. “I don’t wanna say that winning a championship is the only goal, it's to be the best team you can be. And Juwan will do that and a championship might result in it.”
Howard isn’t simply building a contender in Ann Arbor, he’s building a family. And that, more than anything, shows he’s ready to deliver Michigan its second national title.
Gutkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @teddygutkin.
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