Through an open door policy, Juwan Howard aims to shape Michigan’s culture

Monday, February 24, 2020 - 8:03pm

Michigan coach Juwan Howard has an open-door policy for his players.

Michigan coach Juwan Howard has an open-door policy for his players. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

Juwan Howard’s new job came with a new office.

As the calendar flipped to June 2019, he began moving cardboard boxes en masse into an office left vacant by former Michigan coach John Beilein’s abrupt exit a month earlier. Arms full, he walked down the second-floor corridor of the Player Development Center, hauling them beyond the team film lounge, resource room and assistant coaches’ offices.

He carried them past every door until reaching the last one on the left, which opens to a corner office. The process of unpacking still isn’t finished, but nine months after his hiring, everything about the room has taken on a personal complexion.

That is, everything but the desk.

It’s the same wooden desk Beilein used, with one small modification. At 6-foot-9, Howard stands nearly a foot taller than his predecessor. His knees didn’t comfortably fit beneath the desk, so he ordered a set of two-inch risers for the bottom.

Even still, Howard’s own bobblehead — usually perched on the edge of the desk — violently nods when his knees inadvertently jostle the underside. The desk chair was a tight squeeze, too, so he bought a bigger one.

Behind the desk, the back wall is glazed with framed pictures of Howard and the Fab Five. His wife, Jenine, ordered the photos. The collection includes a brush painting of Steve Fisher, Howard’s college coach from three decades ago.

It’s fitting that the corner office has undergone a makeover comparable to that of the program itself. After spending 25 years around the NBA — 19 as a player and six as a coach — Howard has implemented a pro-style system at Michigan. On the recruiting trail, he’s assembling a level of talent Ann Arbor hasn’t seen since, well, his own Fab Five.

And now, whenever a player walks down that corridor, the last door on the left is open. Sometimes literally. Always figuratively.

It’s the reason you can’t understand the Wolverines’ surge on the court without understanding what’s happening off it. In just nine months, a culture has taken shape — one that starts with the man sitting behind the desk on two-inch risers.

“I feel good about the fact that communication is important,” Howard told The Daily on Feb. 3. “I never want any of my players to feel like they’re isolated or in this bubble by themselves, so I’ve always told them, ‘Hey, if there’s anything on your mind, it’s important for us to have that relationship where you can come talk to me about anything.’ 

“My door is always open.”

Howard is seen as a players' coach, and his policy reflects that.

Howard is seen as a players' coach, and his policy reflects that. Buy this photo
Emma Mati/Daily

Since his hiring, everyone around the Michigan men’s basketball program has used the same two words to describe first-year coach Juwan Howard.

Players’ coach.

The label has become a de facto stamp, rolling off the tongue of seemingly every coach and player  — both Howard’s own and opposing.

If there’s anyone who fits the bill, it’s Howard. In short, he’s been everywhere a college basketball player dreams of going. Now in his first head coaching job, that experience has proved to be a valuable vehicle in connecting with his players.

“He’s had some great experiences,” junior walk-on forward C.J. Baird said. “One of the main examples is his time with LeBron James. That’s one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, and you see (Howard) come around with that sort of knowledge and that sort of story.

“It really gives us better perspective. He knows what it takes to be great on every level. It really helps us to understand we’re following a guy who’s done it all on every level.”

Howard’s past can’t be overlooked, but it’s only half of what endears him to players. Telling old stories only goes so far. The all-important other half is visible in the way he treats his players within his meticulously-constructed program.

Experience is a reflection of Howard’s past. The way he runs his program is an indicator of his future. And at the center of it all lies his open door policy.

“It started when he first got in,” sophomore guard David DeJulius said in December. “He has an open door policy — open, candid conversations — and you just grow to trust him each and every day, just by how he conducts himself as a man, and you look up to him both on and off the floor (for) what he’s done in life and on the basketball court. He just continues to inspire myself and my other teammates.”

There are no exceptions. Even when the last door at the end of the second-floor corridor isn’t physically open, all it takes is a knock. After hours, that knock comes in the form of a text or phone call.

“No matter the time of day, you can hit him up,” DeJulius said. “… When you have a coach that you know cares about you genuinely — both on and off the floor — you’ll run through a brick wall for him.”

Howard’s door is open to everyone, from captains to walk-ons. Over the last few months, seniors Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske have sought out Howard to discuss what it’s like to play at the next level. Freshman wing Franz Wagner, meanwhile, has sat in the same office chair for heart-to-hearts about adjusting to American culture after growing up in Germany. Somewhere in the middle, DeJulius has used the policy to discuss the ups and downs of an expanded role this season.

“When you have an open door to a guy like (Howard), that helps you a lot,” Wagner said. “You can just ask questions and have a normal conversation with your head coach, which I think with other teams might be a little different. It makes everybody feel more comfortable and makes us stay more connected as a team when you know you have a guy like that at the top of the snake.”

Added junior guard Eli Brooks: “Anytime you need (Howard), he’s there. He’ll let you know that, too. You can really feel it. Some people say it’s not real, but with him, it’s real.”

Half of what makes Howard a players’ coach isn’t difficult to see. It’s easy to fetch an image of him hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and it takes even less effort to look up his lengthy list of career accolades.

The other half, however, is the one making the difference in his first season as a head coach.

Howard's policy was rooted in his experience as a player.

Howard's policy was rooted in his experience as a player. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

Howard is a 47-year-old father of six, four of which are boys.

The oldest starred at Detroit Mercy from 2012-15, and another is a senior starting forward at Brown. Two are still in high school, one of which is set to join Michigan next fall while the youngest — currently a sophomore — is starting to put together an impressive college offer list.

Howard is no stranger to fatherhood. More specifically, he’s no stranger to being the father of Division I basketball players. Even still, the 15 players on the Wolverines’ roster have forced him to straddle the line between fatherhood and coaching.

“I’m old enough to be all their fathers,” Howard said. “I treat them like they’re the young men they are. I also take into consideration that I can be their dad, and I want them to feel like I’m not hovering over them, but I am a nurturer. I love them like they all are my kids. I don’t want to love them, I do love them like they are my kids.”

That understanding, coupled with his emphasis on communication, makes Howard’s open door policy all the more valuable. “He thinks of us as family and we do the same with him,” senior center Austin Davis said.

That’s why Howard, on a chilly mid-January morning, threw DeJulius a curveball when he requested a meeting to discuss his role on the team. Instead of convening in Howard’s office, he suggested they meet for breakfast at Sava’s, a popular Ann Arbor restaurant on State Street.

“I don’t like to always (talk in) my office,” Howard said. “The office just seems like it’s a dungeon, where it’s like, ‘Oh, here comes the big coach’s speech.’ And then it can be intimidating for players to want to be locked in the coach’s office. I enjoy being off-site, where it can be more of a relaxed setting so the guys can be more comfortable.”

The meeting came almost a year to the day after DeJulius, then a freshman, was denied a pre-practice meeting with Beilein. He recalled requesting it over text just a few hours beforehand, which failed to meet Beilein’s preferred 24 hours’ notice.

“Last year, it wasn’t the same policy,” DeJulius said. “So for sure, it’s a lot different stating at this stage that you can just walk into his office at any time of the day and just talk about anything.

“It doesn’t even have to be about basketball. A lot of times, he’ll pull you in and talk to you and it won’t have nothing to do with basketball, ‘How’s your family? How are you? How’s school? How are you doing mentally?’ ”

With four boys of his own, Howard knows the importance of those questions as well as anyone. Where he excels most, though, is the way he goes about asking them.

“I have a little practice in communicating with these young adults today,” Howard said, flashing a grin. “At times, I still think I’m a young adult.”

With four boys of his own, Howard knows the importance of listening.

With four boys of his own, Howard knows the importance of listening. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

For awhile, the idea of being a head coach was merely a budding seed in Howard’s mind.

The idea of an open door policy, on the other hand, was a fully-sprouted tree — a decision rooted in his own experience as a player. Howard admired coaches with similar policies during his NBA career, specifically citing Erik Spoelstra, Jim Lynam and Nate McMillan as those with open doors.

“Some players have been around certain coaches where they didn’t feel comfortable going to talk to the coach,” Howard said. “Whether it’s about playing time, shots, or if it was about anything personal, I’ve always — since I was a player in the NBA — my coaches have always given me that freedom to come in and talk whenever I needed.”

When Howard was tabbed the 17th head coach in program history in May, an open door policy was already part of his vision. At the team’s first practice in July, he told players they were going to learn how to “share the game,” according to associate head coach Phil Martelli.

To Howard, sharing the program is a necessary key to sharing the game. Knowing what it’s like to play for coaches with open door policies, he decided to make it a pillar of his own vision.

“An (open door policy) helps when you allow your players to have an empowerment that this is a part of their team,” Howard said. “It’s an active, collective group and how we can both figure out (and) come to solutions that give us the best chance to be a fun, successful program. I’ve always talked about it. Players, they are part of the process and it cannot, and should not, always come from the coach.”

Howard’s open door policy is a vital component to Michigan’s aspirations, both this season and beyond. The Wolverines’ current five-game winning streak has thrust them back into the Big Ten title conversation, and with the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class set to arrive on campus next fall, this season could be only the beginning of sustained success.

Perhaps Howard’s senior captain put it best.

“That’s the type of coach he is,” Simpson said.