‘He is that perfect coach’: Juwan Howard serves as a role model for his players during a difficult time in this country
A pandemic, civil rights crises, heightened political divisions and a college basketball season that is still up in the air — not the most ideal conditions for a second-year coach in the Big Ten.
For everyone, these past few months have been stressful and difficult. For Michigan coach Juwan Howard, he has not only had to look out for his family and himself, but also an entire team of 18-to-22-year olds transitioning to adulthood.
The circumstances of the country only add another challenge to an already difficult job.
But, if there is anyone that is right for the job, it appears to be Howard.
“He was perfect because we were all vulnerable,” senior forward Isaiah Livers told The Daily two weeks ago. “Even he was vulnerable. He spoke up about that. The thing with Coach Howard is (that) you can trust him.”
The former Fab Five star knows about the struggles student-athletes face on a daily basis. Almost twenty years ago, he arrived in Ann Arbor from the inner city of Chicago to play basketball and study at Michigan.
“I’ve always been totally transparent with my players (about) my story, my roots and how hard I had to work to get to this point,” Howard told The Daily in October. “It was never ever given to me — coming from my background and being in the inner city.”
It has not been the easiest road for Howard but he has overcome adversity and accomplished quite a bit, from leading the Wolverines to back-to-back Final Fours to earning the first $100 million contract in the NBA, and then to winning multiple championships in Miami.
To the players he coaches, Howard is an inspiration.
“He’s just a great dude because he’s so good off the court,” Livers said. “He teaches all his players, including me, on how to be a man. He’s just a great role model.”
One of Howard’s main goals is to develop leaders and competent men off the court, not just help them become great basketball players. That mission could not be more relevant to the current social justice movement.
Howard watched his team become leaders in their communities this summer.
“I’ve been so impressed with our student-athletes, particularly our men’s basketball team,” Howard said. “Being very proactive in getting out there, using their platform to say whatever they feel is from their heart and not being afraid to voice their opinions. The beauty of it is that I’ve just been listening to them and learning as we go. It’s been inspiring just to listen and to hear that our country is in great hands with the future leadership, starting with our student-athletes.”
Livers has been at the forefront of the movement, using his social media to promote social justice messages — even though he knew he would receive criticism from those around him.
“(I am) not gonna sit here and say Michigan fans are all for us off the court,” Livers said. “ … I’ve run into a lot of incidents where Michigan fans will cheer for me on the court but when I’m off the court they dont stand for my justice issues, my race issues. They don’t understand, they don’t want to understand. When people don’t even want to understand, there’s no hope for them. I can’t sit here and persuade them and no one else can persuade them.”
In the face of judgements, Livers felt comfortable enough to take the risk and speak up for what he believes is right because of the support system that Howard has developed.
“(Howard) would schedule Zoom calls when we were able to talk,” Livers said. “ ... It was great to hear from my teammates and Coach Howard. He put himself out there and that just shows that he trusts us as a family and just his leadership. He was checking in on guys 24/7. He wasn’t taking this thing lightly and waiting for it to blow over. He wanted us to stand together and attack it with the right mindset.”
These past few months have largely divided the country, but that is not the case for everyone; some are bonding and uniting. Howard’s transparency helped foster this type of environment where the Wolverines grew together as people and leaders.
“A lot of the players have come from a different ... background and you can never see the difference between any of them,” Howard said. “They never point the finger at one or they’ll (never) look down on the other person. It’s inspiring just to see how sports has been shown great leadership. I think our country should take notice of how sports has been an inspiration for us all.”
Sports are powerful and bring people together that may not otherwise be a community. In such a divided time, it makes the most sense to pay attention to those who overcome differences the best.
“Sports is about sharing and being unselfish,” Livers said. “That’s how we live day to day, being unselfish to one another, one another citizen. We all live here and we’re all Americans so why don’t we all just get along?”
Just over a year ago, there were many doubting Howard and his experience, some even questioned if he was the right choice for the job. It’s hard to imagine now that there would be anyone better suited for the role he’s taken up. Being a Black man, he is forced to deal with the racist practices that have burrowed their way in almost every institution — including sports.
Howard is the only Black men’s basketball coach in the Big Ten and one of few Black coaches in the NCAA as a whole. One can explore the many reasons why this might be, but it is pretty simply when you boil it down to one thing — race.
“It’s definitely structural injustice, structural stereotypes,” Livers said. “People don’t like change so a lot of schools when they’re going through their progression of getting a new coach, they try to keep it simple like they have been for years. Some schools haven’t had a Black coach in this particular sport. Some schools only have Black coaches. … We all have to be living in this world where we can all be next to each other, coach each other’s kids, play for each other’s fathers and stuff like that, no matter what the skin color is.”
Sometimes all it takes is an opportunity, like the one like Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel gave Howard just 18 months ago.
“I’m so happy that our AD, Michigan in general, didn’t cut coach Howard out because he was Black,” Livers said. “I hope they didn’t think twice about it because he is that perfect coach, not only because he went here, because he is just a great dude in general.”
Howard’s success on the court and in recruiting so far make a strong case he was the right hire, but the impact he has had on these young men in such a difficult time only makes his case stronger. It comes down to his transparency and honesty that has connected Howard to his players. He humanized himself despite being in a role that often requires firm leadership.
Howard’s handling of the past few months is a prime example of what it means to lead in 2020.
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