On May 30, 2019, the former Fab Five team member, NBA All-Star, two-time NBA champion and veteran NBA assistant teared up in front of reporters, family and friends as he was announced as the 17th head coach of the Michigan men’s basketball team.
His raw emotion revealed the magnitude of the situation. Juwan Howard joined a small group of Black coaches in college basketball, becoming one of 14 Black head coaches in basketball’s six major conferences, as of 2019, and the only Black head coach in the Big Ten.
The lack of Black representation in leadership roles in college basketball is especially striking in a sport where the majority of players are Black — 53.6% of all men’s DI players.
“I am the only Black head coach in the Big Ten, which I’m very proud of,” Howard told The Daily. “I don’t understand why there isn’t more but … I’m just gonna try and do the best job I possibly can for the University of Michigan to help spear our student-athletes to become successful within basketball, but more importantly successful in life.”
It was his desire to do more than just win but also to make an impact on his players and the community that appealed to athletic director Warde Manuel — one of 12 Black athletic directors in the Power 5 Conferences.
“I just thought he was a genuine person,” Manuel said on the ‘In the Trenches’ podcast in 2019. “Just a down-to-earth, very smart (person). (He) had really educated himself about the college game. He knew about me. … What struck me was how genuine and how humble he was as a person. He didn’t walk in wearing either one of his championship rings.”
Critics hinged on Howard’s lack of experience as a head coach, but that did not matter to Manuel. He just wanted the most capable candidate and the person who wanted the job the most.
“If I’m going to take a risk with somebody,” Warde said during Howard’s introductory press conference last year, “I’m going to take that risk with Juwan Howard.”
Manuel’s confidence in Howard gave him the comfort to go ahead and do his job to the greatest ability he could.
Looking back after the first year under Howard’s reign, the “gamble” paid off as the Wolverines finished with a 19-12 winning record and a top-15 recruiting class.
However, there was another explanation for the controversy over Howard’s hire bubbling beneath the surface.
“(There’s) this perception out here when you are a Black coach (that) you’re not as qualified as some of the other coaches who are from a different race,” Howard said. “I think that’s so sad that folks have that narrow-minded and (are) so ignorant, in a way.”
The lack of Black leaders in sports — like basketball, where a majority of the actual athletes are Black — proves that discrimination still plays a huge part in hiring decisions.
In an idealized world, that representation among players would translate to coaching staffs. Players, logic should dictate, have the requisite eye and experience to truly understand the game. However, as is well-documented, that is not the case.
In the NFL, for example, a majority of players are Black, but in the past three years, only two of 19 open head coaching positions have been filled by Black coaches. Many of the new hires were first time head coaches, jumping straight from coordinator roles or other assistant roles or even making their first NFL appearances coming straight from the college-level.
Candidates hired with a lack of experience is odd considering the wealth of potential Black candidates with plenty of experience. Consider Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy — who has over 20 years of experience in the NFL as a player and a coach — coming off one of the greatest offensive seasons in NFL history and a Super Bowl win. Bieniemy, like many others, was overlooked. It’s hard to say if race is a main reason in these decisions, but it’s hard to deny that it plays a role.
Returning to the hiring of Juwan Howard, it becomes more complex considering he was pitched as a candidate with a lack of experience and received a lot more criticism than some of those white NFL head coaches.
“Why not me?” Howard said. “Why, how (am) I not considered to be qualified for a position like this? Especially someone who (has) loads of experience as a player, played the game of basketball since he was six years old, played on the professional level for 19 years, and also coached on the NBA level for six years. … I have also played here at the University of Michigan and played three years and been very successful all three years, been to the championship game two years in a row, been to the Final Four two years in a row. I am very qualified.”
Someone with the resume of Howard’s should be on the top of the list when it comes to a head coaching role. He is someone who has played with and been around some basketball’s greatest minds and players: LeBron James, Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Jeff Van Gundy, Tracy McGrady and Doc Rivers.
Despite all Howard has accomplished, doubt still circled around his hire and still does, even in the face of the success he accomplished last year.
“As a Black skin, some folks think that you’re not qualified enough,” Howard said. “I think that’s the ignorance that we have to ignore and continue to keep driving and doing whatever to be the best person of ourselves no matter what people may say or think.”
These opinion-driven stigmas about Black leaders serve as a brutal reminder of how much more work needs to be done for the fight against racial injustice. And as protests and marches over the past few months have shown, that change is being fought for right now.
Howard understands the gravity of this moment and will continue to support his players and the messaging that he believes in.
“Listening in has been great,” Howard said. “To know that where we are as a country, we have a lot of work to do, but knowing the fact that our future is in great hands with student-athletes that are fighting to help promote change. There are great ideas that are being said out there that I truly support.”
That ability to relate to the struggles some of his players face in this country is what makes it so vital to have more diversity in leadership roles.
Howard described a situation where a player of his heard some deeply upsetting comments. While he wouldn’t share specifics out of respect for his player’s “respect and privacy,” it was a situation where many head coaches could have felt overwhelmed.
Howard and other Black head coaches are able to fathom some of that adversity because they have personally experienced it. Not to mention more diverse leaders also bring fresh perspectives and different viewpoints.
“It’s important for me,” Howard said, “that knowing that I am a public, national figure, that when people hear me speak, especially the young ones who can identify and look just like me, to be inspired by someone like myself, … (to show) if I did it, they could do it too.”
For becoming a leader to be a tangible goal, people need to see others in those roles that look like themselves. In this way, Howard serves as a role model for hundreds of thousands of young Black individuals. He knows that he has to set a good example and encourage them to chase their dream no matter what people tell them, especially in a job where he represents a small minority.
The lack of Black representation in leadership roles, specifically coaching, is one that will not be solved overnight. But, Howard says, the magnitude of this problem can’t serve as a deterrent. Change needs to happen, whether it’s by implementing affirmative action rules like the Rooney Rule in the NFL or simply giving others a chance.
As Howard has shown, there are many capable individuals out there. And sometimes, that chance is all they need.
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